Hiking Mayan Ruins in Belize
We'll be honest, the main reason why we chose Belize was because we wanted to see and experience ancient ruins. We aren't really "beach" people so being able to be somewhere hot and tropical while still getting to do a bit of hiking and exploring made Belize the perfect choice.
We split our time during this trip between the coast and the jungle, where most of the ruins are located. We opted to stay in San Ignacio which is perfectly situated so you can easily visit two archaeological sites: Xunantunich and Cahal Pech.
The Xunantunich is the larger of the two sites and it is a 30 minute drive from San Ignacio and sits one kilometer from the Guatemala border. It served as a Maya civic ceremonial center in the Late and Terminal Classic periods to the Belize Valley region. At this time, when the region was at its peak, nearly 200,000 people lived in Belize.
We arrived at Xunatunich and took the car ferry across the river with our driver, Ron. Close by is a parking lot, two souvenir huts, and a bathroom area. There are a lot of guides wandering in the area who offer to give you private guided tours, however we decided to do a self-guided tour.
After a short walk up the pathway, the ruins emerge from the trees—standing tall and seemingly out of place.
The core of Xunantunich occupies about 2.6 square kilometers, consisting of a series of six plazas. One of Xunantunich's better known structures is the pyramid known as "El Castillo" (pictured above). The site is broken up into four sections – Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D, with Group A being central and most significant to the people.
Most of the structures you are allowed to climbed, however there are a few that are roped off for conservation reasons. In all, we spent about two hours here wandering around and exploring at our own leisure. We even saw a family of Black Howler Monkeys in trees at the edge of the clearing.
The night after hiking Xunatunich we stayed in San Ignacio in the Cayo District at the Midas Resort which was close to Cahal Pech. In the morning we woke up and took a $2 USD taxi ride to the top of the hill where Cahal Pech is located and once we were done we walked back through San Ignacio to Midas.
Cahal Pech was a palatial, hilltop home for an elite Maya family, and though most major construction dates to the Classic period, evidence of continuous habitation has been dated to as far back as 1200 BCE. This makes Cahal Pech one of the oldest Maya sites in Western Belize.
It was lightly raining when we arrived but we didn't let that stop us from adventuring. There is a lot to see here! (Be careful: the rain makes the stone surfaces very slippery)
As we told locals that we met in town that we were planning on visiting Cahal Pech, they seemed confused. None really expressed much interest. We were thinking maybe there wasn't much to see but we honestly spent more time at Cahal Pech than we did at Xunatunich the day before.
Nearly every part of Cahal Pech is open to explore, climb, and walk through. You can walk through passages, enter tunnels, and move about just like the Mayans did.
I'm not sure if it was the rain or if Cahal Pech isn't highly regarded as a "must see" but we pretty much had the place to ourselves for the morning which made it even more magical to be secluded in the jungle in an abandon ancient palace.
Once we left Cahal Pech we left the reserve and walked a little further up the hill to have lunch at the Cahal Pech Village Resort, which has an amazing view of the city.
The Ones We Didn't Make It To
Unfortunately we didn't have time on this trip to make it to all of the Maya sites while in Belize. If we had, we would have also visited:
- Barton Creek Cave
For a full list of Belize's Maya archaeological sites, click here.