More than two thousand years ago, the Maya began to build magnificent cities and ceremonial centers. Carefully observing the tropical sky, they developed a series of complex calendars related to the moments of the sun, moon, and planets. They meshed together in a continuous system of cycles used for agricultural, religious and political purposes. They invented the concept of zero and made astonishing advancements in math and science.
The Maya were also a war line people who practiced bloodletting and human sacrifice. War and sacrifice was a religious and cultural imperative sustaining their gods and ensuring the continuation of the agricultural cycle. Early explorers traveled through Belize unaware of a single Maya site. Hidden by dense, uninhabited forest, monumental sculpture and architecture stood in mute testimony to an indigenous Maya occupation, once numbering an estimated one million.
Within these primeval jungles existed a great civilization reaching its glory when Paris was just as small village. This was a cultural florescence that lasted longer than the Roman Empire. By the end of the Classic Period, the grat cultural florencense beagan to collapse and many sites were abandoned. It wasn’t until the excavations of Altun Ha, Lamanai and Xunantunich in the 1960s that the true extent of Belize’s cultural heritage were unveiled. And only as recently as 1986, within the discovery od glyphs at Caracol indicating a military victory over the mighty city of Tikal, was it realized that some of the Belizean centers were supreme in the Mayan world.
Today, Belize is recognized as the center of the ancient Maya world, and a work in progress. Unexplored sites throughout the region lie hidden, waiting to be discovered. Implementation of a recent refurbishment program by the Belizean government includes building additional facilities and raising the standards at sites through more excavation and preservation. Archeologically speaking, to a great extent this ancient civilization still remains a mystery. However, much has been learned, added by new discoveries and the recent and ongoing decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic texts.
What sites to visit depends on your time and interest. Xunantunich is visually impressive, easy to access and has a crenelated temple top wrapped by a magnificent hieroglyphic frieze. Lamanai boasts a nearly vertical pyramid dating to the time of Christ, and it is highly recommended for its jungle ambiance and arrival via boat across scenic New River Lagoon. Altun Ha, closest to Belize City, is a well-manicured historical park.