[Editor's note: Megan Wood is the first writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. Megan is spending the spring in Belize, documenting traditions of the country's diverse cultural groups. Each week, she reports on her experiences for Matador, her personal blog, and for other outlets.]
THROW A ROCK IN BELIZE and you’ll probably hit a Maya site. Some estimate there are 900 yet to be excavated.
The Maya are known to have been present in Belize since 2000BC. They lived in coastal swamps, inhabited cayes, exploited the mountains, traded on rivers, and held ceremonies (sometimes sacrificial) in caves.
At least one million ancient Maya lived in tiny Belize; the population of the country today is around 300,000.
A wealth of archeological evidence remains from that time: pyramids, pottery, bones, graves, jade, and tools used for sacrifice. The Maya probably used smoke and mirrors to communicate with other sites from the tops of their tallest pyramids, miles away from each other. They had a calendar system, a written language, and charted the stars more accurately than the Greeks.
At the time of writing, there are more or less 15 accessible Maya sites in Belize, some owned by the government and protected as “Archeological Reserves.” I’ve been to 9, plus a few “off-the-record” sites. Here’s what I found:
Location: Orange Walk District
Wildlife I saw: Crocodiles (Lamanai means “Submerged Crocodile”) and toucans
Takeaway: Getting to the ruins is an hour-long boat ride down New River that’s pretty spectacular. The site has a quality museum and the temples are impressively high and well maintained. Watch for the jaguar face on one of the temples.
Worth noting: Crocodile effigies appear on figurines, vessels, decorations, and on the headdress of a limestone mask.
Who took me: D Star Victoria Hotel
More info: Lamanai
Location: Corozal District, right on the Caribbean
Wildlife I saw: Agouti
Takeaway: Beautiful. From the top of the Sun Temple, I could look across the blue bay and clearly see Mexico.
Worth noting: Bring a swimming suit and jump in the water after exploring.
Who took me: Joel, a ranger and guide from Shipstern Nature Reserve
More info: Cerros
3. Cahal Pech
Location: Cayo District
Wildlife I saw: Cahal Pech means “Place of the Ticks.” I’ll leave it at that.
Takeaway: This site is interesting because it’s located right in the city of San Ignacio, not on the outskirts. The site itself is a lot of plaster.
Worth noting: A human skeleton of a Maya priest or royal is on display in the museum.
Who took me: Dora, from Cahal Pech Village Resort
More info: Cahal Pech
4. Santa Rita
Location: Corozal District
Wildlife I saw: None, as it’s located in the town of Corozal
Takeaway: This site needs some help. It has an amazing history but no posted information or visitor center.
Worth noting: The Maya Chieftain of Santa Rita had an unusual son-in-law, a shipwrecked Spanish renegade named Gonzalo Guerrero, the first European to adopt Belize as his own and take up arms against his mother country. Guerrero and his Maya wife were the mother and father of the first Mestizo people.
Who took me: Miss Lydia from the East Indian Museum in Corozal
More info: Santa Rita Ruins
Location: Toledo District
Wildlife I saw: None, just Mopan Maya children climbing the rocks
Takeaway: Probably the least impressive of the group since the structures are low to the ground and some are just piles of rocks.
Worth noting: A crystal skull was supposedly found in the ruins while they were excavated by Dr. Silvano Morly in the 1920s. It’s still a controversy as to whether he planted it for publicity. The skull is currently held in a private collection, though Belize is trying to get it back.
Who took me: Cristina, a Mopan Maya and tour guide with the Toledo Ecotourism Association
More info: Lubaantun
6. Altun Ha
Location: Belize District
Wildlife I saw: Iguana
Takeaway: There is a certain vibe in the air of Altun Ha. If one believes in energy, this is a good place to seek it.
Worth noting: Villagers unearthed a jade pendant depicting a human skull at the site.
Who took me: David, a guide who works with Maruba Resort and Jungle Spa
More info: Altun Ha
Location: Cayo District
Wildlife I saw: Howler monkeys
Takeaway: “Wow” doesn’t do this site justice. One can easily imagine a Maya priest, hopped up on ancient hallucinogenics, crawling to the top of the 11-story temple to perform a ritualistic penis piercing ceremony in front of thousands of screaming Maya.
Worth noting: Pronounced “Shoe-nan-two-nitch.” The only way to access the site is by crossing a river by hand-cranked ferry.
More info: Xunantunich
Location: Cayo District
Wildlife I saw: Rufous-capped Warblers
Takeaway: Just getting to Caracol is an adventure. I had to pass two military checkpoints and drive over miles of unpaved roads. The site itself, though, is well maintained and the largest in Belize, with one massive pyramid over 140 feet high.
Worth noting: This is the superlative site: Largest archeological site in Belize, tallest manmade structure in Belize, most structures, biggest population of Maya, largest area, and the most hieroglyphics.
Who took me: Dan, with Benque Resort and Spa
More info: Caracol
9. Marco Gonzalez
Location: Ambergris Caye
Wildlife I saw: Iguanas and sand crabs
Takeaway: This one is just being excavated now, so a great opportunity to see a site before it gets totally dug up. The forest floor seems to be paved with huge pottery shards and pieces of obsidian.
Worth noting: Marco Gonzalez is still in the developing stages, so tours are by appointment only.
Who took me: Jan Brown, who runs the site and gives all the tours: email@example.com
More info: Marco Gonzalez
10. Unnamed Maya Site
Ask around in Belize and it’s easy to find someone willing to take you to a smaller mound. Maruba Resort arranged for me to visit this looted tomb in the rainforest, where we found human bones and pieces of pottery. Definitely an experience to remember — I still get the shivers thinking about it.
To sum up
While each of these sites is unique and interesting, if you’re pressed for time, I’d suggest Caracol, Xunantunich, or Lamanai.
I also recommend going with a guide. Without context the sites are interesting for as long as it takes to climb up them and get your photo taken. With the right background information, it’s easy to spend a whole day.
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Megan Wood is a freelance travel writer and full-time free spirit. She has visited five continents and is currently writing a travel memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. Read her blog, My Bohemian Life, for her thoughts on travel, culture, and living without fear.