The following post is written by Belize traveler, Gail Gross. Thanks for the contribution, Gail!
Travel to breathtakingly beautiful Belize must include excursions to the awe-inspiring stone temples and palaces of the ancient Maya civilization. The architecture of this highly advanced civilization remains stunning, adding another spectacular facet to the beauty and culture of Belize. The Maya flourished in Belize from 250 to 900 AD, the Golden Age, during which this ancient civilization attained incredible artistic and architectural heights. The Mayan Kings or holy lords, played an ancient game of out do your neighbor, with rivals building majestic palaces and temples competing in grandeur with the lush green canopy of the Belize rainforest. Not to be out done, each lord filled his castle with intricate ceramic murals, sculptures, pottery and jewelry. Ancient history comes alive with a visit to these magnificent Maya ruins.
Caracol - Mayan true name -Three Hill Water
Situated in the highlands south of San Ignacio and accessible via road, Caracol is known as the supreme Maya city. This metropolis is one of the largest in the Maya world, thought to be the home of 150,000 people. Water was supplied by man-made reservoirs. Rising a spectacular 140 feet the most impressive pyramid, is the Canaa, which is the tallest ancient structure in all of Belize. Extensive excavation beginning in 1985 uncovered a round intricately carved altar stone which tells the story of a battle and ultimate victory over the powerful Tikal.
Lamanai -Ancient Mayan name, Submerged Crocodile
Definitely check out this ruin by a taking a spectacular boat ride up the New River. Approximately 70 structures have been excavated, although 700 have been mapped. The most striking structure is the "Temple of the Jaguar" which has two jaguar masks bordering the stone stairway. This ancient ruin is unique in that successive generations of Mayan people built progressively upon the previous structures rather than destroy and rebuild. The Mask Temple, which sports a thirteen foot stone mask of an ancient holy lord and the High Temple, which offers a stunning view from its peak are truly impressive. Also an added incentive, travel along the New River will encompass a bird sanctuary.
Xunantunich- Mayan translation, Stone Woman
Travel to this Mayan ruin can be an adventure. Beginning in San Ignacio take the Benque Viejo road to the tiny village of San Jose Succotz. Next a hand-cranked ferry will transport vehicles across the Mopan River. Then it's one mile up hill to this incredible site. El Castillo is the largest pyramid on this site. It rises 130 feet and provides an amazing view of Belize and even Guatemala. Be sure to notice this pyramid's intricate stucco frieze.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Looking for even more of an adventure, consider visiting ATM, one of three caves accessible only by licensed guides who conduct single day or mullti-day stays. There is no vehicular access to this site so be prepared for a forty-five minute hike into the jungle. The cave can be found in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and offers a wet welcome as the entrance is flooded with water. This archaeological site reveals skeletons, ceramics and stoneware. "The Crystal Maiden" is the most well known of the human remains. Natural processes of the cave make the bones of this teenage girl sparkle. Several of these types of skeletons can be seen in the main chamber. The trek through the caves will take 4-6 hours, so plan accordingly.
Just across the boarder, Guatemala's Tikal consists of 222 square miles of ancient Mayan ruins amid the lush tropical jungle. Many consider it one of the most impressive cultural reserves in the world. Five temples peek out of the forest canopy. The tallest is the "Temple of the Two Headed Snake." The Grand Plaza is considered the most striking in all of Tikal. The plaza is surrounded by sculptured altars, stelae, ceremonial buildings, residential palaces and even a ball court. Tikal requires at least two full days to thoroughly explore; it is a jaw-dropping site.