10 cultural highlights of Belize for tradition vultures and historical past lovers to discover
Snail Temple (Dreamstime)
Why? Climb the top of Belize
The view from the top of the Mayan pyramid called Caana (or “Heavenly Palace”) is sensational, not least because it is still the tallest man-made structure in Belize at 43 meters, 12 centuries after its completion.
Caracol, rediscovered by loggers in 1938, was at its peak in the 7th. Today it is still a working archaeological site that is constantly being excavated. Exploring the temples, ball courts, and reservoirs of the central district is a thrilling experience.
Don’t miss the replica of Altar 21, actually a Ballcourt marker that features a helpful timeline of accounts of Caracol’s history and wars with rival neighbor Tikal across the border in what is now Guatemala.
2: Museum of Belize
Belize Museum (Belize Tourism Association)
Why? Browse through the colorful history of the country
In addition to its impressive Mayan heritage, Belize also offers around 400 years of colonial history to discover. From the early 17th century, the coast around the Belize River was first used as a base for British pirates who hunted Spanish treasure ships, then by baymen (British lumberjacks who harvest rainforest wood).
Go to Belize Museum, housed in the former prison from 1857, for an overview of ancient and less ancient heritage, with sections on everything from natural history and postage stamps to hurricanes.
3: Actun Tunichil Muknal
Cave entrance at Actun Tunichil Muknal (Dreamstime)
Why? Immerse yourself in the terrifying Mayan underworld
The Maya are known as great builders, but they also took advantage of the limestone cenotes and caves of Central America. The expedition to the “cave of the stone grave” is probably the most exciting earthly experience in Belize and takes the idea of diving into the past to a new level.
The full-day trip begins with a short hike through lush jungle (watch out for snakes) to the mouth of the cave, whose stalagmites are reminiscent of the fangs of a big cat. In fact, for the Maya, this was the jaguar’s mouth, the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld.
Swim through the entrance cave, climb rock shelves littered with ancient ollas (clay pots) and lustful skulls, and climb the rickety ladder to reach the resting place of the “Crystal Maiden,” a skeleton from a human sacrifice 11 centuries ago. now glistens from calcite deposits.
4: Altun Ha
Altun Ha Temple (Dreamtime)
Why? You drank the beer, now climb the temple
It is the Mayan site that launched a thousand bottles of beer. Altun Ha’s 7th-century temple of wall altars is depicted on the label of Belikin beer, which has a monopoly virtually across the country.
More importantly, the distinctive tiered pyramid temple is a worthy climb and offers spectacular panoramic views of the jungle from above.
Aside from the quaint central plazas, don’t miss the museum full of artifacts and details about the Mayan city, which flourished for at least a millennium until the end of the classical Mayan era around AD 900.
5: Gulisi Garifuna Museum
Garifuna drums (Dreamstime)
Why? Discover the fascinating culture of the Garifuna people
The Maya may have been the dominant ancient sites, but the development of culture in Belize did not end there. In the south of the country live (and sing, dance and party) the Garifuna, descendants of shipwrecked slaves and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, who arrived in Belize in the early 19th century.
To learn more about the history of Garifuna, music, drumming, dance, and their Creole dialect, head to the Punta Gorda and Dangriga area. the Gulisi Garifuna Museum, just outside of Dangriga, provides a great introduction to all aspects of their culture, from clothing to the all-important drums, and will most likely inspire you further exploration.
6: I promise
Lubaantum (Belize Tourism Association)
Why? Explore ancient sites among the living Maya
The remains of this sprawling site are extensive, but rather crumbling, not surprising considering the buildings dating from around A.D. 730 to 860.
Regardless, it’s an atmospheric, little-visited place best known as the place where teenage girl Anna Mitchell-Hedges allegedly unearthed a clear crystal skull in the 1920s.
Fascinatingly, it is also in the heart of a region with many Mayan villages where the descendants of these ancient ball-playing, human-sacrificing peoples live today. Experience modern Mayan life in Kekchi with a stay at a guest house or a tour organized by the. is organized Toledo Ecotourism Association.
Nearby, Nim Li Punit is also worth a visit for its carved stelae.
Xunantunich Ruins (Dreamtime)
Why? Admire ornate stone friezes
Small but perfectly shaped, Xunantunich is the ancient Maya art gallery, a complex of plazas and temples adorned with swirling figures and hieroglyphics from the classical Maya period.
Cross the Mopan River on a hand-drawn ferry, hike through the verdant forest, and climb the 40-meter-high pyramid known as El Castillo for access to ornate friezes and expansive vistas.
Visit the visitor center to discover the meaning of the enigmatic reliefs and see some of the artifacts unearthed on the site.
8: St. John’s Cathedral
St. John’s Cathedral (Belize Tourism Association)
Why? Think about the tombstones of the early Bayman settlers
The oldest Anglican church in Central America is in Belize City, a memorial to the slaves they built between 1812 and 1820 from bricks that were originally used as ship ballast.
The first church in former British Honduras stands next to the former Yarborough Cemetery, which is littered with the graves of settlers from the late 18th century. Other important baymen rest in the cathedral itself.
Lamanai Temple (Dream Time)
Why? Follow the evolution and revolution of the Mayan civilization
One of the largest Maya sites in the north of Belize impresses not only with its mighty temples or the exciting boat trip there along the New River through the steamy, trilling rainforest. It is the stratification of time periods that is really fascinating, from the first settlement at least 1500 BC. BC (during the pre-classical period), of booming importance around 100 BC century AD, when churches were built between and on top of Mayan monuments.
Today you wander between ornate buildings such as the Mask Temple, which wears a pair of masks over 3 m high, and the Jaguar Temple with its stylized animal faces. It is also possible and highly recommended to climb the High Temple for great views of the jungle.
10: The Milpa
Why? Play Indiana Jones between jungle-clad pyramids
The third largest Mayan city of Belize peaked towards the end of the classic Mayan period, around 800,000 acres of central square.
Today the area has a lot of green. You are likely to be greeted by the loud calls of the howler monkeys rather than the hustle and bustle of the crowds. The location is in the middle of the Río Bravo Conservation & Management Area, where a jaguar sighting could come as a welcome bonus.
This article was published by the Belize Tourist Board (www.travelbelize.org) but independent and impartial, like all Wanderlust editorial offices.
Main picture: Mayan ruins of Xunantunich in Belize (Dreamstime)