One mile from the banks of the Mopan River, and accessible only by a hand-cranked ferry, lies Xunantunich, the “Maiden of the Rock.” A classic period city and ceremonial center, Xunantunich today is one of Belize’s national treasures, with its magnificent temple El Castillo rising 130 feet out of the surrounding jungle. On a clear day, the 360 degree views from El Castillo’s summit provide a panorma of the Mopan River valley and nearby Guatemala.
The 26-mile boat ride up the New River to the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai, the “Submerged Crocodile,” is truly a highlight of the trip. The clear waters of this important Mayan trade route twist and turn through dense jungle teeming with wildlife.
Lamanai itself, on the banks of the river, contains some of the oldest known ruins in Belize, dating back to 700 BC. An important Mayan trading center well into the Post-Classic period, only about 10% of Lamanai’s, approximately 700 buildings have been excavated. Visitors can walk the jungle paths connecting the High Temple (at 108 feet, the largest Pre-Classic structure in Belize), the Jaguar Temple, the Mask Temple, and the site’s small, intriguing ball court.
Rising from the Belize coastal plain, Altun-Ha claims some 500 visible structures and mounds, including the soaring Temple of the Green Tomb, which, when excavated, revealed over 300 magnificent jade objects, including a carved head of the Mayan sun god. Altun-Ha reached its peak during the Classic Period 400-900 AD. Its largest temple-pyramid, the “Temple of the Masonry Altars,” rises 54 feet high.