I love to experience old history and other cultures so I knew right away that I needed to explore at least one Mayan ruin site on my trip to Belize with my boyfriend in May 2015. See how we compromised here. We only had four nights in San Ignacio so our time was very limited. We also wanted to include other activities which meant narrowing down our list of Mayan ruins to explore.
*Play along and try to guess which ones we saw. Hint: we saw 3 sites*
Mayan Ruin Sites Closest to San Ignacio:
1) Cahal Pech- also known as the “place of ticks”. This is the closest Mayan ruin to San Ignacio because it is actually in the middle of town! It is pretty easy to get to but there is a steep hill to climb. If you aren’t in good shape it would be best to take a cab up the hill. You can combine this trip with a visit to town and other local activities which make this site a great option.
2) Xunantunich- also known as the “stone woman”. This Mayan ruin site is located about half an hour southwest of San Ignacio and very close to the Guatemalan border. It is a pretty big site that has many climbable ruins and great views. The El Castillo structure is the second tallest structure in Belize.
3) El Pillar- also known as the “watering basin”. This Mayan ruin site is about 40 minutes northwest of San Ignacio and is also close to the Guatemalan border. It is accessed by a very long dirt road and is in the center of a 5,000 acre protected area. It is easiest to reach with a tour group or by renting an off-road vehicle. This is the largest Mayan ruin site in the Belize River area.
Mayan Ruin Sites Further Out:
1) Altun Ha- also known as “Rockstone water”. This Mayan ruin site is around 2 hours northeast of San Ignacio. It is not very easy to reach without a guide but it is cheaper to take a bus or rent a car. It is one of the most famous Mayan centers because it was an important trading post.
2) Caracol- also known as the “snail”. This Mayan ruin site is about 2.5 hours southwest of San Ignacio and another site close to the Guatemalan border. This is the largest site in Belize and has the tallest structure in Belize. An off-road vehicle or tour guide is recommended due to the remote access of the site.
3) Tikal- also known as “at the waterhole”. This Mayan ruin site is located about 2 hours southeast of San Ignacio and is actually in Guatemala. The trip time will be extended by time spent at the border crossing but it is hard to say how long it could be. It is one of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. It is surrounded by tropical rainforests which give visitors a better chance of seeing native wildlife.
OK readers…who played along with the guessing game? Let’s see how you did.
Which Mayan Ruin Sites Did We Pick?
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We were able to visit Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, and even Tikal!
Our first stop was Cahal Pech. We took a taxi arranged from our lodging just outside of San Ignacio (they arranged it all which made things so much easier!) We were dropped off just after the site opened and were one of the only people there!
It was so quiet and peaceful. We spent an hour or two there and as we were leaving, several large school groups were arriving. It pays to get there early. We then walked down the steep hill into town to have lunch, tour the town and market, and visit an iguana conservation project (super fun and highly recommended!).
The following day we went to Xunatunich. Again, our lodging arranged for a taxi to pick us up and take us to the site. For an extra few dollars, the taxi driver stayed to wait for us. We had heard it can be hard to get a taxi back to town as they don’t frequently drive by Xunantunich.
This site was bigger than the first and we were able to climb up a pretty large structure. The views were amazing! There was a lot to explore here so I recommend a few hours and bring a snack/water with you. Part of the fun of this site is you have to travel with a little ferry across a small river. It is a hand cracked system so we gave the guy a nice tip.
Our final Mayan ruin visit was a full day to Tikal in Guatemala. Have I mentioned how much we loved the lodge we stayed at?! They arranged the whole thing for us at a better price than what we had found online. Anyways, the tour guide picked us up early in the morning and handled the border crossing very well.
It was a pretty quick process, though it could be because we were there pretty early. We then continued on our journey but made a quick stop at a local gift shop to check out some souvenirs. When we finally got to Tikal it was amazing! The site was massive! (see my photo at top of my post). It was really nice having a tour guide for this site.
He did let us do some wandering of our own which was great. We even saw some wildlife! I highly recommend a day tour to Tikal if you stay in San Ignacio. The views from the top of the tallest structure are absolutely breathtaking!
Tips for Visiting the Mayan Ruin Sites:
- Bring lots of water! Even in the early morning, it can be quite hot out.
- Visit early in the day. The earlier the better. This is the more pleasant part of the day and also the least crowded. There are fewer tourists and school groups if you go closer to the site opening time.
- Wear sturdy shoes! I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not wear sandals, flip flops, or heels. Some of the sites are far apart and are in rocky/hilly terrain. If you plan to climb up the Mayan ruins, sturdy shoes are a must. The stairs are often very steep and can be a little slippery.
- Bring a camera. Sounds obvious I know, but you don’t want to miss out on taking photos of these amazing sites. You may even catch a glimpse of some wildlife!
- Bring a snack or lunch if you plan to stay for a good part of the day. If you are taking a tour with a group, check to see if that is included with the price of the tour. It often does include either a snack or lunch.
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Have you been to some great Mayan ruin sites? Share your trip and tips in the comments!
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