Belize may not be the first country to come to mind when you think of famous Mayan archaeological wonders. Sites like Chichén Itzá in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala often overshadow the incredible Belize Mayan ruins. However, with more than 600 Mayan ruins in Belize, the area that makes up the modern-day country played an integral part in Mayan history.
About the Mayan ruins in Belize
From sacred temples and pyramids scattered deep within the jungle, to burial sites and caves lined with skeletons, many Belize Mayan ruins date back to 1800 BC. Visiting some of the most famous Mayan ruins in Belize is one of the best things to do on a Belize family vacation. It not only offers visitors a glimpse back in time to a fascinating ancient world, it is also a great educational experience for kids and adults alike.
But with so many Mayan archeological sites in Belize, it would be impossible to explore them all. So, we narrowed down the best Belize Mayan ruins and mapped them out, to make planning your trip to the Central American country easier.
A brief history of the Maya civilization
The ancient Maya civilization dominated much of Mesoamerica between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. The modern-day countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico were all once widely occupied by the Maya people. Although you will find Mayan sites near Playa del Carmen or Tulum, Mexico and outside Mexico City, the greatest concentration of Mayan sites are located in northern Central America.
The ancient Maya people, much like many other indigenous tribes, had deep spiritual connections to nature. They worshiped nature gods, and were believed to make human sacrifices to nourish or appease the gods. Astronomy also planted an important role in Maya culture. In fact, the Maya calendar, based on observations of the sky and mathematics, is considered by many scientists and historians as one of the most accurate calendar systems in history. While descendants of the Maya still inhabit Belize, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America, the civilization is no longer the dominating society that it once was. Still, there are approximately six million identifying Maya people today.
The best Belize Mayan ruins and where to find them!
Belize has some of the most impressive and well preserved Mayan ruins in the entire world. And here are 7 epic Mayan sites in Belize to add to your bucket list.
Located deep in the jungle near the Guatemala border, Caracol Mayan ruins are the most impressive ruins in Belize and one of the best places to visit in Central America.
To get here, you need to drive a couple of hours along a bumpy road if you rent a vehicle, however, you can also book a guided tour of Caracol that will transport you straight to the ruins and have a guide tell you the impressive history of this ancient site that once was the largest Mayan city in Belize.
If you decide to make it to Caracol on your own, I recommend staying in San Ignacio, the tourist hub in western Belize, which is also the closest town to Caracol. From San Ignacio, head to nearby Georgeville and make a turn on a dirt road which heads south all the way to the ruins.
While the drive is pretty straightforward, it’s long and bumpy in some places, so don’t forget to bring enough snacks and water, as there are no facilities at Caracol.
Many visitors who visit this Mayan site also stop at the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve that boasts 1,000 Foot Falls, the tallest waterfall in Central America that plummets almost 1,600 feet into a deep gorge, as well as other waterfalls.
With only 10 percent of Caracol unearthed, researchers estimate that much of the city is yet to be discovered and archaeological works take place at the site every year.
If you still wonder whether you should visit this place, you might want to know that only 10,000 tourists visit Caracol on a yearly basis which will give you exclusive bragging rights.
While Caracol requires time and effort to visit, it’s well worth it. When you get there, you will be treated with incredible views of the stunning Mayan pyramids and the lush jungle.
Explored by Daria from The Discovery Nut
Quick facts about visiting Caracol in Belize
- Located in Cayo District
- Once the largest Mayan city in Belize
- Where to stay: San Ignacio
Lamanai Mayan Ruins are in the north of Belize, close to the town of Orange Walk. You can arrange tours to Lamanai from Belize City or from Orange Walk.
The name Lamanai means ‘submerged crocodile’ in Maya, and Lamanai is best known for the journey to reach the ruins, which involves a boat journey along the New River from Orange Walk. Alternatively, it is possible to arrive by car, a route which passes through a Mennonite community on a partly unpaved road.
Lamanai was inhabited for almost 3,000 years; which is far longer than the average lifespan of most Mayan cities. It was once a thriving community of 20,000 people, but now you can visit just three temples, a ball court, and a few smaller buildings. A large part of the city is yet to be excavated, so in the future perhaps there will be much more to explore!
That said, Lamanai is still worth visiting for the journey to reach the ruins and the unique temples that have been uncovered.
The Jaguar Temple is unusual as part of the temple is built to look like the head of a jaguar, although you will need a good imagination to see it! The impressive Mask Temple has large masks of an ancient Maya king carved into the stone which have been carefully excavated and preserved.
It is also possible to climb one of the pyramids here, the High Temple, where you have panoramic views of the jungle treetops all around you.
Explored by Claire Sturzaker from Tales of a Backpacker
Quick facts about visiting Lamanai in Belize
- Located in Orange Walk District
- One of the longest continuously inhabited ancient Mayan cities
- Where to stay: Orange Walk or Belize City
Xunantunich in Western Belize is one of the best Mayan ruins to visit in the country.
Evidence suggests that people settled here as early as a few hundred years BC, although the buildings you can see today mostly date back to the year 800. Back in the day, there were more than 26 temples and palaces in the city of Xunantunich.
The biggest temple you can still visit today is El Castillo. The pyramid towers in the middle of the site and is around 130 feet tall. When climbing up, take a moment to look at the intriguing stucco with its abstract figures and heads. It gives you a good idea of how the temple must have once looked when the carvings still surrounded the whole pyramid.
You can easily reach Xunantunich from San Ignacio. Go to the bus station and catch any of the buses headed towards Benque. If you tell the driver that you want to visit Xunantunich, they will drop you off at the ferry crossing.
From here, you can take the ferry across the river and keep walking uphill to Xunantunich. It’s a walk of about one mile, so it’s best to come early in the morning when it’s not too hot yet. Make sure to pack everything you need, bring plenty of water and insect repellent.
It takes about two hours to visit the site of Xunantunich and the museum next to it.
Explored by Daniel and Ilona from Top Travel Sights
Quick facts about visiting Xunantunich in Belize
- Located in Cayo District – 1 mile from the Guatemalan border
- Tallest Mayan pyramid in Belize
- Where to stay: San Ignacio
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave)
While most of the Mayan sites in Belize are the ruins of ancient cities that have been reclaimed by the earth and are in the long, delicate process of excavation, Actun Tunichil Muknal, widely known as ATM Cave, is a different type of Mayan wonder. The wet cave near San Ignacio contains artifacts like stoneware and ceramics, as well as skeletons still left in their final resting place. The cave is believed to have been a sacrificial cave, where Maya people made offerings to their gods.
While ATM is the most popular cave tour in Belize, it takes a bit of skill and physical endurance. ATM requires hiking, crossing rivers, and swimming through a dark cave. The amount of swimming required depends on the time of year and amount of rainfall, as well as your height. In fact, kids under 3 feet, 3 inches (100 cm) tall are not allowed on the ATM guided tour. Life jackets are offered for those who would feel more comfortable wearing one.
But the adventure takes you into the Mayan underworld, and into the chambers that Mayan kings and shaman once entered to communicate with the gods.
Quick facts about visiting Actum Tunichil Muknal in Belize
- Located in Cayo District
- Most popular cave tour in Belize
- Where to stay: San Ignacio
Once the heart of the Maya civilization, Belize is a country that is filled with incredible Mayan Ruins offering glimpses of their glorious past. While many of the ruins are nestled deep inside the thick jungle and make it difficult to visit, there are some that are readily available to visitors, such as the Cahal Pech Archaeological Reserve.
Though not one of the most grandiose Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech is accessible via a 25-minute walk or a 7-minute drive from the touristy city of San Ignacio. Cahal Pech offers newcomers an introduction to Mayan ruins, preparing them for bigger ruins in the region such as Chichen Itza or Tikal.
As far as archaeologists know, Cahal Pech was a hilltop home for an elite Maya family. Visitors can see the numerous courtyards and the remnants of a ball court (a very popular feature for Mayan ruins). Compared to the other Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech is definitely much smaller in size. Visitors should be able to explore the entire archaeological reserve in no more than 2 hours.
For those that would like easy access to the ruins, they can opt to stay in the Cahal Pech Resort, a resort built adjacent to the Cahal Pech Ruins.
Explored by Sean from Living Out Lau
Quick facts about visiting Cahal Pech in Belize
- Located in Cayo District
- One of the most accessible Mayan ruins in Belize
- Where to stay: Cahal Pech Resort
Altun Ha is one of the best Mayan ruin sites in Belize. This 3 square mile ruin site was inhabited by the Mayas from 900 BC to 1000 AD.
The Mayas that lived here were rich and had access to many expensive items such as jade and obsidian. The largest jade artifact ever found was found in Altun Ha.
Altun Ha is located about 30 miles from Belize City. You can drive there from the city, but I recommend you take a tour. Altun Ha is located in an isolated jungle area, and the roads are at times a bit rough, so it is wise to go with a company that knows the area well.
There are temples and areas of Altun Ha that are very well preserved that you can walk around, and some you can even climb up. There are also sites where excavation is not possible and you can see the earth trying to reclaim them.
You will enjoy learning about the area and the inhabitants of Altun Ha from your tour guide if you come with a tour. If not, there are tour guides there that can help you. There are also people selling Mayan artifacts and fresh fruits at the entrance to the site.
You can plan to spend about an hour or two at the site, with about an hour drive each way from Belize City. This is an easy excursion to do if you are in port from a cruise.
Explored by Chantelle from Flannels or Flip Flops
Quick facts about visiting Altun Ha in Belize
- Located in Belize District
- Largest jade artifact in the world was found in Altun Ha
- Where to stay: easily accessible from the cruise port
Like ATM Cave, Barton Creek isn’t an ancient city with temples and pyramids. Instead, it is a cave. But caves held great significance to the Maya and were used for a variety of purposes. Caves were often used for rituals, like offers and sacrifices. Remains from at least 28 individuals have been discovered in Barton Creek Cave along with ceramics, jewelry, and other artifacts. Barton Creek, located in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in the Cayo District of Western Belize, is the longest river cave in the country.
Exploring this Mayan underworld site requires a guided canoe tour that takes you deep into one of the most family-friendly caves in Belize. It is one of the only wet caves in Belize that does not require swimming or tubing, making it suitable for visiting even with younger children. Inside the fascinating cave, you’ll see an intricate display of stalactites and stalagmites illuminated only by the dim glow of your headlamps.
Tours can be booked in advance online, or if available, tour guides may also be available at the cave entrance.
Quick facts about visiting Barton Creek in Belize
- Located in Cayo District
- Longest river cave in Belize
- Where to stay: San Ignacio
Other Mayan ruins worth visiting from Belize
While there are plenty of incredible Belize Mayan ruins, you would be remiss if you take a Belize vacation and do not drive across the Guatemala-Belize border to experience the mecca of ancient Maya culture.
Tikal National Park in Guatemala
Tikal National Park is the largest excavated Mayan ruins site in the world, dating back to about 1,000-400 BC. Archeologists believe more than 50,000 people lived in the ancient city during its peak. Other reports claim at least 90,000 people inhabited Tikal. It is truly breathtaking to walk among these large, ancient pyramids. Some of the structures are equipped with staircases which allow you to climb to the top for stunning views of the park, the other temples, and the surrounding jungle.
Tikal is roughly a two hour drive from San Ignacio, Belize and can be booked using a tour company. Or if you choose to do so, you can somewhat easily visit the park on your own.
Tikal is not only one of 30 national parks and preserved areas in Guatemala, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond its historical significance, Tikal was featured in the movie Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, due to its otherworldly appearance. If visiting Belize or Guatemala with kids, Tikal will be an impressive, educational, and memorable adventure.
Quick Facts about visiting Tikal
- Located in eastern Guatemala
- Largest excavated Mayan city in the world
- UNESCO World Heritage site and easy day trip from San Ignacio, Belize
Which Belize Mayan ruins should you visit?
Many of the Mayan ruins in Belize are similar, so unless Maya history is of extreme interest to you, visiting one or two of these sites might be enough. Which ruins to visit in Belize will depend on which area of the country you are visiting, and if you plan to rent a car and drive in Belize or if you plan to stick to guided tours. Regardless of which archeological wonder in Belize you decide to visit, you’ll find no shortage of Mayan ruins and fascinating Maya culture within the Belizean borders.
Do you have a comment or question about visiting any of the Belize Mayan ruins? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
5 comments on “7 EPIC Belize Mayan Ruins You Must Visit (with map!)”
What is the carseat situation if you elect to drive yourselves or arrange private transport outside of the bus? Did you use a carseat or is that not as prevalent there?
We rented a car and a car seat from the rental agency. If you drive into Guatemala, Crystal is the only car agency that will allow you to take their cars across the border. They were great to work with.
I’m exploring following your route through Belize (and maybe Guatemala) with a 2 year old by myself (35yo female). I’m a traveller but a bit wary of taking my daughter to places when I’m not sure about safety (She spent her first 18 mos in a small town in Uganda, so we do travel off the beaten path). Would you say a western-focused trip through Belize/Guatemala with a rental car would be safe for us both?
I’m certainly no expert on safety in Central America, but as a mother I worried about the safety aspect when planning this trip, as well, simply because of all the horror stories you hear about how dangerous it is. However, I felt completely safe in Belize and eastern Guatemala. I wrote a couple of posts about renting a car and driving in Belize and crossing the border to visit Tikal.
The only part of this trip I probably wouldn’t do alone with a toddler is the Mountain Pine Reserve in Belize. The roads are not paved and really rough, and cell phone reception is limited.