Altun Ha

The Altun Ha Mayan ruins in northern Belize are found just 30 miles to the north of Belize City, and are certainly worth a visit if you are staying at one of the Belize City hotels. The site of the ruins at Altun Ha is small compared to some of the other Belize Maya sites, but the fact that it is so easy to get to from Belize City makes it a popular visit. It's surviving pyramid-temples are quite impressive, though they might not be the tallest, and climbing them affords some interesting views of the surrounding jungle. A good amount of the Altun Ha ruins have yet to be uncovered, and what you'll find currently exposed here are only some main structures. While you can get a rental car and head here yourself, it's best to get a guide who can take you. Not only can you sit back and enjoy the ride without worrying about directions and such, but you'll also have someone to tell you all about the things you are looking at.

Archaeologists generally believe that the ancient Maya settled in the Altun Ha area as far back as 200 BC. Most of the city's construction probably took place between 200 and 900 AD. This period corresponds with what is referred to as the Maya Classic Era. As many as 10,000 people may have lived at or near the Altun Ha Maya site during its heyday, and due to the significant amounts of excavated obsidian and jade here, it must have been a pretty important economic center. Today, two large pyramid-temples and a few smaller mounds give insight into how life must have once been like, and strolling the large, central plazas while you reflect allows the imagination to go wild. The Temple of the Masonry Altars is one of the 2 main pyramids found at the Altun Ha Mayan ruins, and it is the larger of the two topping out at around 54 feet. The bulk of the city's religious rituals and ceremonies probably took place at the Temple of the Masonry Altars, and you'll find an interesting altar at the top of the single stairway. Upon excavations, archaeologists at the Altun Ha ruins discovered remains of high priests inside this pyramid, as well as a large jade sculpture of the Mayan sun god's head.

The Mayan sun god was known as Kinich Ahau, and the jade-head sculpture of him that was found inside the Altun Ha Temple of the Masonry Altars is a national treasure. It's also the largest Mayan-era jade carving ever discovered. It's safe to say that it's probably worth its weight in gold, or jade that is. A trail from one of the two main plazas at the Altun Ha Mayan ruins leads to some small mounds which could be burial sites, but other than that, there is little more to see. As mentioned, getting to Altun Ha is pretty easy from Belize City. All the reputable tour operators in town can help you arrange a guided Altun Ha tour, or you can drive on your own. The directions for those driving are fairly easy, as once you hit the Northern Highway out of Belize City, you'll just have to follow the signs from there. You'll see the first turnoff sign some 20 miles into your drive.

For well under $100, an Altun Ha tour that includes your guide, transportation, entrance fees, and lunch at a restaurant. That is not a bad deal at all. Daily trips to the Altun Ha Mayan ruins leave from Belize City, and many people arriving on a Belize cruise visit it as a shore excursion. Should you be vacationing on beautiful Ambergris Caye and want to include some Mayan ruins in your trip, you can hop on a boat to the mainland, where the Altun Ha Mayan site is only some 6 miles inland. A private Altun Ha tour is available, and though it will cost more, it's surely worth considering. You can expect most tours of the Altun Ha Mayan site to last some 4-5 hours, including transportation and such. A few other Mayan ruins in Belize that you might consider visiting are Lamanai, Cahal Pech, and Caracol.

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