Deep in the jungles and lowlands of Central America the ancient Mayan civilization thrived from 2000 BC to its final collapse in 1500 AD when the first Europeans arrived. The ancient Maya built massive stone pyramids and cities, developed an intricate writing system comprising hieroglyphics, created beautiful works of art and excelled in mathematics and astronomy. The civilization stretched from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico west to Guatemala and south to Honduras and El Salvador. At the center was what is now Belize.
Today, evidence of this great ancient civilization is found throughout Belize in the form of ancient archeological sites to modern day Mayas practicing many aspects of their impressive heritage. Below is a list of many historical Mayan sites in Belize, from hidden caves to soaring pyramids. They vary in the degree to which they have been excavated and their ease of accessibility. If you are interested in exploring some of these sites for yourself, you’ll find Hamanasi a convenient central location. We offer several tours that take you to Mayan sites on this list, such as Mayflower, Xunantunich and Actun Tunich Muknal, and our Adventure Center can arrange tours to many others upon request.
Continuous habitation of this site has been dated to as far back as 1200 BCE, making Cahal Pech one of the oldest recognizably Maya sites in Western Belize. The ceremonial center has 34 structures and includes temple pyramids, palaces, a ball court and five stelae. Between 1000 to 600 BC the peoples of Cahal Pech acquired many exotics like jade and obsidian from Guatemala, marine shell from the Caribbean Sea and incorporated many symbols of the Olmec Culture in the Mexican Gulf Coast. Many figurines and some of the earliest found pottery were discovered at the site. Sometime in the 9th century AD the site was abandoned for unknown reasons.
In northwestern Belize lies the Cara Blanca region with over 23 cenotes. One of these pools is particularly notable as it offers proof that the ancient Mayas sacrificed offerings to Chaak, the rain god, in them. Scientists and archeologists believe that the Mayan region experienced high rainfall until roughly 660 A.D., resulting in stable crops and population growth. After this, however, the rains began to slow. Repeated droughts caused civil unrest, unseating of kings and abandonment of sites.
After 800 A.D. “drought cults” were sparked as cities collapsed. Near Cara Blanca, or “White Cliffs”, lies a pool nestled in a forest beside which is a water temple complex. At this ceremonial site, ancient Mayan pilgrims offered sacrifices to Chaak and prayed for rain. Archeologists have found pots, jars, bowls and bones from across the region in the pool.
Ancient Caracol was occupied as early as 1200 BC. For many years, Caracol was a client state of the more powerful city of Tikal, 29 mils (76 km) to the northwest in modern day Guatemala. After a series of wars beginning in 531 AD, Tikal’s influence and population waned. Simultaneously, Caracol’s population and monumental construction increased, and the site became more prosperous and cohesive, with it greatest period of construction from 600-900 AD. Evidence suggests that Caracol withstood the initial part of the Maya collapse, but by 1050 AD there was final abandonment of the site.
The core of the site immediately abuts the Chetumal Bay and consists of several relatively large structures and stepped pyramids, an acropolis complex, and two ballcourts. Adjacent to the waterside is a modest temple with four stucco mask reliefs representing the rising and setting sun and the morning and evening star. The inhabitants of Cerros constructed an extensive canal system and utilized raised-field agriculture. The site was abandoned by 400 AD.
The Late Preclassic period (400 BC to 100 AD) saw the construction of the first monumental architecture, in the form of formal plazas, temples, and a ball court. Cohla grew to a population of nearly 4,000 during the Late Classic (600-700 AD) until it was abandoned 875 AD. After a hiatus, agrarian farmers reoccupied Cohla in 950 AD. This re-occupation has been suggested to be by a group with strong ties to the Yucatan and significantly different material culture than those who occupied Colha before the hiatus and no monumental architecture.
Construction at El Pilar began in the Middle Preclassic around 800 BC and by 250 BC there were major public works and dense a population. At its apogee, El Pilar housed more than 20,000 people. Monumental construction continued until the Terminal Classic (1000 AD), after which the monuments were neglected.
This site is relatively unexcavated in order to preserve structures. This style of presentation is called “Archeology under the Canopy”. The only fully exposed monument at the reserve is a house site called Tzunu’un, bringing attention to El Pilar’s unique focus on Maya houses and daily living. El Pilar also features a Maya forest garden to show traditional agricultural practices, as well as a network of trails. The rare abundance of natural water sources in this vicinity is possibly the origin of the name El Pilar (“pila” being Spanish for watering basin).
Most household complexes at K’axob were constructed on top of raised mounds or platforms; over 100 of these residential platforms exist at the site. There is evidence of social stratification based on burial vessels, shells and the size of housing complexes. Many serving bowls with tetrapodal supports were found at the site. A particular design that appears on K’axob potteries is the cross motif. This motif occurs only in the K’axob vessels and has not been seen in any other Late Formative period villages. This motif is important in pan-Mesoamerican symbols because it is associated with agricultural fields, the calendar, cardinal directions and seasonality. The inhabitants of K’axob employed a farming technique called milpa, which involved slashing and burning high vegetation creating clearings to plant staple crops, such as maize, beans, and squash.
Following Caracol and Lamanai, the largely unexplored La Milpa is the third largest Mayan site in Belize with 84 structures. Its main plaza alone covers 194,000 square feet (18,000 square meters), making it one of the largest in the entire Maya region. The main structure rises 600 feet above sea level atop a limestone ridge. Three other pyramids on the eastern side of the Great Plaza tower over seventy feet. On the southern side of the plaza, a collasped masonry building encasing at least thirteen rooms shows evidence of strong cosmic importance during La Milpa’s cultural height.
Archaeologists believe La Milpa peaked during the Classic Period (300-600 AD) only to collapse suddenly around the 9th century AD. La Milpa is situated on a ridge just under one mile across, running from North to South. There are no natural water sources within the site, however there are two large pools and two reservoirs that would have held water through the dry season. La Milpa had intensive agriculture evidenced by extensive terraces and a number of monumental constructions and other elite artworks, indicating centralized power. In 1996, a royal Maya tomb was found and a male skeleton adorned with a jeweled necklace was unearthed on its grounds.
The name of this site refers to the widespread practice of slash-and-burn farming-a method of agriculture still utilized by present-day Mayans.
Lamanai was continuously occupied as early as the 16th century BC up to the 17th century AD. During the Spanish conquest Spanish friars established two Roman Catholic churches here, but were later driven out by a Mayan revolt. Over 700 structures are found at Lamanasi, the most notable of which are the Temple of the Jaguar, the Mask Temple and the High Temple. A significant portion of the Jaguar Temple remains covered in dense jungle growth near its base. Unexcavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.
Lamanai’s strategic location on the New River Lagoon afforded its population access to many traded goods. One of the most high-valued goods during the Post Classic period was copper. Refined metal objects were included in the burials of the elite. Copper ornamentations, such as rings, reflected a higher social status. More copper artifacts have been recovered at Lamanai than at any other site in the ancient Maya world.
Eleven large structures rise above five main plazas, three ball courts and a few tombs. One of the most distinguishing features is the unusual style of construction. All structures are made of limestone blocks without the use of mortar to bind them together. Every hand-cut stone, was carefully measured and shaped to fit tightly next to each neighboring block securing the structures’ strength. Corners of the step-pyramids typically are curved without stone structures on top. None of the structures have doorways and all are solid. As the ground on which Lubaantun was built began to shift over the centuries, the morterless blocks began to fall. Thus the site was given the name “place of fallen rocks” – Lubaantun – in the modern Maya language. Many ceramic whistle figurines were found at this site, replicas of which are for sale by the present day local Mayas.
There is intrigue and mystery surrounding Lubaantun. In 1926, a famous, yet controversial crystal skull was supposedly discovered by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, daughter of archaeologist, F. Mitchell-Hedges. The 8-inch block of rock crystal perfectly shaped into a human skull is still possessed by Anna who lives in Canada. The origin of the skull has never been confirmed.
Inhabitants likely fished and later were involved in intensive salt production, a vitally needed mineral for inland Mayans. The site is strewn with pottery shards, chert tools, human bones, jade and obsidian. Many of these items have no natural source on Ambergris Caye and indicate that the inhabitants took advantage of their strategic position along maritime trade routes.
Currently, the site is nearly inaccessible due to the overgrowth of vegetation.
Maintzunun, which means “small hummingbird”, is on the north side of Silk Grass Creek and comprises a massive series of platforms made of sand and boulders, which had been topped by pole and thatch buildings. A fallen stela was found on the terrace top, as well as obsidian blades, chert, stone tools, bead and vessels.
Mayflower lies on the south side of Silk Grass Creek and has a more typical arrangement of a plaza surrounded by various structures. There is evidence of fallen stelae and chert blades.
T’au Witz, which means “dwelling of a local god of the hill”, is also on the south side of the creek just under a mile from Mayflower. This site comprises a manmade platform propped against the eastern slope of the Maya Mountains. Many small pieces of pottery, a small granite stela and other objects of worship and everyday life were found here.
Nim Li Punit is set at the foothills to the Maya Mountains to the west with the coastal plains of the Caribbean to the east. On a clear day, the Caribbean Sea is visible. This ancient city flourished from the 5th century AD through the 8th century AD and comprised three plazas with several step-pyramids. Of particular interest are the 26 carved stelae illustrating the ancient city’s rulers, important political events and alliances, wars, battles and royal lineage. Several stelae are in an unfinished state, suggesting a sudden halt to work.
Estimates put the peak population of Nim Li Punit in the range of 5000 to 7000 people during the Late Classic period. Similar to nearby sites, early inhabitants probably migrated from Guatemala and likely spoke a dialect of the Cholan language prevalent in the Mayan heartland. Occupation of Nim Li Punit ceased rather suddenly in the 9th century AD.
Just 7 miles (11 km) north of Orange Walk Town Nohmul occupies about 12 square miles (31 km2) of land. Its strategic location allowed its inhabitants to trade with cities in modern day Mexico, and there is architectural evidence of the influence of Yucatan peoples. The site has over 80 separate structures located in two main East and West groupings with a total of 10 plazas. A raised causeway links the groupings. Most of the structures were constructed either in the Preclassic and Classic period.
The Maya held cave systems with reverence, as they believed they were the entrance to the underworld, or Xibalba – the portal between the human world and that of the gods. The Maya used these caves for ceremonial purposes. Pottery chards, skeletal remains and stone formations provide evidence of the use during ancient times.
Excavations at Pacbitun have unearthed a wealth of artifacts including musical instruments made of carved and molded pottery such as whistles, rattles, flutes and a drum. Also found were mortuary offerings, jade jewelry, shell ornaments, flints, painted, polychrome pottery and slate items. Archeologists have revealed evidence that the Maya hunted deer, agoutis, turkeys, peccaries, tapirs, jaguars, howler monkeys and even domesticated dogs. Large quantities of shells from freshwater snails, turtle shells and catfish bones were consumed, along with corn, ramon seeds and cayol.
Pusilha was founded by immigrants from the southwestern Peten, Guatemala, who came to the southern Belize in search of available land in the late Classic Period. Initial surveys suggested that the site was a second tier polity. Current archaeological evidence indicates that Pusilha was a non-aligned city that maintained its independence.
Hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate that the site was ruled by divine kings. Individuals of the Maya elite resided at the center of the site with inhabitants of lesser status living further from the center. The site contains many structures, most of which are not excavated, ball courts, as well as many stelae.
During the late 1990s, much of the monumental architecture in San Estevan’s core was bulldozed in order to construct modern roads. The highest structure remaining at the site is Mound XV, at 49 feet (15 m) and dates to the Late Formative period. It was saved from the bulldozers only due to the intervention of the Belize Department of Archaeology.
The earliest known inhabitants at Santa Rita Corozal date to the Preclassic Period (1200-900 BC). In Pre-Columbian times, a city called Chactemal (sometimes rendered as “Chetumal” in early European sources) is probably today’s Santa Rita Corozal. It was the capital of a Maya state of the same name that roughly controlled the southern quarter of modern Quintana Roo and the northeast portion of Belize. Mayans inhabited Santa Rita until approximately the 16th century A.D, when residents forced conquistador Alfonso Davila to leave. The city’s population slowly dwindled thereafter and finally abandoned the area late in the century.
Because of its location, Santa Rita once controlled nearby trade routes between the coast and the mouths of two major rivers, the Río Hondo and Río Nuevo, arteries to inland settlements. The sprawling city had an extensive social hierarchy as evidenced by extravagant items found in certain burials.
Upon arrival to the entrance of St. Herman’s cave there are concrete steps constructed over the original Mayan steps that lead down into the cave. During the Classic period Mayan shamans and priests journeyed into this underworld known as Xibalba, to perform sacred rituals. The Maya used pottery vessels to collect Zuh uy Ha (virgin water) from dripping stalactites. When the cave was rediscovered in modern times there were many vessels, along with spears and torches, which were removed by the Department of Archeology for study and preservation.
Nearby is the inland Blue Hole, a sinkhole created by a collapsed river cave fed by the Sibun River, the same river that flows through St. Herman’s Cave. The exposed cave walls are surrounded by jungle and are about 300 feet (100 m) in diameter and 100 feet (30 m) deep. At the bottom lies a beautiful azure cenote that is about 25 feet (8 m) deep. Cenotes were the only source of water in the jungle for the Mayan civilization and are considered sacred by the Mayan people.
The ancient Maya practice of transforming hills by facing and terracing is particularly notable here and is almost exclusively seen in southern Belize. The site comprises a large plaza with some royal tombs and stelae on a natural hill with smaller plazas below.
Archeologists believe that many farming communities with access to fertile soil and pine in the Mountain Pine Ridge surrounded Xunantunich. This afforded the general community a certain amount of autonomy and prosperity that helping the city to survive about a hundred years longer than neighboring sites.
Xunantunich’s name means “Stone Maiden” in Maya and is a modern name. The original name is currently unknown. Legend has that a beautiful young woman appeared to several people near the base of El Castillo before she disappeared into the stone wall.
Information above was obtained from various online sources. Additions and corrections are welcomed via our contact us page!