he Maya are more than legend in Belize. The imposing monuments of this ancient mystical civilization are found throughout the country; some ruins are still under excavation today. In Belize, history unfolds before your eyes.
Nestled on Central America’s Caribbean coast just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize has the highest concentration of Maya sites among all Central American countries. It is believed to have been the heart of the Maya, who settled in this tropical setting as early as 1500 B.C. Although the civilization began its decline in 900 A.D., some Maya centers were occupied until contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. During the classic period (250 A.D. to 900A.D.), there were a million Maya in Belize. Their descendants remain today an integral part of the Belizean population.
Belize has joined with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to establish Mundo Maya (World of the Maya), a program dedicated to the preservation of Maya culture. A visit to Belize’s Maya ruins is a fascinating excursion to another time. Most sites are readily accessible, with guided tours available; some may involve climbing to fully appreciate their full majesty.
Belize’s rich Maya heritage includes:
Altun Ha (Water of the Rock) was a major ceremonial and coastal trade center. The ruin consists of two main plazas with some thirteen temple and residential structures. It was here the Jade Head representing the Sun God, Kinich Ahua, was found. It is the largest carved jade object in the whole Maya area, and has become a national symbol of Belize.
Altun Ha is located about 30 miles (50 km) north of Belize City and about 6 miles (10 km) west of the shore of the Caribbean Sea. The site covers an area of about 5 miles (8 km) square. The ruins of the ancient structures had their stones reused for residential construction of the agricultural village of Rockstone Pond in modern times, but the ancient site did not come to the attention of archeologists until 1963. The Old Northern Highway connects Altun Ha to Belize’s Northern Highway, and the site is accessible for tourism. The largest of Altun Ha’s temple-pyramids, the “Temple of the Masonry Altars”, is 54 feet (16 m) high. A drawing of this structure is the logo of Belize’s leading brand of beer, “Belikin”.
Despite its small size and seemingly marginal location, Altun Ha was an ancient Maya community of great complexity and wealth. It was an important link in the coastal trade routes, and had contact with the distant city of Teotihuacan in present-day Mexico at an early time in Maya history. The earliest evidence of settlement at Altun Ha dates to 200 B.C, although it is highly probable that nomadic hunter and gathering tribes lived in the area long before then.
“Altun Ha” is a recent name, coined by translating the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond in Yucatan Maya . The ancient name is unknown.
Caracol (The Snail) is the largest of Belize’s Maya ruins, reached by a spectacular scenic drive through the Chiquibul Rainforest. Currently under excavation and restoration, Caracol’s importance as a major ceremonial center has only been recently discovered. The largest pyramid in Caracol, “Caana” (Sky Place), rises 140 feet high, and is the tallest man-made structure in Belize.
These ruins are the most extensive in all of Belize. After a victory over Tikal in the 6th century, Caracol flourished and became one of the largest Mayan cities. After its decline, the city lay hidden in thick, high-canopy jungle for centuries until a native logger came across the ruins in 1937. A year later two archaeologists visited the ruins. They named the site Caracol, Spanish for Snail, because of the large number of snail shells they encountered. The ancient Mayan name of the city was Oxwitzá, or “three hill water”.
Long thought to be a tertiary center, it is now known that the site was one of the most important regional political centers of the Maya Lowlands during the Classic Period. Caracol covered approximately 200 square kilometers, covering an area much larger than present-day Belize City (the largest metropolitan area in the country) and supported more than twice the modern city’s population.
Excavations of the ruins did not begin until the 1950s while most of the work took place since 1985. The excavations have uncovered pyramids, royal tombs, dwellings, monuments and two ball courts.
Cerros is located on a peninsula across from Corozal Town in the Bay of Chetumal; it served as a coastal trading center in the late Pre-Classic Period (100 B.C. to 250 A.D.). New forms of art and architecture that were crucial to the civilization were established here. Cerro’s tallest temple rises 72 feet high above the plaza and offers a panoramic view of Corozal Town and the Bay.
The site includes at least four large temples, several palace buildings and two ballcourts. The most famous Cerros temple, Structure 5C-2nd (the Temple of the Masks), lies at the north end of the site, on a point that juts out into Chetumal Bay. Excavations on this structure uncovered two pairs of large painted stucco masks flanking the eastern and western sides of the central stairway.The lower eastern mask represented the rising sun. Its western counterpart was the setting sun.The upper eastern mask was Venus as the morning star and to the west, Venus as the evening star.
Today partially underwater, Cerros is one of only two Pre-Classic sites with no later additions to its structures.
At its nadir, it held a population of approximately 1,089 people. The site is strategically located on a peninsula at the mouth of the New River where it empties into Chetumal Bay on the Caribbean coast; it is the only Maya site in Belize situated on the coast. As such, the site had access to and served as an intermediary link between the coastal trade route that circumnavigated the Yucatán Peninsula and inland communities. The inhabitants of Cerros constructed an extensive canal system and utilized raised-field agriculture.
Facilities at the site include restrooms, water, and covered picnic area. Open 8-5; nominal admission fee.
Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile), among the largest of the Maya ceremonial centers, is located on the banks of the New River Lagoon. With one of the longest occupation spans, (1500 B.C. to the 19th century), the ruins of Lamanai include the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill, along with distinctly exotic examples of Maya art and architecture. The scenery around Lamanai is of particular beauty, and there are spectacular views from several of its large pyramids.
The site’s name is pre-Columbian, recorded by early Spanish missionaries, and documented over a millennium earlier in Maya inscriptions as Lam’an’ain.
The vast majority of the site remained unexcavated until the mid-1970s. Archaeological work has concentrated on the investigation and restoration of the larger structures, most notably the Mask Temple, Structure N10-9 (“Temple of the Jaguar Masks”) and High Temple. The summit of this latter structure affords a view across the surrounding jungle to a nearby lagoon, part of New River.
A significant portion of the Temple of the Jaguar Masks remains under grassy earth or is covered in dense jungle growth. Unexcavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.
Lamanai is accessible to tourists by organized day boat trips from Orange Walk Town along the New River. A small museum exhibits local artifacts and provides a historical overview. Tourist facilities and small shops are available.
Lubaantun (Place of Fallen Stones) is a late Classic ceremonial center that lies above a tributary to the Columbia River. It has eleven major structures, grouped around five main plazas. Lubaantun was uniquely built entirely without mortar; each stone was carefully measured and cut to fit with its adjoining stone.
The city flourished from the AD 730s to the 890s, and seems to have been completely abandoned soon after. One of the most distinguishing features of Lubaantun is the large collection of miniature ceramic objects found on site; these detailed constructs are thought to have been charmstones or ritual accompanying acoutrements.
Xunantunich (Stone Woman), pictured top left, was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. The site overlooks the Mopal River, and is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than twenty-five temples and palaces. The site is currently undergoing excavation.
Its name means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language (Mopan and Yucatec combination name), and, like many names given to Maya archaeological sites, is a modern name; the ancient name is currently unknown. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.
Most of the structures date from the Maya Classic Era, about 200 to 900 AD. There is evidence that some structures were damaged by an earthquake while they were occupied; this earthquake may have been a reason for the site’s abandonment.
Snuggled between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south, relaxed, English-speaking Belize is only a two-hour plane ride for the continental United States. Adventure into a land rich in natural beauty and steeped in the magic of its Maya past. Renowned for pristine waters, exotic marine and wildlife, lush unspoiled landscapes, and superb diving, Belize is Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret.
For visitor information, visit the BELIZE TOURIST BOARD online at www.travelbelize.org
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