Belize Maya Sites

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Maya Archaeological Sites of Belize

Cayo District

CaracolCaracol Mayan Archaeological Site.  Caracol's ancient Mayan name was Uxwitza, or "Three Water Hill."  Its Early Classic name was Ux Witz Ajaw, or "Three Hills Lord." 

A.H. Anderson, Archaeological Commissioner for Belize in 1938, named the ruins Caracol, meaning "snail" in Spanish, because of the the winding roads leading to the site.  (Anderson first visited the site in 1937 after it was discovered by logger Rosa Mai in 1937.)

xunantunichXunantunich Mayan Archaeological Site. The Xunantunich core is about 1 square mile and includes 6 plazas and 26 temples and palaces. 

El Castillo, a 130 foot tall pyramid at the axis of the core of Xunantunich is the second tallest building in Belize after Caana at Caracol.

Although the core of Xunantunich is fairly small, the city was surrounded by a much larger farming community, including economically self sufficient villages that did not have to rely on Xunantunich for food or supplies.  Archaeologists believe that these self-reliant villages in large part allowed Xunantunich to survive almost 100 years past the time when most other city states in the Maya Lowlands were collapsing. 

Cahal PechCahal Pech Mayan Archaeological Site.  Cahal Pech is located just outside San Ignacio Town in Belize's Cayo District and is sited high on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers. 

The Cahal Pech site was first occupied in 1200 BC (Early Middle Preclassic Period) and abandoned in 900 AD (Classic Period).

Archaeologists believe that Cahal Pech was the home of an elite Maya family and includes 34 structures, including a temple, ball court and acropolis.  Cahal Pech is a legally declared archaeological reserve in Belize and the government maintains a small museum on the site.  Excavation first took place in 1988 and was essentially completed in 2000.  However, some archaeological excavations are still ongoing.

Cahal Pech means "place of the ticks" - named by the archaeologists who first found the site in the 1950s as a fallow field (and presumably home to many ticks).  Cahal Pech is often paired with Xunantunich on Mayan ruins tours.

Latitude:  17.1556° N/Longitude:  89.0611° W

El PilarEl Pilar Mayan Archaeological Site. The El Pilar Archeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna is a legally declared cultural monument in both Belize and Guatemala.  The Reserve is emcompasses 5,000 acres, half in Guatemala in the Peten Department and half in Belize in the Cayo District.  The Belize portion of the Reserve is managed by the Belize Institute of Archaeology and the Guatemalan portion is managed by the Instituto de Antroplogia a Historia.

The El Pilar archaeological site covers about 120 acres and includes over 15 plazas, one ball court and hundreds of other buildings.  However, only strategic portions of buildings are exposed to preserve the buildings as much as possible.  (This style of presentation is called "Archaeology under the Canopy.")

Orange Walk District

La MilpaLa Milpa Mayan Archaeological Site.   La Milpa is the third largest Maya site in Belize (after Caracol and Lamanai) and includes more than 20 courtyards, 19 stelae, 2 ball courts, 4 temple pyramids (the largest almost 79 feet high)  and over 85 structures, with the Great Plaza being one of the largest public spaces constructed by the Maya.  Archaeologists estimate that over 46000 people lived in La Milpa in its heyday in the Early Classic Period.

However, despite many archaeological digs since the early 1930s, most of La Milpa remains unexplored.

La Milpa is located within the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, owned by Programme for Belize, a Belize non-governmental organization.  Coca Cola purchased the property that became the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in 1988 for the purpose of clearing the land for a citrus plantation.  International outrage stopped Coca Cola's plans and Coca Cola eventually donated the land to Programme for Belize.  

La Milpa and Rio Bravo are located within the Three River region of Northwest Belize bordering Mexico and Guatemala.  Programme for Belize operates La Milpa Jungle Lodge on the Rio Bravo property, and the La Milpa lodge is the best place from which to access the La Milpa ruins.

Latitude:   17°48'0.00"N/Longitude: 88°58'60.00"W

LamanaiLamanai Mayan Archaeological Site.  The Lamanai site is one of the oldest continuously occupied Maya sites in Belize, from about 1500 BC when maize was being grown at the site, to 1680 AD.  

The name "Lamanai" means submerged insect. 

However, archaeologists realized in 1978 that Franciscan monks had corrupted the name from "Lam'an/ayin" to "Lamanai," and that adding the correct suffix of "ayin" changed the meaning of the name to submerged crocodile, a conclusion supported by the large number of crocodile representations found at Lamanai, including figurines, pottery decorations and the headdress of a 13 foot limestone mask found on a 6th century temple platform.

Lamanai, located on 950 ares (the site's core is about a 12 square miles), is one of the largest Maya ceremonial sites in Belize, including more than 100 minor structures, a ball court and about 12 major buildings, most notably the Temple of the Mask, thought to be an Olmec God or Kinich Ahau, the Maya Sun God, the Temple of the Jaguar Masks and the High Temple (so-called because of its height).

Lamanai's lay-out was quite different from most other Maya sites in Belize that were generally organized in plazas around a ceremonal structure.  However, at Lamanai, most ceremonial buildings were built along the west bank of the New River and the New River Lagoon, with residential structures to the north, west and south. 

Only about 5% of the site has been investigated and much remains buried or covered by jungle and bush.  However, archaeologists do know that structures were built on top of other structures, with the older structures frequently at least partially razed, sometimes leaving masks and other ornamental features from the older buildings in odd places in the new buildings, such as in stairwells.

In addition to Mayan buildings and artifacts, the Lamanai site also includes the remains of a 19th century sugar mill, a brick-lined reservoir and the charred remains of two 16th century Catholic churches.  The church remains are charred because the Maya burned each of them down after the Spanish built the churches in an attempt to convert the Maya inhabitants of Lamanai to Catholicism.  The first church building particularly incensed the Maya -- the Spanish built the church on the foundations of a Mayan temple that they demolished to make way for the new church.

Lamanai continued to flourish in the Post Classic Period primarily because of its trade of metals, particularly copper objects, thought to have been produced on-site at Lamanai beginning by approximately 1150 AD.  More copper artifacts have been found at Lamanai than at any other Mayan site, and the artifacts have included bells, rings, tweezers, various clothing ornaments, pins, axes, chisels, needles, and fish hooks.  

Access to the Lamanai ruins is by boat up the New River from Orange Walk.  Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is located 8 miles west of the Lamanai Archological reserve.  

Latitude:   17°45'9.36"N/Longitude:   88°39'16.20"W

ColhaColha Mayan Archaeological Site. Colha is located near Orange Walk Town in northern Belize, and was occupied from the Archaic Period (pre-3400 BC) to the Middle Postclassic Period (1150-1300 AD). 

Colha was most heavily populated from 400 BC - 100 AD (Late Preclassic) and from 600-850 AD (Late Classic).

Altun Ha appears to have been an important trade center, trading as far south as Panama and as far north as what is now Mexico City.  In fact, archaeological evidence indicates that Altun Ha had a particularly strong connection to the pre-Columbian Mexican city of Teotihuacan, located about 30 miles northeast of the Mexico City area.  Teotihuacan was the largest pre-Columbia city in the Americas, with a population of approximately 125,000 people in the city core, making it one of the largest cities in the world between 1 and 500 AD.

Archaeologists believe that Colha may have been settled almost 1500 years before any other Maya site, and that chocolate was consumed at Colha as early as 1000-400 BC - making Colha one of the earliest Mayan settlements to process and eat chocolate.

The Maya produced chert and obsidian tools at Colha for most of the time it was inhabited and may have traded stone tools as far away as the Greater Antilles.  Colha was also an important source of "eccentric flints," which are sacred objects made from chert and obsidian for the Maya elite and include sacrificial knives, parts of sceptres and burial offerings.

Colha appears to have come to a violent end in the Terminal Classic Period (700-875 AD).  This conclusion is based on archaeological evidence that includes the discovery in a pit within a shrine at Colha of the burned skulls of 10 men, 10 children and 10 women, all members of the Colha elite, as evidenced by the cranial shaping of their skulls and their filed teeth.

Colha was abandoned until approximately 950 AD (Postclassic Period), when it was re-inhabited by what archaeologists believe was a group of people closely related to the Yucatan Mayan and not to the previous inhabitants of Colha.  The primary occupation for these later inhabitants of Colha was farming, although they did also produce some stone tools, as had the original Colha residents.

Colha was first excavated in the early 1970s when large deposits of "lithic debitage" (the waste from producing stone tools) were discovered at the site.  The Colha Project began in 1979 and is a long-running archaeological excavation in and around Colha, including Ladyville, Lowe Ranch and Sand Hill.  Archaeologists have recovered over 4 million stone tools from 36 workshops at the core of the Colha site.  The Colha site includes paved plazas, a ball court and public buildings.

Latitude:   17°56'60.00"N/Longitude:   88°22'1.20"N

San EstevanSan Estevan Mayan Archaeological Site. San Estevan was settled in the Preclassic Period and reached its greatest occupation levels in the Late Classic Period. 

Between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, much of San Estevan was mapped by archaeologists exploring the last incarnation of San Estevan as a Late Classic Period site.  

However, the focus of archaeological research on San Estavan abruptly changed in the late 1990s when bulldozers mining for limestone destroyed most of the Late Classic Period structures at San Estevan.

(Ironically, the limestone mined from the San Estevan site and used in the construction of the Western Highway in Belize has caused many, many accidents and deaths due to the slickness of the limestone.)

Corozal District

CerrosCerros Mayan Archaeological Site. Cerros is located at the mouth of the New River as it empties into Corozal Bay in the northern Corozal District of Belize. 

Cerros was inhabited from about 400 BC (Preclassic Era) to 400 AD (Classic Era) when it was abandoned.  At the height of its importance, almost 2,000 people lived in and around Cerros, working as farmers and as merchants in the trade between the sea coast and inland communities.

Santa Rita Maya archeological siteSanta Rita Mayan Archaeological Site.  Archaeologist believe that Santa Rita is almost certainly the ancient city of Chetumal and was occupied from 2000 BC to 1530 AD, with its primary importance in the Late Post Classic Period from 1350-1530 when it was an important center for the trade of honey, vanilla, cacao and anchiote to the northern Yucatan and other locations. 

The breadth of the trade that flourished in Santa Rita is evidenced by findings at the site that include Andean pottery from the Late Classic Period and turquoise jewelry from the Aztecs.

Santa Rita was abandoned when Spanish forces cut off trade routes to the north.

The Belize town of Corozal was built on top of Santa Rita and only one building remains from the ancient Mayan City of Chetumal.  Santa Rita is located on the outskirts of Corozal just off the main road to Santa Elena and Mexico.  The Caribbean Sea forms the eastern boundary of Santa Rita.

Belize District

altun-haAltun Ha Mayan Archaeological Site.  Altun Ha was occupied from about 900 BC to 1000 AD, with the highest level of population in the Classic Period, from about 400 to 900 AD. 

Altun Ha showed a sharp decline in population after 900 AD, unlike Lamanai, which continued to be occupied for almost 700 years.

Altun Ha appears to have been an important trade center, trading as far south as Panama and as far north as what is now Mexico City.  In fact, archaeological evidence indicates that Altun Ha had a particularly strong connection to the pre-Columbian Mexican city of Teotihuacan, located about 30 miles northeast of the Mexico City area.  Teotihuacan was the largest pre-Columbia city in the Americas, with a population of approximately 125,000 people in the city core, making it one of the largest cities in the world between 1 and 500 AD.

Marco Gonzalez Archaeological Reserve.  Marco Gonzalez  is located at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, about 5 miles south of San Pedro.  It was first recorded in 1984 and excavated between 1984 and 1994.  However, the site had already been extensively looted before its excavation.

Toledo District

lubaantun-whistle2Lubaanatun Mayan Archaeological Site.   Lubaantun is located about 2 miles from San Pedro Columbia Village and about 26 miles northwest of Punta Gorda Town in the Toledo District of Belize.  Lubaantun, which means "place of the fallen stones" is a modern name for the site.  No one knows its ancient Mayan name.

Lubaantun was occupied in the mid to late Classic Period from about 730 to 890 AD when it was abandoned.  Not much is known about Lubaantun although speculation is that it had a military purpose because it is built about 200 feet above sea level, and the center of the site is on a large artificially raised platform between two small rivers.

Lubaantun is also believed to have been an administrative center of trade regulation, with nearby Nim Li Punit functioning as a center of religion, ceremony and ritual.

Nim Li Punit archeological reserveNim Li Punit Archaeological Site.  Nim Li Punit means "big hat" in the Kekchi Maya language and refers to the large headdress on a ruler depicted on one of the stela found at the site.  The Nim Li Punit ruins are located off the Southern Highway about 25 miles north of Punta Gorda Town.

Nim Li Punit was occupied by about 5000-7000 people at its peak in the Late Classic Period and was occupied from around 721 to 890 AD.  The people who lived in Nim Li Punit probably migrated to Nim Li Punit from the area that is now Guatemala and were probably aligned with Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras.  

The site is organized around three plazas and includes an incredibly well-preserved ball court.  Archaeologists also believe that Nim Li Punit includes a Mayan observatory in the Plaza of the Stelae because of the geometric positioning of the structures in this plaza.

Structures at Nim Li Punit were built of sandstone using mortar between stones unlike the mortarless slate construction at Lubaantun.

Nim Li Punit was first investigated by archaeologists in 1976.

Latitude:  16°14'43.19"N/Longitude:   88°46'10.31"W

UxbenkaUxbenka Mayan Archaeological Site.  Uxbenka is a very small site compared to Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun and is located near the water tower for Santa Cruz Village overlooking the footfills of the Maya Mountains and the Blue Creek canyon of Belize. 

(If you would like to tour the site, ask around the Village - Uxbenka is not officially open to tourists, but mounds have been cleared with some exposed limestone walls and a small open tomb is in the main plaza.)

Uxbenka dates back to the early Classic Period, long before the existence of other Maya city-states in southern Belize, and its name means "Ancient One" to reflect its age.  Uxbenka is thought to have been a ceremonial site with one main plaza at the top of hill opposite the water tower for Santa Cruz Village, and smaller plazas built on terraces carved into the side of hill and at the base of the hill on which the site is located.  Seven carved stelae, plus 13 uncarved stelae were found at Uxbenka, with one carved stelae dating back to the early Classic Period.  

Uxbenka was "discovered" in 1984 after reports to the Belize Department of Archaeology about looting of tombs near Santa Cruz.

Latitude/Longitude for Santa Cruz, Toledo, Belize:
Latitude:  16°14'28.76"N/Longitude:  89°04'39.48"W

Maya Timeline References

Maya Timeline:

Maya Periods:

  • Early Pre-Classic:  2500 BC-1000 BC:  During this time period in other parts of the world, the mammoth became extinct, Stonehenge was completed, the Celts began to use iron, silk was discovered in China, wine was introduced and Egypt invaded Nubia.
  • Middle Pre-Classic: 1000 BC- 300 BC:  During this time period in other parts of the world, the Eygptians began natural mumification of bodies, the Iliad and the Odyssey was written, Rome was founded, Socrates, Aristotle and Confucious were born, the Olmecs developed a written alphabet and the Parthenon was built.
  • Late Pre-Classic:  300 BC-300 AD:  During this time period, Rome conquered Greece, Jesus was born, lived and was crucified, Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus and Pompeii is destroyed by Vesuvius.
  • Early Classic:  300 AD - 600 AD:  During this time period in other parts of the world, the Visigoths sacked Rome for the first time, the Edict of Milan declared that the Roman Empire would be neutral toward religious worship and Constantine organized the First Council of Nicaea.