Seeing the Ruins
Most visitors to Belize are not serious "Maya buffs" who spend all their time touring ruins. Instead, they opt to visit Mayan sites as just one aspect of their beach or mainland vacation. If this is your first trip to Belize, we recommend you do the same. Following are the sites that are easily visited from the most popular areas.
Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Tour operators on these islands run trips to Lamanai (usually a full-day trip by boat and road) and to Altun Ha (normally a half-day trip, although it may be longer if it includes lunch and a spa visit at Maruba Spa). You can also visit Tikal on an overnight trip by air to Flores, Guatemala, with a change of planes in Belize City. It's also possible to arrange boat tours of small ruins on Ambergris Caye, including Chac Balam at Bacalar.
Belize City. Tour operators based in Belize City, most of which cater to cruise ships, offer day trips by road, boat, or air to Lamanai and by road to Altun Ha, and also by road to Xunantunich and other ruins, including Cahal Pech near San Ignacio. The Altun Ha tour often is combined with a brief tour of Belize City. The tours to San Ignacio may be combined with a stop at the Belize Zoo. You can also visit Tikal on a day or overnight trip by air from the international airport in Belize City to Flores.
Corozal Town. Tour operators in Corozal Town can arrange a full-day trip by road and boat to Lamanai. They also offer boat trips to Cerros or a visit to nearby Santa Rita by road. By advance arrangement, tour operators may be able to offer road tours of Cuello, La Milpa, Noh Mul, or other less visited sites.
San Ignacio, Belmopan, and Mountain Pine Ridge. Tour operators in the San Ignacio, Belmopan, and Mountain Pine Ridge areas focus on the many Mayan sites in Cayo, including Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and El Pilar. Tours to Caracol typically require a full day, while the other sites can each be done in a half day or less. There are also guided tours of notable caves, including Actun Tunichil Muknal (full day) and Che Hem Ha (half day). Day and overnight tours by road to Tikal are also offered.
Hopkins and Placencia. Tour operators in Hopkins and Placencia offer half-day tours to the Mayflower ruins (sometimes combined, on a full-day trip, with a visit to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary). They also offer full-day trips by road to the ruins near Punta Gorda, mainly Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit. You can also fly from Dangriga or Placencia, via Belize City, to Flores to see Tikal.
Punta Gorda. Tour operators in Punta Gorda and nearby focus on trips by road to the ruins of Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, and, less commonly, Pusilha. These tours usually include visits to modern Maya villages near Punta Gorda. You can also fly from Punta Gorda, with a change of planes in Belize City, to Flores to see Tikal.
Great Itinerary: Mayan Sites Blitz
If you want to see the top Mayan sites in one trip, base yourself in Cayo for a few days. Information on tour operators and guides, and on admissions to specific sites, are in destination chapters.
If, after a few days in western Belize and Guatemala you still haven't had your fill of things Mayan, you can add extensions to northern Belize and to Punta Gorda in southern Belize.
Day 1: San Ignacio
San Ignacio is an easy jumping-off spot to see several small but fascinating nearby ruins. If you get an early start, you can take in Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and El Pilar. Both Cahal Pech and Xunantunich can be reached by bus (albeit with a short hike after the bus ride in both cases), but a taxi or rental car is needed to get to El Pilar. Guided tours of all these sites can be arranged in San Ignacio or at lodges and hotels in the area.
Day 2: Caracol
Caracol, the most important Mayan site in Belize, deserves a full day. You can drive yourself—or go on a tour. There is no bus transportation in the Mountain Pine Ridge. Even if you arrive independently, you can hire a guide to show you around once you're at the site, or you can tour it on your own. There's an informative museum and visitor center. Due to a series of bandit incidents, most recently in early 2009, trips to Caracol are being done in convoys, protected by Belize Defence Forces soldiers. Check locally for updates.
Days 3 and 4: Tikal
Tikal is by far the most impressive Mayan site in the region and shouldn't be missed. Many operators offer day tours of Tikal from the San Ignacio area.
Altun Ha, the ruin closest to Belize City, gets crowds of cruise ship day-trippers; so if you go, try to avoid days when there are several cruise ships in port.
Be aware of your surroundings, and before heading anywhere remote by yourself, check with the locals to find out if there have been any recent safety issues.
On your visit to Tikal, stay at one of the three lodges at the park if possible—you'll be able to visit the ruins early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when howler monkeys and other animals are active and most day visitors have left.
Pack plenty of bug juice with DEET. Mosquitoes are especially bad around Cerros and at the ruins near Punta Gorda.
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