Altun-Ha

Altun-Ha


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Altun Ha

Altun Ha is the name given to the ruins of an ancient Mayan city in Belize, located in the Belize District about 50 kilometres (31 mi) north of Belize City and about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) west of the shore of the Caribbean Sea.

The site covers an area of about 8 square kilometres (3.1 sq mi).

Stones from the ruins of the ancient structures were 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 16 metres (52 ft) high. A drawing of this structure is the logo of Belize’s leading brand of beer, “Belikin”.

Etymology

According to the Belize Institute of Archaeology, the site’s name means “Rockstone Water,” and is a Yucatec Mayan approximation of the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond. In Yucatec Mayan, haltun is a stone water deposit or cistern, and ha means water. An ancient emblem glyph for the site has been identified, but its phonetic reading is not currently known.

Archaeological investigations and rediscovery

In 1961, W.R. Bullard conducted excavations led by the Royal Ontario Museum, at Baking Pot and San Estevan, and although no excavations took place, the site was initially called “Rockstone Pond.” In 1963, quarrying activity by local villagers led to the recovery of a large, elaborately carved jade pendant.

The current commissioner of archaeology, Hamilton Anderson, notified David M. Pendergast and a reconnaissance trip was made in 1963. Starting in 1964, an archaeological team led by Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum began extensive excavations and restorations of the site, which continued through 1970.

There was a total of 40 months of excavation with a field season in 1971 of ceramic and laboratory analysis.

Setting

Altun Ha lies on the north-central coastal plain of Belize, in a dry tropical zone. The site was very swampy during its pre-Columbian occupation, with very few recognizable water sources.

Currently, the only recognizable natural water source is a creek beyond the northern limit of the mapped area. The water sources used during occupation were Gordon Pond, which is the main reservoir, and the Camp Aguada, which is located in the site center.

The site may have contained two chultuns, but provenience is lost since they are used in modern times.

The site itself consists of a central precinct composed of Groups A and B. Groups A and B and Zones C, D, and E consist of the nucleated area, with Zones G, J, K, M, N making part of the suburban area.
The site does not contain any stela, suggesting that stelae were not part of ceremonial procedures.

There are two recorded causeways, one in Zone C and one connecting Zone E and Zone F. The Zone C causeway does not connect to any structures, but is probably related to Structure C13, and was perhaps used for ceremonial purposes. The other causeway connected the two zones where water sources were located, and was constructed for topographical reasons, specifically to traverse areas of swampy land it may have been impassable without raised walkways.

History

Altun Ha was occupied for many centuries, from about 900 B.C. to A.D. 1000. Most of the information on Altun Ha comes from the Classic Period from about A.D. 400 to A.D. 900, when the city was at its largest.

The earliest structures found at Altun Ha, found in Zone C, are two round platforms that date to about BC 900−800, structures C13 and C17. Structure C13 contains remnants of postholes and several burials, while C17 has traces of burning, or fire. Structure C13 was an early religious building, with Zone C inhabitants being of relatively high status. The Late Preclassic had a population increase and large public structures were built. The first of these was structure F8 in AD 200. Although this structure was constructed at the end of the Preclassic, the majority of the archaeological evidence dates to the Early Classic. This structure has a two-element stair composed of small steps with stairside outsets that were perhaps devoted to innovation. F8 also had a three-stage development.

Early Classic

One of the most important finds in the Early Classic comes from structure F8, specifically tomb F8/1. The tomb was placed here about fifty years after the construction of the structure. It contained the remains of an adult male who was interred with a jade and shell necklace, a pair of jade earflares, two shell disks, a pair of pearls, five pottery vessels, and fifty-nine valves of Spondylus shells. Bib head beads in the necklace are associated with southern Mesoamerica. The ceramics for the most part reflect the pattern that was being established at other burials in Altun Ha.

Above the burial, however, the roof showed association to the large Mexican site Teotihuacan. The burial was capped with over 8,000 pieces of chert debitage and 163 formal chert tools. The ritual offering, or cache, also contained jade beads, Spondylus valves, puma and dog teeth, slate laminae, and a large variety of shell artifacts. The clear association to Teotihuacan however, comes from the 248 Pachuca green obsidian objects and the 23 ceramic jars, bowls and dishes. The obsidian is of the Miccaotli or Early Tlamimilolpa phase, suggesting that this symbolism was still important and dominant at Teotihuacan. This offering may be of importance to Teotihuacan because of the associations that the ruler in the burial had with central Mexico or the association that the entire Altun Ha community had with Teotihuacan.

There is also evidence of contact and trading with the other side of Mesoamerica in the intermediate area. An offering in the central ceremonial precinct contained an undecorated lidded limestone vessel with jadeite objects, two pearls, laminae of crystalline hematite, Spondylus shell beads, and a tumbaga gold-copper alloy bead representing a jaguar claw. This deposit has been dated to about 500. Traditionally, it was not believed that the Maya had gold during the Classic period gold was restricted to the Postclassic.

This is in part because many believed that gold was not naturally occurring in the Maya area, but recent investigations have shown that placer gold can be found in the streams of the upland zone of western Belize. The Maya most likely did not use metallurgy because of a lack of techniques, which may have been due to the fact that yellow in Maya ideology represent dying plant life and crop failure.

This artifact is also identical with other artifacts of the Cocle in central Panama. The Cocle had a sufficient amount of metalworking by 500, and surely played a role in trade relationships beyond Panama. This discovery also shows that important trade networks were set up much earlier than previously thought.

Late Classic

In general, the elite burials at Altun Ha during the Late Classic can be characterized by large amounts of jade. Over 800 pieces of jade have been recovered at the site. More than 60 of these pieces are carved. The beginning of the Late Classic at Altun Ha had one of the most interesting burials in the Maya lowlands. Structure B-4 has tombs with many jade artifacts, including a large jade plaque with a series of twenty glyphs in the phase six construction level. In the 1968 field season, after excavating many tombs in Structure B-4, also called the Temple of the Masonry Altars, the seventh phase of construction revealed the most elaborate tomb at the site nicknamed “The Sun God’s Tomb”.

The Sun God’s Tomb

The Sun God’s Tomb is located in Structure B-4, also called the Temple of the Masonry Altars. Structure B-4 is located in Group B, which is part of the central precinct at Altun Ha, and has a height of 16 meters. Phase VII is the level in which this tomb is located, is dated to about 600−650, which is at the beginning of the Late Classic period. The tomb is the seventh and earliest in B-4, which made the excavators designate this burial Tomb B-4/7.

Tomb B-4/7 contained the skeleton of an adult male with many offerings. The body was fully extended dorsally with the skull facing south-southwest. The person had a height of 170–171 cm, with the recovered skeletal materials consisting of a fragment of the skull, the mandible, long bones, five teeth, two vertebrae, five carpal bones, the patellas, and miscellaneous metacarpals, metatarsals, and phalanges.

The bulk of the interpretations, research, and interest in this tomb have undoubtedly been on the artifacts that were contained in this particular burial. In the initial study, Pendergast classifies these artifacts between perishables and non-perishables.

The perishable artifacts that are in the burial that the researchers were able to recognize include a wooden platform that the body was placed on, felid skins, cloth, matting, cordage, rods, stuccoed objects, red pigment, and gray clay. Not all perishable objects have been interpreted for their original use in the burial, but some have clear associations. The entire tomb was covered in cloth, with textile impressions noted on the pottery. Red pigment was distributed throughout the tomb, with evidence of it on most of the jade.

The researchers documented 43 non-perishable artifacts. These include ceramic bowls shell beads jadeite anklets, bracelets and beads pearls pyrite and hematite artifacts and, the most outstanding of all, a carved jade head of the Sun God, Kinich Ahau. The jade head has a height of 14.9 cm, a circumference of 45.9 cm and a weight of 4.42 kg. The jade head was placed at the pelvis of the body, with the face of the jade boulder facing the skull. The Sun God’s Tomb marks the starting point for tomb construction in Structure B-4 during the Late Classic period. The unusual form of this tomb shows the distinctive cultural aspects of Altun Ha and the Caribbean zone compared to the inland Classic Maya sites.

Pendergast suggests that with so much jade found at the site, the jade head may have been carved at the site with imported jade. The giant jade head also suggests that this small site had a strong status as a trade or ceremonial center. Pendergast also suggests that this tomb contained a priest that was associated with the Sun God, and that Structure B-4 was in fact dedicated to this deity, based on this one artifact. More recent research however, has shown that this interpretation may be incorrect. Recent research suggests that this giant jade head is actually a Jester God. When drawing this figure spread out on a plane, the figure on this carving shows more of a resemblance to a bird deity with maize iconography, not Kinich Ahau. The Jester God is an early symbol of Maya rulership and is usually seen iconographically in the head, or in this case the jade head. With so many artifacts associated with this tomb, it is clear that the male buried in here was of great importance. The Jester God argument is a better fit for what this person represented, which would also correlate with this being the first tomb constructed in Structure B-4.

Terminal Classic

By 700, modifications in the Central Precinct became rarer, and in Plaza B only Structures B4 and B6 were modified regularly, while Plaza A was still being modified extensively. By 850, structures B5 and A8 were completely abandoned. Gradual abandonment of the site began in 800, except for Zone E, which actually reached its peak usage and occupation between 700 and 800.

Structure D2 is located at the edge of the site’s Central Precinct and is dated to the Late-Terminal Classic. This structure in particular yielded a stemmed bifacial blade of Pachuca green obsidian in a post-abandonment offering. The form, size and manufacturing characteristics are very similar to those found in F8. Two possible explanations for the context of this artifact are that the blade could have been produced long after the decline of Teotihuacan, or was reused from an earlier time period.

Postclassic

In the Postclassic, Structures A1 and A5 were solely used for depositing the dead. By the beginning of the eleventh century, the site of Altun Ha was completely abandoned. During the Late Postclassic after 1225, however, there was a renewed limited occupation at Altun Ha which lasted probably until the fifteenth century. Lamanai-related Postclassic ceremonial vessels were excavated atop B-4.

Diet at Altun Ha

The diet at Altun Ha was a maize based (C-4) diet, but there was also a large marine component to their diet compared to other sites in the Maya area. The marine/reef resources were more important here than in other regions.

Between the Preclassic and Early Classic, there was a dramatic increase of maize consumption, which researchers argue is an indication of a rise in intensive maize agriculture at the beginning of the Early Classic.

The individuals with the highest recognized status during this time period also had the highest intake of maize.

In the Late Classic, more maize was consumed in the central precinct than in the outer zones, and Zone C had a higher degree of reef resources than in other areas.

In the Postclassic, a higher portion of terrestrial animals were consumed, possibly deer or dogs.

Caches at Altun Ha

Caches occur in two categories at Altun Ha.

The largest class is in communally built structures that were dedicated to public ritual, the second occurs in residential structures with usually a single-family focus.

The primary axis was the principal determinant of cache position in communally built structures. The primary axis functioned as the main avenue of communication with deities.

In other public and domestic contexts, there are offerings that are away from the primary axis, and this is based on a matter of exclusion.

Late Preclassic caches at Altun Ha can be defined by the round platform. Jade objects become significant in offerings by 450−300 BC.

Classic Period caching practices at Altun Ha consisted of single, highly varied offerings in context with structural modification. The caches during this time period had a high scale of ceremonial value and made a forceful statement of the site’s prominence.

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Written by Tamara Sniffin on August 17, 2012

Belize has its fair share on Maya Temples and historical locations of the ancient Maya civilization but none can quite compare to the prestige and popularity of the county’s most loved and well known Maya city, Altun Ha. Despite its relatively small size compared to others in the area Altun Ha is one of Belize’s most excavated and restored location making it a favorite for tourists and visitors wanting to experience a true sense of ancient Maya civilization from centuries past. Add to that the fact that it is the closest Maya site to Belize City, and is very easy to get to as compared to some of its more hidden counterparts, and you can see why Altun Ha has become the pride and joy of Belizean Mayan heritage.

Few Belizeans can think about Maya Culture without immediately pondering the ancient Maya wonder of Altun Ha. It’s popularity and prestige in Belizean society is so ingrained that you would be hard pressed to find any Belizean who has not either been to or grew up knowing everything about that famous location. Altun Ha is synonymous with Belize and connects the country to its majestic past, so much so that the symbol of Altun Ha, its largest and most popular temple, the “Temple of the Masonry Altars”, has made its way onto the face of the national currency, and on to the bottles of the country’s leading beer, Belikin.

Altun Ha is located just 31 miles north of Belize City on a two-mile long dirt road that connects the site to the Old Northern Highway and is only six miles away from the Caribbean Sea. It covers an area of about five square miles and was once a major ceremonial and trading center. Once home to as many as 10,000 inhabitants over a 1,000 year-long period of occupation dating back as early as 200BC, it was occupied as recent as the 10th century.

Being there is an experience of the majesty and glory that was once a major location in Maya society, with as many as 500 visible structures spread across the two main plazas. These plazas are surrounded by towering temples enclosing the palm strewn landscape. Plaza A, the larger of the two, is the site of a mysterious tomb discovered beneath one of the temples called the “Temple of the Green Tomb” where jade, jewelry, flints and skins were among the hundreds of different remnants unearthed there. Other artifacts included shell necklaces and ornaments, pottery vessels, stingray spines (used in ritual bloodletting), and groups of ceremonial elaborately shaped chert sculptures, as well as the remains of more perishable items – cloth, and wooden objects. The remains of a codex, an ancient book made on bark paper, were also found. The fragments were too fragile to be reassembled, but they at least tell us that codices were sometimes buried with elites during the Classic period.

Plaza B, adjoined to the larger Plaza A is home to the largest temple at the site and what is certainly the most recognized Mayan temple in all of Belize, the “Temple of the Masonry Altars”, which rises 54 feet above the Plaza floor. A single stairway climbs the largest temple to an altar perched at the peak and is thought to have been the focal point of the community’s religious activities. Inside, several tombs were discovered that are believed to have kept the bodies of Altun Ha’s high priests and also provided the most spectacular find ever at any Maya site in Belize, the priceless, six-inch high, ten pound, solid jade carving of the head of the Maya Sun God, KinichAhau, which was found in the tomb of an elderly male priest. Because three of the seven priestly tombs in the Temple of the Masonry Altars were plundered, having their contents destroyed and the crypts filled with soil, researchers believe that the final demise of Altun Ha was perhaps brought about by violent peasant revolt.

Interestingly enough despite its popularity and prestige the true ancient name of the location is unknown and “Altun Ha” is a rough translation of the nearby agricultural village of “Rockstone Pond” which had reused some of the stones from the ancient structure for residential construction. The name “Rockstone Pond” also signifies the presence of one of the most interesting finds of any Maya site a man-made water reservoir that is lined at the bottom with limestone clay giving the bottom the firmness needed to retain water. The reservoir was constructed by diverting the flow of a creek than ran through the area just enough for them to dig and enlarge a round hole with a clay plastered bottom. Once the clay dried and hardened, the stream was rerouted to its original course and the newly built reservoir filled and overflowed, allowing the stream to continue on its original track. This provided a vital source of water for the thousands of inhabitants that lived there.

For those who wish to experience the magnificence and beauty of this most prized Maya site, Altun Ha is open all year round from 8AM to 5PM and offers many amenities and activities including, free parking, hiking trails, picnic pavilion, gift shops, and of course the opportunity to climb atop the wonderful ancient Maya structures that were a part of the great civilization. Many tour operators run daily trips to Altun Ha, and it is a standard 1/2 day outing for cruise ship visitors and other tourists departing on afternoon flights. It is easy to find on your own if you’ve rented a vehicle, you simply take the Northern Highway from Belize City for about ½ hour turning just after Sandhill Village onto Old Northern Highway and travel 14 miles to the Rockstone Pond Road and then it’s just two more miles to reach the reserve. The area around Altun Ha is rich in wildlife including armadillos, bats, squirrels, agouti, paca, foxes, raccoons, coati, tyra, tapir and the white-tailed deer. Two hundred species of birds have been recorded and there are large crocodiles that inhabit the Maya-made water reservoir.

Folks of all ages are sure to enjoy this Maya jewel in the jungle and you won’t regret adding Altun Ha to your list of “must do’s” while visiting Belize!

About the Author: Tamara Sniffin

I’m a sucker for a fuzzy face, a feathered face, a face with fins or even one with scales! I am in love with the creatures and the flora that are synonymous with Belize and every opportunity I have to learn more about them and explore their wild habitats I am there! I’m the happiest when I’m snorkeling the reef and swimming with turtles, however my passion is not just limited to critters! Laced throughout this compact jungle gem of a country live the Kriol, Maya, Garifuna, Mestizo and Spanish people, and experiencing each culture, especially their celebrations is one of my favorite pastimes.


Altun Ha – Belize

One of the more easily accessible Mayan ruins from Belize City, Altun Ha is a small site featuring two large central plazas surrounded by midsized pyramids. Only a few of the most impressive structures have been uncovered while many more are still covered by the jungle vegetation.

“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.

History of Altun Ha

Altun Ha was settled around 200 BC until the 10th century AD. At its peak in the 3rd century AD, as many as 10,000 people may have lived here. The city was a major trading center and a large amount of jade and obsidian were found at the site, both of which do not occur naturally in Belize. The presence of jade also suggest that Altun Ha was a religious center as jade could only be worn or used by Mayans of great importance, such as religious leaders.

About 900 AD several elite tombs were looted, which some think indicates a revolt against Altun Ha’s rulers. The site remained populated for about another century but no new major structures were built during that time. After this the population dwindled, with a moderate surge of reoccupation in the 12th century before declining again to a small agricultural village.

Altun Ha Highlights

Situated at Plaza B, the largest (though not the tallest) temple here is the Temple of the Masonry Altars. The temple was expanded many times with a new temple, complete with altar, built around the last one. No fewer than seven tombs have been found here, the oldest of which contained a magnificent carved head of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau. The 10lb/4.5kg jade head is considered one of the national treasures of Belize and is locked away in a bank vault in Belize City. A replica of the head can be seen in the Museum of Belize.

The unrestored Temple A-6 is truly the tallest building at Altun Ha. It is now a large grass covered mount with a few remains of the stairs in the center on the lower south side. A climb to the top of the temple provides an excellent view of the entire site.


Early history

The following is a history of Belize focusing on events since European settlement. For further treatment, see Central America Latin America, history of and pre-Columbian civilizations: Mesoamerican civilization.

The Maya lived in the area now known as Belize for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, as manifested by more than a dozen major ruins such as La Milpa, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, and Caracol. The Spanish penetrated the area in the 16th and 17th centuries and tried to convert the Maya to Christianity, but with little success. The Maya population had begun to decline long before the Spaniards arrived, and the remaining Maya lived in politically decentralized societies. Although the Maya did not have the resources to defeat the Spaniards, they could not be decisively beaten.

British buccaneers and logwood cutters settled on the inhospitable coast in the mid-17th century. Spain regarded the British as interlopers in their territory. By treaties signed in 1763 and 1783, Spain granted British subjects the privilege of exploiting logwood and, after 1786, the more valuable mahogany, though only within specified and poorly surveyed territories. Indeed, Spain retained sovereignty over the area, which Britain called a settlement, as distinct from a formal colony. The Spanish also prohibited the settlers from establishing a formal government structure, so the British conducted their affairs through public meetings and elected magistrates. However, superintendents, appointed by the British government after 1786, slowly established their executive authority at the expense of the settlers’ oligarchy. In 1798 the British overcame Spain’s final attempt to remove them by force, and Belize became a colony in all but name. The British government instructed the superintendent to assume authority over the granting of land in 1817, and he assumed the power to appoint magistrates in 1832. In 1854 a constitution formally created a Legislative Assembly of 18 members, who were elected by a limited franchise, and the next year the Laws in Force Act validated the settlers’ land titles.

Guatemala challenged the British occupation on the grounds that it had inherited Spanish interests in the area, and from time to time Mexico also asserted a claim to part of Belize. Great Britain and Guatemala appeared to have settled their differences in 1859 by a treaty that defined boundaries for Belize. The final article of the treaty, however, bound both parties to establish “the easiest communication” between Guatemala and Belize. (Conflict between Guatemala and Belize over land boundaries would persist into the 20th and 21st centuries the dispute became intractable after 1940 when Guatemala declared that the treaty was null and void because such communication had never been developed.)

Belize became the British colony of British Honduras in 1862—which was ruled by a governor who was subordinate to the governor of Jamaica—and a crown colony in 1871, when the Legislative Assembly was abolished. British Honduras remained subordinate to Jamaica until 1884, when it acquired a separate colonial administration under an appointed governor.

The British settlers, who called themselves Baymen, began importing African slaves in the early 18th century to cut logwood and then mahogany. Although the conditions and organization of labour in timber extraction were different from those on plantations, the system was still cruel and oppressive. There were four slave revolts in Belize, and hundreds of slaves took advantage of the terrain and the freedom offered over the frontiers to escape.

Trade with Spain’s colonies in Central America flourished, even after those colonies attained independence in the 1820s however, the development of plantations in Belize was forbidden by the treaties with Spain. After emancipation in 1838, the former slaves remained tied to the logging operations by a system of wage advances and company stores that induced indebtedness and dependency. When the old economy, based on forest products and the transit trade, declined in the mid-19th century, these freedmen remained impoverished.

Beginning in the early 19th century, a mixed population of Carib Indians and Africans exiled from British colonies in the eastern Caribbean (formerly called Black Caribs, now referred to as Garifuna) settled on the southern coast of Belize. The Caste War, an indigenous uprising in the Yucatán that began in 1847, resulted in several thousand Spanish-speaking refugees’ settling in northern Belize, while Mayan communities were reestablished in the north and west. These immigrants introduced a variety of agricultural developments, including traditional subsistence farming and the beginning of sugar, banana, and citrus production. In the 1860s and ’70s the owners of sugar estates sponsored the immigration of several hundred Chinese and South Asian labourers. In the late 19th century Mopán and Kekchí Maya, fleeing from oppression in Guatemala, established largely self-sufficient communities in southern and western Belize.

By the early 20th century the ethnic mixture of the area had been established, the economy was stagnant, and crown colony government precluded any democratic participation. In the 1930s the economy was hit by the worldwide Great Depression, and Belize City was largely destroyed by a hurricane in 1931. A series of strikes and demonstrations by labourers and the unemployed gave rise to a trade union movement and to demands for democratization. The right to vote for the Legislative Assembly was reintroduced in 1936, but property, literacy, and gender qualifications severely limited the franchise. When the governor used his reserve powers to devalue the currency at the end of 1949, leaders of the trade union and the Creole middle class formed a People’s Committee to demand constitutional changes. The People’s United Party (PUP) emerged from the committee in 1950 and led the independence movement. The PUP would be the dominant political party for the next 30 years.


Excellent ruins and history lesson

We came from Belize City and a cruise ship. The drive was about an hour and took in Belize City north on the way out and Belize City south on the way back. The ruins themselves are very nicely maintained. We were impressed with the history lesson from the guide and we enjoyed the vendors selling their own hand carved wood as well.

My family and I visited the Altun Ha ruins during an excursion from a Norwegian cruise ship. We docked in Belize City and took a tour bus to the ruins. Even though the ruins are only about 35 miles from the city, it took over an hour to get there. The roads are just that narrow and winding. Not at all the smooth Interstates or Highways you might be used to in the states. That being said, the tour guide was very informative on the drive there. She showed is many points of interest as we made our way through the city and explained much about the country of Belize as we made our way through the country. Once at the ruins, she began to explain the Mayan history in detail. It was very fascinating! There were two sections that had been excavated (both about 100 yards squared) but the site continued on for about a mile but had not yet been excavated. We could climb up most of the structures. Even my 6 year old daughter had no problems.

I felt very safe during the entire tour and there are bathrooms at the site. However, very little food options.


Combine history, culture, and relaxation on this tour of the Altun Ha ruins and the Maruba Spa. The spa has treatment areas out in the open that blend in with the jungle surroundings.

More Tours

Major construction at Altun Ha occurred between 100 A.D. to 900 A.D. At the height of its occupation, it is believed that up to 10,000 Mayan lived in the area around the site. Archeologists believe that the Maya living here traveled with their goods up and down the nearby Belize River in canoes, in order to make trading deals with nearby communities.

This site was also a center of religious activity. Altun Ha has 8 large temples and palaces. The main attraction is the 54-foot (16-meter) tall Temple of the Masonry Altars. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of this pyramid, where they will find a large, round altar. This altar is believed to have served as the epicenter of religious ceremonies. Several tombs have also been discovered inside the temples, with remains that are believed to belong to Altun Ha’s high priests.

After exploring the ruins, you have the opportunity to purchase locally made handicrafts and art from the vendors located near the site entrance.
While close to Belize City, the road to Altun Ha includes a 10-mile drive on a gravel and dirt road that is full of potholes. Large tour buses also drive on this road, so take care when you turn corners on this road. It is also recommended that visitors carry bug spray.


History Uncovered

We did a tour here through Carnival Cruise line. Our guides were very knowledgeable and a lot of fun. The site is an ongoing excavation as only a small number of the hills have been uncovered so far. Still we enjoyed our visit and would recommend this site to anyone who enjoys history. Once we reached the site were given a local park guide who gave us still more information on the ruins. NOTE: There is no proper pathway in the ruins, so mobile impaired people might have some difficulty moving about. That said, there was several benches in shade where you can view some of the ruins.

We were able to take a private tour through Shore Excursions. Not through Carnival. Our guide was of Mayan decent and provided a lot of history on Altun Ha as well as other ruins in the region. We climbed to the top of all unearthed buildings and the Mayan temple. Very clean area, clean restrooms, local vendors in an open market. And plenty of time to explore. Would not recommend for people who have difficulty climbing, but OK to see from the bottom. Not crowded the day we were there.


Relief

The southern half of the country is dominated by the rugged Maya Mountains, a plateau of igneous rock cut by erosion into hills and valleys that stretch in a southwesterly to northeasterly direction. The Cockscomb Range, a spur of the Maya Mountains, runs toward the sea and rises to Doyle’s Delight. The northern half of the country consists of limestone lowlands and swamps less than 200 feet (60 metres) above sea level.


Top Ten Maya Sites To Visit In Belize


Best Mayan Ruins to visit in Belize

Making a pilgrimage to Belize to visit the top Mayan ruins isn’t just a great idea but a promise you make to yourself if this society fascinates you. Stay at Cahal Pech Village Resort to be in close proximity to most. All it takes is a request to your Cahal Pech hosts and they’ll arrange transport, guides, picnics and anything else you desire for your grand tour of the past.

Below are the best Maya sites to visit in the country:

Cahal Pech Maya Ruins. Don’t let the name Place of Ticks scare you the area was once pastureland! A 1988 archaeological team unearthed 10 mounds at this site overlooking the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena. Mayan society flourished here circa 1000 BC to 800 AD. You’ll see 34 ancient structures located over two acres, so allow enough time to see it all.

Xunantunich Maya Ruins (Maiden of the Rock) isn’t far from the village of San Jose. Take a ferry there and find Belize’s second tallest ruin, sun god bas relief masks on building walls, six plazas and remnants of 25+ palaces and temples. Though the size of this site is only 300 square meters, Xunantunich is a tourist favorite because there’s so much to see.

Ask the Cahal Pech trip team to get you to Altun Ha where armadillos, bats, squirrels foxes and White-tail deer wander this major ceremonial and trade center sprawled across two plazas. The “Jade Head,” the largest Mayan jade artifact unearthed to date, is the big draw, but the sophisticated reservoir constructed by Mayans centuries ago deserves your attention, too.

Caracol Maya Ruins, situated on the edge of the Maya Mountains within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, remains an active dig site, but it takes some effort to get here. The highlight of this ruin is Canaa (Sky Place), a 140-foot-tall pyramid. Come for the monuments. Stick around to see the cleverly engineered Mayan reservoir.

Santa Rita dates back to at least 2000 BC, so ruins offer a different perspective on Mayan culture. Santa Rita was a European contact point and hub for traders traveling between Mexico and Guatemala, so the artifacts left behind are unusual and include jade, mica, gold earrings, pottery, ceramics and agricultural tools.

The name Lamanai means submerged crocodile but you won’t have to wade in any water to see multiple ages and stages of Mayan history here. Your Cahal Pech host can arrange transport to this site by road or boat, but when you glimpse the largest Maya ceremonial center in the region with “more than 719 mapped structures” you’ll be glad you made the effort.

Cerro Maya was a vibrant coastal trading center thanks to its Bay of Chetumal location. It remained occupied longer than most Maya settlements thanks to a salt mining distribution enterprise that fueled area growth. Part of Cerro Maya is submerged, but what remains above the water line is spectacular: five temples, plazas and a canal system that winds around three architectural complexes over 52 acres.

Barton Creek Cave’s big attraction is its vast cave system that includes some of the most striking architectural elements in Belize. Since these caves were used for Mayan rituals, ceremonies and sacrifice, you can expect to see everything from human remains and hearths to artifacts when visiting here.

The Nim Li Punit archaeological and dynastic worship site boasts both the longest stela in Belize (No. 14) and a postcard-perfect vista, overlooking the Toledo coastal plain and rainforests. Wander the main plaza, ball court and other ruins, but it’s the stelae collection that will impress you most.

Lubaantun—Place of the Fallen Stones–is a Late Classic ceremonial center known for its unusual construction methods. Mayans at this location employed dressed stone blocks and organic materials, but they didn’t use morter. As a result, pyramids and buildings disintegrated, which is how this site, a mile from San Pedro, got its unusual name.


Watch the video: The Mayan ruins of Altun Ha explained by our Belizean guide