For a compact country only 180 miles long and less than 70 miles wide, Belize packs a pirate’s ransom of adventure and romance into a stunningly varied island.
Here you might scuba dive in the Caribbean from laid-back offshore cays, canoe down jungle rivers, hike to Maya temples on pine-covered ridges or deep in rain forest, and swim at the foot of remote waterfalls that you may have all to yourselves. In fact, exploring the riches of Belize’s Maya route goes hand in hand with discovering the country’s natural treasures.
Belize’s Maya legacy begins offshore at Ambergris Caye is the perfect placeto begin or end your Maya odyssey in Belize: Diving and snorkeling among the more than 500 species of fish are the main events when you’re not soaking up the laid-back village ambience. For an extra thrill, take a side trip to dive the deep “Blue Hole” that Jacques Costeau made famous, or sign up to snorkel among stingrays and sharks—fortunately, these stingrays have never stung anyone, and the toothless “nurse sharks” don’t bite.
Catch the boat to Belize City—about an hour-and-a-half trip—and hop off at one of the beach resort’s docks for a meal or a couple of drinks at its waterside restaurant. You could spend a night or two in Belize City while making day trips north to the Maya ruins of Altun Ha and Lamanai.
Then head southwest to one of the romantic lodges in the jungle or pine-scented Maya Mountain near San Ignacio in the Cayo District, such as Hidden Valley, Blancaneaux Lodge or Chaa Creek. From here you can visit the Maya sites of Xunantunich and Caracol, as well as Tikal and Guatemala which is just a couple of hours away on organized excursions.
Maya temples in Belize have a brooding, unfinished air, as if they’re just emerging from the lush vegetation that surrounds them. Many are still being excavated, and much remains to be reconstructed. As you explore these sites, you may share some of the excitement of their discoverers and archaeologists.
Here are some of the historic and natural highlights along Belize’s Maya route.
This compact, nicely preserved site is a little Maya gem. A trading center just six miles from the sea, Altun Ha is known for the huge head carved from jadeite that was discovered here and is currently stored in a security vault in Belize City. It portrays the Maya Sun God, Kinich Ahau, the national symbol that alsoappears on Belize’s banknotes.
Part of the fun of visiting Lamanai is getting there – you’ll travel by boat along the New River Lagoon! It’s a trip through a tropical forest rich in wild orchids and birds—including the jabiru stork, the largest flying bird in the New World. You get a sense of the encroaching jungle at Lamanai, a large ceremonial center whose name means “submerged crocodile.”
Perched on a limestone ridge above a river, this site’s tallest temple is fun to climb for the panoramic view of the Maya Mountains and expansive jungle stretching into Guatemala just across the border. Look for fine stucco frieze on the east side of building “A-6.” The site is accessible by hand-cranked ferry across a river, which occasionally becomes impassable during the rainy season.
Rising 140 feet above the jungle, Caracol’s Canaa (Maya for “Sky Palace”) is the tallest Maya structure in Belize. The size of its base rivals any temples in Tikal, its worldly rival for power over this region in the ancient Maya world. Look for the giant date glyphs on its circular stone altars. Before visiting Caracol on your own, pick up a permit from the De Silva Forestry Station nearby or the Department of Archaeology in Belmopan.
On the way to of from Lamanai, you could visit the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary or the Community Baboon Sanctuary. Near Xunantunich, see iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies being raised at Chaa Creek Lodge, and learn about local flora and fauna at its Nature Center.
Especially for lovers
In the vicinity of Caracol and the Mountain Pine Ridge Region, relax in the natural whirlpools of the Rio On waterfalls, and marvel at the river that runs through the Rio Frio Caves. One lodge (the Hidden Valley Inn) even has its own remote, spectacular falls that guests can reserve for private swimming and picnicking.