There are plenty of much larger ancient Maya sites in Belize, but there’s no more iconic display of that advanced civilization’s prowess than Altun Ha. Despite being located just 31 miles (49 km) outside of Belize City, Altun Ha was only rediscovered in the 1950s.
During its heyday over 1,000 years ago, Altun Ha was home to more than 10,000 people and covered approximately 25 square miles (65 square km). Only a fraction of the city has been excavated, but visitors today can explore the ceremonial center which includes two big squares (plazas) containing 13 impressive temples and buildings.
The most iconic structure on the site is the so-called Temple of the Masonry Altars. A drawing of this temple is the official logo of Belikin Beers, the biggest domestic brewery in Belize. The name of the temple is derived from certain carvings and it sits adjacent to the equally impressive Temple of the Sun God. This temple has several carved “masks” on its exterior, including that of the Sun God and a so-called “Jester” God pictured wearing a pointy hat.
No one is quite sure what the original name of Altun Ha was, but its modern name is the Mayan language translation of Rockstone Pond, the name of a nearby village. A manmade structure, the “pond” is actually a large water reservoir built by the ancient Maya and lined with yellow clay in order to retain water all year-round.
Unusually, no carved stelae (upright columns of stone) have ever been found at Altun Ha, but a large number of richly decorated tombs indicate that Altun Ha was probably a very wealthy city. Huge caches of carved jade have been discovered in Altun Ha, including one tomb that contained over 300 pieces. Since jade is only found much farther south, archeologists believe that Altun Ha specialized in intricate jade carving work which was used to trade for other valuables.
Altun Ha’s layout is east to west and its proximity to the coast made it perfectly positioned to benefit from the vast trade network of the ancient Maya. It is believed that Altun Ha was first settled around 900 BC and was continuously inhabited until the end of the Classic Period in around 900 AD.
If you’d like to enjoy an all-inclusive Belize vacation package that includes visiting ancient Maya sites like Altun Ha and Tikal (in Guatemala), be sure to book your Belize vacation with Caves Branch Jungle Lodge.