Firstly, a quick word about language, which can be especially useful if you want to impress an archaeologist friend. The correct term when referring to this ancient culture is Maya, not Mayan. Mayan refers only to the actual language spoken. Everything else, people, sites, culture etc should be referred to as Maya. Also worth remembering is that it is a Maya site and NOT a ruin.
In Belize, the Maya people make up approximately 10% of the population. Today, there are the Ketchi Maya and Mopan Maya who predominately reside in Southern Belize. Their brothers, the Yucatec Maya, mostly reside in the northern part of the country. Some of these indigenous people still live in traditional thatch huts and in communal villages, some still with no power, and where a traditional way of life is followed.
The original Maya were an ancient race that originated in approx 2600BC and pre- dominated Central America around 250AD, until the Spanish conquest. The entire region is rich with temples, towns and cities. In the past, Mexico with its famous sites of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum; Guatemala with Tikal and Honduras with Copan, have been the countries to visit if you want to experience this spectacular culture, but recent discoveries have led to some archaeologists believing that Belize was, in fact, the centre of Maya civilization.
All six of the Belize districts boast both excavated and buried Maya sites. Lamanai (in the Orange Walk district) and Altun Ha (Belize District) are two of the more well known and visited. Lamanai’s Mayan translation means Submerged Crocodile, which is aptly named as it is hidden in the jungle and best accessible by boat along the New River. A trip here showcases some of Belizean wildlife such as monkeys, toucans and crocodiles.
The largest site in Belize, Caracol, is located in the southern Cayo district. While much of it is still to be excavated, what has been uncovered is very impressive. One of the most important Maya centers, rivaling Tikal in Guatemala, Caracol, at its height, had more people residing there than does modern day Belize. Many more Maya sites abound in this area, many of them buried mounds waiting to be excavated. Two of the more popular ones are Xunantunich and Cahal Pech., both popular with tourists. Belize’s system of caves also showcases the importance of these “underground temples” to the Maya. Actun Tunichil Muknal (A.T.M.) with its world famous “Crystal Maiden” is a sight to behold, as are the Barton Creek and Caves Branch cave systems.
Cerros in Northern Belize, while small in comparison, is a personal favorite. Situated on the sea at the edge Corozal Bay it is one of the earliest Maya sites, and because of it position was important strategically. It also has a stunning view.
Ambergris Caye one of the main tourist attractions in Belize also has its fair share of Maya sites. Recently excavated, the Marco Gonzalez site is well worth a visit. Nim Ni Punit and Lubantuun (both in the Toledo district) play an important part in the annual Cacao Fest where over the last few years the sites have been used as forums for the colorful and culturally important Maya Deer Dance.
One of the best things about Maya sites in Belize is that they are less travelled in comparison to their Yucatan neighbours. Here you won’t find thousands of tourists and more often than not, you will find yourself to be the only visitor, allowing you to walk amongst what you can only imagine was once a great civilization.
Did we mention, Belize is now the only country in the world that still allows you to climb most of its temples?
-Belize Chocolate Company