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Turquoise waters, the climate and the Belize Barrier Reef, as well as over one hundred surrounding islands, draw visitors from around the world. Fishing, rafting, kayaking, snorkeling, the jungle and wildlife reserves and bird watching draw others. However, of all the things to see and do in Belize, Central America, the fantastic and amazing sites are the toppings on this adventurous, eco-friendly cake.
Where Ancient History Never Disappears:
Known as the center of the ancient Maya world, Belize once held almost 2 million Mayans. Temples, pyramids and palaces, surrounded by agricultural villages, reined supreme for well over 600 years. Such a length of time could not help but permanently mark the landscape, as these top ten sites will show:
1. Santa Rita – A Mayan ruin in northern Belize that dates from c. 2000 B.C., Santa Rita is believed to be what remains of Chetumal, an ancient Mayan city. It is believed that Santa Rita controlled trade routes within the boundaries of today’s Mexico and Guatamala.
Excavations have uncovered fishing net sinkers and other objects, which point to Santa Rita’s coastal importance. Remains of rulers with jade and mica ornamentation, as well as others with gold ear decorations, show that the Mayan city also played a commanding and influential role for the Yucatan Peninsula and surrounding areas.
2. Cerro Maya – From 400 B.C. to 100 A.D., Cerros, or Cerro Maya, was an important coastal trading point. Due to the lack of structural additions, archeologists believe Cerros must not have survived long because of a shift in trade routes. At the height of its day, the city distributed salt from mining communities and traded chert tools from nearby villages.
Today, Cerros is partially underwater, but what remains is stunning – including five temples (one that is 72 feet high) and related plazas, a large canal system and a beautiful panorama viewed from the top of the temples.
3. Lamanai – Given the chance, most people visit Lamanai by road through San Felipe rather than by boat. A “jungle cruise”, the road trip is an excellent chance to see birds, exotic plants and even crocodiles. The site itself, however, is even more impressive; situated on a major trade route, Lamanai is one of the longest occupied Mayan cities and was inhabited for two millennia.
Lamanai holds at least 718 mapped structures, including two 16th century Christian churches as well as an intact 19th century sugar mill. Due to the extraordinary length of time that Lamanai was occupied, one can explore several periods of Maya building, from the Classic Period to the Post Classic and beyond.
4. Nohmul – The “Great Mound”, or Nohmul, was a major Mayan ceremonial center. Two ceremonial groups, connected by a raised causeway, hold approximately ten plazas with more than 81 separate buildings. The main ceremonial structure is massive – a 164 by 170 feet rectangle, 8 feet high – dominating the surrounding structures and landscape. Human bones, jade jewelry, vessels, chultuns and other artifacts have all been recovered from this mostly excavated site, but there is much more to discover.
5. Altun Ha – 30 miles north of Belize City is the most widely excavated ruins in the country. Altun Ha, a major ceremonial and vital trade center during the Classic Period, has two main plazas. The most significant find of Altun Ha is the “Jade Head”, which represents the Mayan Sun God, Kinich Ahua; it is the largest object carved of jade in the entire Maya area.
6. Xunantunich – Situated near a desnse concentration of Mayan archeological sites, Xanantunich may have been an important provincial center or even a regional capital. On the main palace building is an astronomical carved frieze that is well worth the visit. The highest ruin is 133 feet tall, the second tallest ruin in all of Belize. Well-preserved sun god masks decorate one side of the structure.
Six major plazas, more than 25 temples/palaces and a beautiful new museum are just some of the reasons why Xunantunich is becoming one of the most visited sites in Belize. As well, the Belize Tourism Development Project has invested over half a million dollars to fully excavate the site and make it more visitor-friendly. Close by the ruins is the Mopan River, where visitors enjoy swimming, kayaking, canoeing and rubber rafting.
7. Caracol – Although one of the most difficult Belize ruins to reach, the trip to Caracol is also one of the most scenic drives. It is the largest known Maya center within the country and holds “Canaa” (Sky Place), the largest pyramid or manmade structure in Belize at 140 feet tall. A large part of Caracol is still largely being discovered, but numerous carved monuments populate the area, and the main reservoir is an engineering masterpiece.
8. Pacbitun – First occupied in c. 1000 B.C., Pacbitun flourished between 400 B.C. and 900 A.D. A major ceremonial center, these ruins have brought many artifacts to light, including moulded pottery, musical instruments and many elite goods. Pacbitun has at least twenty-four major temple pyramids, as well as several other structures.
9. Cahal Pech – The area around Cahal Pech (“Place of Ticks”) was used for pasture, but investigations in 1988 found ten mounds. Excavations indicated that Cahal Pech was inhabited from 1000 B.C. to around 800 A.D. The central part of the ruins provides a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding area. Thirty-four structures, including temple pyramids, two ball courts, an alter and five plain stelae fill the compacted 2 acre area.
10. Nim Li Punit – These ruins look over the Toledo coastal plain, milpas and jungle. With only one main plaza, one pyramid, one ball court and a few moderately sized buildings, Nim Li Punit fall short of the architectural masterpieces found in other areas of Belize. However, it has an unusually large number of stelae; twenty-five large, often huge, stone slabs and pillars, eight of them carved, populate this small area. In fact, one of the stela is the tallest carved example in Belize. Due to this oddity, Nim Li Punit is believed to have served as its dynasty’s worshipping place.
Belize offers subtropical climate, blue skies, beautiful scenery and the last of Central America’s unspoiled marine and rainforest environments, all in one package. It is truly one of Mother Nature’s best-kept secrets. From Santa Rita to Nim Li Punit, the Mayan ruins of Belize make the country a secret that should be explored – by eco-tourists, archeological enthusiasts and adventure-seekers alike.