Saturday, November 30, 2013

Altun Ha Mayan Ruins - Belize

If you've been following my series of posts about Belize, you've no doubt seen that it's a good place to go if you're looking to lounge on the beach, or if you want to go jungle trekking.  There is, however, one other must-see experience if you come to Belize, and that is, visiting the Mayan ruins.  The ruins in the Yucatan of Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala get more attention, but Belize also has several excellent archeological sites containing Mayan ruins.  We had intended to visit three sets of Mayan ruins in Belize - Altun Ha in the north, Nim Li Punit in the south, and Xunantunich in the west - but flooding prevented making it to Xunantunich, and we ran out of time on the day we intended to go to Nim Li Punit, so we ended up visiting Altun Ha and Cahal Pech (a short distance away from Xunantunich).  Enjoy a virtual tour of Altun Ha after the break, with Cahal Pech featured in a future post.  NOTE:  there are actually many, many Mayan sites of varying quality and accessibility in the country.  12 are maintained by the National Institute of Culture and History, and more information can be found here:

Altun Ha

Open:  8-5 year-round
Fees:  BZD 10/USD 5 per person.  If desired, you can hire a tour guide for approximately USD 20.
Location:  from the Philip Goldson - Belize City International Airport, take a left at the Northern Highway and travel approximately 10 miles/16 km.  Turn right at the Old Northern Highway and proceed approximately 12 miles/18 km.  Turn left at the sign for Altun Ha, and continue approximately 2 miles down the paved road to the parking lot for the site. Travel time is approximately 45 minutes from the airport.
Website:  A good map of the site, along with a description of the major features, can be found here.
Time Needed:  30 minutes minimum; 1-2 hours for the best experience.
Special notes:  the Old Northern Highway is quite narrow (barely wide enough for 2 cars in spots) and was in poor condition when we traveled it in late October.  Use caution and watch for large potholes and tour buses...Altun Ha has become a popular spot for cruise line tours during cruise season (generally December through June).  You might want to check which days the cruise ships will be calling on Belize City during your vacation and plan around them...Only a small snack bar is available at the Altun Ha site, so plan on eating before or after coming...You are permitted to climb the steps to the top of the structures.  It is easier than it looks in the tropical heat, though, so carry water and wear suitable shoes.  The steps can get slick during and immediately after rains.

Altun Ha roughly translates to "Rockstone Water", named after the man-made water reservoir located on the site (do not swim in the reservoir - it is rumored to be home to a 9-foot long crocodile).  It was believed to have been inhabited from approximately 900 B.C. to 1000 A.D., and at its zenith, may have been home to more than 10,000 people.  A sign marking the spot greets you after you walk through the entrance gate, along with a historical marker.

Altun Ha once contained 13 structures and 2 main plazas, but today, only a few of these remain.  One of the surviving structures is the Sun God Temple.  For bird watchers, there are reportedly more than 200 species of birds found in and around the site.  As you walk past the Rockstone Pond, you are almost immediately greeted by the remnants of the first structure, what appears to be a burial mound of some kind.

You then walk into the first main plaza, also known as "Plaza A", where several large ruin structures become visible.  In the first photo, the "A-3" offering temple is to the left, and the "Temple of the Green Tomb" is to the right.

 The "Temple of the Green Tomb".  It was built in the 5th-6th centuries, and hidden deep in the center of the building was a central tomb containing more than 300 jade artifacts.
A temple in the second "Plaza B" while standing in the middle of Plaza A.  I believe this is the "B-3" structure.
This is the "A-3" offering temple.
A couple of panoramic views of the site from the top of the Temple of the Green Tomb.  In the first photo, you can see the entire higher "Plaza B" in the foreground.  The large structure to the left is the Sun God Temple.  The structure to the right is the A-3 temple.

Standing on top of the A-3 temple with a good view of Plaza A.  It's a long way down.  The A-3 temple structure is also believed to date to the 6th century.
A couple of photos from in front of the Sun God Temple, also known as the "Temple of Masonry Altars".  The structure is featured on the label of Belikin beer, the unofficial national beer of Belize.  The temple was also where the most magnificent discovery of the site was found - a 6-inch diameter jade head depicting the Mayan sun god, weighing in at almost 10 pounds, reportedly the largest Mayan jade carving ever discovered.  The head is currently located at the Belize national museum in Belmopan.

A couple of photos from atop the Sun God Temple, the first a panoramic view of the Altun Ha site, and the second a view of the surrounding jungle.

And finally, a few views from the top of the "A-6" structure, to the right of the Temple of the Green Tomb on the map.  The first picture shows Plaza A, followed by a good view of Plaza B and the Sun God Temple; the third, a view of the top of the Temple of the Green Tomb; and finally, a view of the
A-3 temple with Plaza B in the background.

There are actually several other areas of ruins within the park site; you may see these referred to as "Sections C through H" in various literature on Altun Ha.  However, these sections did not appear to be open to the public during our visit.  It is possible that these other sections are accessible during the high season.

Altun Ha is worth a visit if you come to Belize, and probably the easiest of the Mayan ruins to reach given its proximity to Belize City.  We decided to act as our own tour guides to Altun Ha.  Since everyone in Belize speaks English, this is easy enough and a good way to save some money for other things, but if you'd rather not do that, guided tours are available from most hotels in Belize City and Orange Walk.  Or, you can visit Belize on a cruise ship, and take a ship-provided tour.  Prices generally range from $60-80 a person if you want to go that route.

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