Exploring the Mayan Ruins in Belize
For such a small country, Belize has a deep and colorful history painted by the Maya civilization. The ancient settlements left behind are a focal point for locals and tourists exploring Belize today. The Mayan ruins in Belize include temples, plazas, and altars above ground while murals and carvings still embellish the walls deep inside limestone caves. The region offered a prosperous life to the Maya with fertile soil, abundant marine life, proximity to other settlements and rivers for trading. Although the Maya have disappeared, their cultural and historical impact thrives. Even some of their folklore survived.
The Protector of the Mayan Ruins in Belize
The raw, unaltered jungles of Belize grow mostly unspoiled across more than half of Belize. Under the thick canopy of trees lies a vast trove of ancient Mayan Ruins. In ancient times, the Mayans relied heavily on the resources this land provided. Outsiders were rarely allowed to enter the land for fear that they might cause it harm. In fact, a supernatural guardian was appointed to watch over the land. The locals call him by name – Tata Duende. The creature was a protective presence that protected the animals and the jungle.
“Tata” is Mayan for grandfather, and “duende” is Mayan for dwarf. The creature is thought to be about 3 feet tall with a homely face and wearing a red hat. He is thought to be seen walking around with a machete or knotted stick. Some say both of his thumbs are missing and his feet are turned around to confuse those trying to follow him. A distant whistle signals he’s close by, and he tends to show himself during rains and the Christian observance of Lent.
But for those who mean no harm, fear not. Tata Duende is a protector. He guards the animals and shields innocent people wandering the forest. He reserves punishment for those who cause damage or take more than what they need. And because he’s missing his thumbs, he often tries to steal a pair from anyone passing through – so visitors to the Mayan Ruins in Belize must tuck them into their palms! One more warning for the curious: don’t imitate his whistle. He doesn’t like it.
History of the Mayan Ruins in Belize
The Maya civilization dominated Mesoamerica more for than 2,000 years before its sudden decline around 900 A.D. Archeologists refer to two civilizations of people over this period: Pre-classic and Classic (or Late). The excavated Mayan sites show there were two collapses to this society. In its prime, the Maya people were governed by a hierarchical society of nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. They built impressive cities for their time, like Cerros and Tikal; the latter built in neighboring Guatemala. The Mayan ruins in Belize showcase the advanced intelligence and artistry of the Maya people, with hieroglyphics, pottery, astronomy and the Mayan calendar.
The Maya also flourished in agriculture, city architecture, pyramid building and construction of palaces, plazas, and temples. The region offered vast resources for a thriving population, like limestone for buildings, volcanic rock for tools, and immediate access to water and river trading posts. One peculiar part of Maya construction was the ball court. The Maya people made ball games an important part of the culture and often played as part of ritual events.
There are stories and depictions of human sacrifice and other sacred traditions in the Maya civilization. These traditions and sacrifices were thought to be reserved for elaborate ceremonies to nourish and appease the gods of the sun, moon, rain, and corn. The Maya were long believed to have been a peaceful people, but more modern research of the Mayan ruins in Belize shows a different story of wars and intense politics.
The Mayan ruins stretch from Belize to Guatemala, Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Tourists can visit the Mayan ruins in Belize no matter where they are staying. Here are the key sites in Belize, listed from north to south:
- Cerros Mayan Ruins – coastal site just south of Mexico; city and trading center
- Lamanai Archeological Reserve – inland site in Orange Walk District; occupied reserve with temples
- Altun Ha – about 6 miles from the coast; ceremonial and trading center
- Cahal Pech – inland, about 5 miles from Guatemala; small site with notable temples and plazas
- Barton Creek – inland close to Guatemala border, neighbor to ATM Cave; cave for rituals
- El Pilar – on the Guatemala borderline; ruins of plazas
- ATM Cave Belize or Actun Tunichil Muknal – inland, east of Barton Creek; remarkable cave site from prehistoric Maya
- Xunantunich Mayan Ruins – inland, southwest of Cahal Pech; city ruins from Late Mayan civilization
- Caracol – inland, surrounded by jungle near Guatemala; ruins of massive city for wealthy, living quarters, ball courts
- Nim Li Punit – located in the southern region between Placencia and Punta Gorda; small city ruins from Late Maya
- Lubaantun – Toledo District; intricate ruins of plazas, altars, ball courts
Click here to check out a map and description of modern-day Belize.
End of an Era
The Maya peaked around 600 A.D. and fell apart by 900 A.D., almost completely disappearing from recorded history. As mentioned previously, there were two downfalls, referred to as “rapid disruptions.” Although the entire story isn’t clear, scientists believe intense warfare and political disintegration caused the falls. What’s left of the Mayan ruins in Belize, though, has provided a rich story of the Maya civilization for people today.
Explore the Ancient Ruins of Belize
Most of the Mayan ruins in Belize are accessible to the public. Visitors can walk through the grounds, climb the steps of temples, and sit on the limestone walls. With help from a guide, visitors can form a colorful picture of what life was like for the Maya people thousands of years ago. When traveling from the southern city of Placencia, there are several nearby ruins – Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun, ATM Cave, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech – to visit.
To better enjoy the experience of exploring ancient Maya ruins, go in the off-season – October through March – when crowds are smaller. Plan to spend most of the day traveling to and exploring the Mayan ruins in Belize. Click here to learn how you can join our monthly trip to Belize. There is adventure waiting!