Explore Mayan civilization on your Belize vacation with tours to ancient ruins like Caracol, Lamanai and Altun Ha.
Bumping down the dirt road out of Maskall Village in northern Belize, our guide Mario slowed and pointed to a roadside pond. “There,” he said, “you see that floating log with a yellow eye? That’s a crocodile.” We did see the croc, along with a silver fox and an array of tropical birds as we sped through the jungle to the Maya ruin, Altun Ha. As we drove, Mario filled us in on Belize facts in perfect English, the national language.
Altun Ha—the first site on our trip along Belize’s Maya trail—was initially discovered while building the highway in 1957, and fully excavated beginning in 1963. In Belize, it’s easy to understand why enormous ruins go lost and undiscovered. With a mere population of about 300,000 and many national parks, Belize has green to spare. The country’s dense forest is filled with exotic plants and animals, and in northern Belize it is not uncommon to see jaguars. “Oh yes,” Mario said, “I see them all the time.”
We passed typical wooden houses built on stilts and painted in candy-colored pinks and yellows with banana trees on their lawns and lazy dogs sleeping on the steps. We turned into what looks like a driveway and realized we were at the ruins. Altun Ha was an important ceremonial site in the region during the Classic Maya period (A.D. 300 to 1000) and contained a cache of jade and other ancient booty. One of the biggest finds at Altun Ha was a carved jade head of the sun god Kinich Ahau weighing 10 pounds and standing six inches tall—the largest carved jade piece from the Maya era.
Dating back to around 250 B.C., the site consists of 500 buildings, most of which are covered in grass and spindly trees. Like most sites in Belize, Altun Ha is not crowded and is easily reached by rental car or with a tour guide. Located 31 miles north of Belize City on the Old Northern Highway, eight miles outside of Maskall Village. Admission: US$5 for adults; free for children under 12.
West of Altun Ha, Lamanai is another worthwhile Maya site. It’s not easy to get to, however, and requires a whole day to visit, whereas Altun Ha is a half-day trip. Accessed by water taxi, the ride to Lamanai is part of the adventure. After an hour’s trip up the New River, visitors arrive at what was one of the oldest communities in Maya civilization (1500 B.C.). The name Lamanai, which was a portside city, comes from the Maya word Lama’anayin, meaning ‘submerged crocodile.’ Many crocodile sculptures were found at this site along with Olmec statues. Parents and kids alike will enjoy the boat ride up the river to this mystical group of ruins. Located 26 miles up the New River; boats leave from the town of Orange Walk, 52 miles north of Belize City. Admission: US$5.
Our next stop on the Maya trail was San Ignacio in central-western Belize. Unlike the hot jungles around Altun Ha and Lamanai, San Ignacio’s climate is far more arid, made up of a strange mix of tropical plants and pine trees. To see this rugged part of the county we rented a four-wheel drive Jeep and headed out early to meet the military escort (9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. departures), which took us to one of Belize’s most important Maya ruins, Caracol (The Snail), deep in the Maya Mountains in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.
This is a long drive, so families who drive it alone should pack a lunch, water and snacks. If going with a tour, the guide will take care of transportation and lunch. Because of some robberies a few years back, the Belizean military escorts visitors with one military truck in the front of the convoy and another in the back. We felt safe driving in the group and were joined by another 15 cars of tours and private parties. Of the 30 or 40 people who went to see the ruins, there were about three families, all with children over the age of 6.
Caracol, a Classic Era site, was a Maya metropolis with a population of more than 100,000 at its peak. It’s fascinating to climb atop its towering Caana temple and look out over the jungle which extends for miles in a carpet of green, blue and gray. When Caracol was at its peak, the view from Caana would have been quite a different one. In place of today’s endless green were about 60 causeways leading through a complex and deforested city.
Exploring Caracol takes about two to three hours for those who don’t linger long. After seeing the ruins and ancient reservoirs, it’s pleasant to have lunch at the site’s picnic area. It should be noted security is very good at Caracol, and guests are continuously monitored by armed security. After seeing Caracol, make a swimming pit-stop at the pristine Rio On Pools located on the same road. Located 25 miles south of San Ignacio inside the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Admission: US$8.
Naturally, families might get bored seeing one Maya ruin after another. To mix things up, head to Barton Creek Cave for a Maya caving and canoe/inner tube expedition. We got to Barton Creek Cave in the early afternoon and had lunch at its outdoor café (beans, rice, chicken, fruit juice, all for US$4), before hopping into a long canoe with our guide, Borris Arevelo. Tours are in English and last about two hours ($30 per person). At the dock of the cave’s blue lagoon entrance, vines and tree roots hung over the water, and butterflies rested on alien-like orchids. We were each given a high-power flash light as Borris pushed us off, paddling into the mouth of the cave.
The Maya believed their rain god, Chac, lived in caves. When drought hit, the Maya made offerings and even human sacrifices in Barton Creek Cave. The cave is large and impressive, and as we floated along we were startled by bats and dripping water. The rock formations are dramatic, and taking a look at ancient Maya sacrificial skulls and pottery is, as one 15-year old visitor said, “Pretty cool.”
While Barton Creek Cave is amazing, adventurous, interesting and fun, it is not for young kids or kids who can’t swim. All visitors to the cave need to be able to remain still in the canoe and quiet in certain bat-filled sections. That said, there were lots of kids at the caves, and the owner, Canadian Kristina Bogart, has four children herself, (plus a monkey named Mango), so it’s definitely family-friendly. Because of road conditions, it is best to go to Barton Caves with a guide or in a heavy-duty four-wheel drive vehicle. Visitors should be cautious in the rainy season.
The Maya trail in Belize continues south to ruins Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun and many others, but the rest of our trip was spent on the Maya trail in Mexico. There are hundreds of ruins and thousands of caves throughout the Maya world, which makes choosing where to go a difficult task. Belize is an excellent country to start exploring the Maya trail because it’s safe, accepts U.S. dollars, has many English-speakers and offers lots in the way of tourist services. If you’re looking for history, culture, the Caribbean and animal sightseeing, Belize is a five-star choice for an adventurous and unique family vacation.
Tours: Hunchi’ik Tours
When to Go: Rainy season/hurricane season lasts from June to November. The is the cheapest time to go as it’s low season in Central America. However, your vacation could be ruined by a hurricane or torrential rain storms. We went in hurricane season and only had one day of rain. Dry season lasts from December to May. This is clearly the best time to visit, but also expect higher prices and more tourist.
Don’t Forget: A raincoat, a flashlight and insect repellent.