Evidence of ancient people settling in Belize can be dated back as far as 2500 BC, and scholars now know that this area became one of the most populated and important strongholds of the Maya civilization. An advanced and complex empire thrived for nearly 2000 years and made great strides in agriculture, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. During the height of the ancient Maya civilization, what we call the Classic Period during the years AD 250 and AD 1000, it is estimated that some two million Maya inhabited this land. Huge city-states were constructed, and intricate trade routes established before the sudden and unexplained decline of the Maya empire. It is theorized that war, plague, and famine because of severe drought led to the abandonment of many significant cities and the decentralization of Mayan society well before the Spanish, and then subsequently the British, colonizers arrived. Today, we can marvel at the archaeological evidence of this ancient civilization at any of the country’s many sacred sites and temples, the most popular ones being Xunantunich, Caracol, Altun Ha, Cahal Pech, and Lamanai. Modern-day descendants of the ancient Maya still live and work this land, keeping the culture alive. Belize is home to three distinct groups of Maya people; the Yucatec Maya in the northern districts, and the Ketchi and Mopan Maya in the central and southern region. The Maya make up around 11% of Belize’s current population and many live in traditional villages that practice time-honored building, cooking, and agricultural rituals. If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating history of the Maya, the rise and decline of their ancient empire, and the current culture of today’s living Maya communities, then I recommend these tours in Southern Belize.
Lesser-Known Archeological Sites
While the larger temples and well-excavated sites in the center and northern parts of the country receive more attention and tourist traffic, the archaeological sites in the Toledo District are no less fascinating and historically important and you may find that you have them almost completely to yourself to explore. NICH (the National Institute of Culture and History) manages the sites of Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun and maintains footpaths and small museums displaying pottery, carvings, and other artifacts. To step even further off the typical tourist’s path and wander your way around ancient mysteries, seek out a visit to Pusilhá, Uxbenka or Xnaheb.
Enter the Underworld- Xibabla
Caves are considered sacred places to the Maya and were used in ancient times as a means of communicating with, and making offerings to, the gods. Belize has hundreds of caves and most of them show evidence of use by the ancient Maya. Barton Creek and Actun Tunichil Muknal receive the most attention from tourists, but Toledo has a load of beautiful caves that are rarely visited today. Blue Creek Cave, named “Hokeb Ha” in the local Mayan dialect, is a spectacular natural wonder and pristine watershed that the community still utilizes to this day. If you tour this cave, you will likely hike past children bathing and women washing laundry along the creek bank.
Chocolate Making and Home Tours
Several families in traditional Maya villages in the south have opened their homes to tours in what they’ve dubbed ‘the Living Maya Experience.” Visitors are invited into traditional homes constructed of locally sourced, renewable material to learn about the customs, routines, rituals, and practices the Maya perpetuate in their lives today. Assist in the preparation of a typical local dish implementing traditional cooking methods. Learn about how the Maya still plant and harvest according to moon cycles just as their ancestors did for centuries. Southern Belize is the cacao capital and some of the world’s finest chocolate originates from this region. Cacao was discovered and consumed by the ancient Maya and the prized pods still play an important role in the diet of the people today. Learn how cacao is grown and harvested and how it is made into chocolate the traditional way. Roll up your sleeves and get hands-on experience processing cacao how the Maya did a thousand years ago. My all-time favorite chocolate tour is Ixcacao– phenomenal!