Exploring Maya Sites in Belize

Belize will come to life with celebration at the end of the Maya calendar By: Lisa McElroy
The Lamanai ruins in Belize // © 2012 Thinkstock
The Lamanai ruins in Belize // © 2012 Thinkstock

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Getting there:
Belize is an easy two-hour flight from Houston, Texas, or a four-hour flight from Newark, N.J. Visitors fly to Belize City, then take small regional airlines such as Maya Air to connect to Ambergris Caye or Placencia.

Where to stay:
In Ambergris Caye, Las Terrazas is a low-key but lovely resort right on the beach. In Placencia, book your clients into the luxurious Turtle Inn, part of a group of Belize properties developed by Francis Ford Coppola. In Cayo, the Lodge at Chaa Creek is an excellent option. www.chaacreek.com; www.coppolaresorts.com/turtleinn; www.lasterrazasresort.com

Where to eat:
In San Pedro (Ambergris Caye), Hidden Treasures features excellent seafood in an open-air atmosphere. Placencia’s Secret Garden is a casual, outdoor restaurant with world-class cuisine — recommend the ceviche. And, in the Cayo District, the San Ignacio open-air market offers amazing authentic street food. www.hiddentreasurebelize.com; www.secretgardenplacencia.com

According to the Maya Calendar, the world is going to end on Dec. 21, or maybe it’s not — it depends on who is telling the story. The end of the Maya calendar could mean the end of an era or that the world is just going to undergo an enormous change or, perhaps, nothing at all. At the very least, the end of December is going to be a time of great celebration for the Maya people — and there’s no better place to welcome in a new era than in the Central American country of Belize. So as your clients get ready to celebrate a new age, they can brush up on their Maya history with a visit to one of the many Maya ruins in the country.

In the North
If clients are fans of scuba diving, send them to Ambergris Caye. After they dive, they will have an enforced 24- to 48-hour wait before they can fly home, and that’s the perfect time for them to check out Lamanai, a Maya trade center dating back to 500 B.C. Here, three large pyramids and a ball court are still intact, with more structures underground waiting to be excavated. Lamanai is a full-day trip, and the best way to get there is a boat tour down the New River.

In the West (Cayo District)
Xunantunich, near the town of San Ignacio (and also home to a terrific outdoor market), is a great option for clients traveling with children. To get there, visitors cross a small river on a hand-cranked ferry. There’s one main pyramid called El Castillo or the “castle with two temples.” A half-day trip at most, the site was originally a ceremonial post for the Maya around 600 to 900 A.D. If your clients still have more energy for exploring, besides El Castillo, Xunantunich has six plazas and 25 temples.

Across the Border
After Lamanai and Xunantunich, clients can cap off their trip with a visit to Tikal. While Tikal is actually in Guatemala, it lies just over the border from Belize and is a common day trip for Belize tourists. Tikal is fascinating because the excavation there is extensive. The temple architecture is still intact, and the rainforest, complete with toucans souring overhead, surrounds the ruins. Still, a trip to Tikal is a commitment, so visitors should plan for at least a 12-hour day of exploring.

Chaa Creek
If time is limited, visitors can still experience Maya ruins without leaving their hotel. At the Lodge at Chaa Creek, an eco-friendly jungle lodge in the Cayo District, experienced guides take guests on foot or on horseback around the property and point out Maya cisterns and altars at the hotel. Naturalists also show guests which plants were used in native Maya medicines. Bill Gates and Prince Harry have been recent guests, and more will no doubt congregate there in December.

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