fun to do kids maya ruins belize   Travel for Kids
  | cayo district

Maya Ruins

cahal pech
During the Maya Classic period, 250 - 900 AD, the Cayo area was heavily populated – archeologists estimate Caracol alone had over 100,000 people. By 1200 AD, the Mayan city-states and towns were deserted (there are different theories why – too many people, drought, warfare). The tropical jungle grew over everything, and the great stone pyramids and palaces were hidden. In the 20th century, the ruins were discovered, and now kids can climb up Maya temples, where once only royalty sat at the top.
    Cahal Pech –
      Cahal Pech (which means "place of the ticks" in Maya) is situated on the outskirts on San Ignacio. The ruins were once the home of a Maya royal family in the Classic period, and when we visited, we could watch archeologists at work, digging into a temple mound looking for hidden chambers, and sorting excavated pottery and shells. This Maya site is small, easily accessible, and you're likely to have the ruins to yourselves.
maya skeleton
    First stop into the visitor center and small museum to see an original Maya skeleton, laid out the way she was buried with jade and obsidian artifacts. A re-construction painting shows what Cahal Pech would have looked like, the temples and palaces colored white and red, thatched houses of the common people around the complex. And check out chocolate pots (Maya drank hot chocolate, but it wasn't sweet), vase with face of a Maya god (great ideas for clay class), and stone blades.
belize coral reef video
    Before you climb up the biggest structure in front of Plaza B, go around to the left. This was the residential palace area, where people lived and slept. There's a warren of rooms for kids to run around and explore, one room is totally dark.
    Wildlife – In the grassy plazas, look for lines of leaf cutter ants, carrying green leaves, some leaves are many times bigger than the ants themselves. Blue Morpho butterflies are fluttering around, and you may see howler monkeys in the trees around the ruins.
    Xunantunich –
      Xunantunich, located high on a hill, was a self-sufficient Maya center with the river as a constant water source and extensive farming around the town. It was inhabited into the late Classic period.
    Kids will want to climb up El Castillo, a pyramid over 130 ft high (and the second tallest in Belize). Notice the steps are quite high – this was intentional, so the Maya would ascend the pyramid with reverence. On the east side of El Castillo is a frieze a (replica of the original stucco frieze) with the Maya sun god in the center. From the top of El Castillo are stellar views of the surrounding countryside, you can see all the way to Guatemala.
      In the trees next to El Castillo, look for black howler monkeys. We saw a troop – mom, dad, and two juveniles – leaping from branch to branch, and hanging by their tails while eating leaves.
      Check out the small museum, which has three crumbly stelae, incised with images of Maya rulers, decked out in ceremonial clothing and adorned with elaborate headdresses.
      Tip: Part of the fun getting to Xunantunich is riding the ferry across the Mopan River. At certain times, when rains cause the river to rise, the ferry doesn't run.
    Caracol –
caracol video
    The largest Maya site in Belize is Caracol. A Classic Maya city, Caracol was a huge city-state with a population of over 80,000 people, thousands of structures, including pyramids, palaces, houses, roads, and extensive fields for farming. As with many Maya sites, after Caracol was abandoned, the jungle crept over everything; the ruins were discovered in 1937, and even today only a small part of the ruins have been excavated.
      Tip: Visiting Caracol. Only a few lodges are close to the site, and it's a long day trip to Caracoal from San Ignacio, 2+ hours each way on mostly bumpy dirt roads. As of the current writing, you'll need to book a tour, and travel on a set schedule to and from the ruins. Going to Caracol is a unique experience, it's so remote and in the middle of the jungle, but it's best with older kids, not little ones.
    Before heading out to the ruins, go into the small visitor center to see a scale model of the complex, reconstruction drawings, photos of the tomb burials, explanations of Maya glyphs on the stelae and altars, and several impressive Maya clay vases. Outside the visitor center is a shaded picnic area and restrooms.
      Caana – Walk through the jungle to Caana ("sky house"), the largest pyramid at Caracol and tallest building in Belize today. Climb up the steps to the first level. Go left down an open corridor, then turn into an open room with two kid-sized doorways at each end (kids can crawl through the doorways). These small door openings in the residential complex may have been used by dwarves.
      Go up the next set of stairs, and plop down on two benches on either side. Kids can rest here just the way the Maya did before they were invited to see royal personages. Walk across the grassy plaza, you'll see a large circular stone. Underneath that stone was buried a royal woman (archeologists dug up the burial, then covered it back over). To the right is a small tomb, with tiny bats flying in the room overhead. You can walk down into the dark room, bring your flashlight.
    Walk around to the right, where you'll see a frieze (replica) covered with glyphs. This frieze commemorates the victory of Caracol over the great city-state of Tikal in 562 AD.
    Next, hike up the third set of stairs to the top of the pyramid. There's 360 degrees of the jungle in every direction. In the time of the Maya it wouldn't have looked this way – much of the land around the complex would have been cleared and farmed.
      Archeological camp – Wander through the permanent camp, where archeologists live and work during the field season. Under an open enclosure are impressive stelae and altars from Caracol, covered with glyphs and figures of Maya rulers and their captives.
      Reservoir – Don't miss the reservoir, covered with green plants, turtles swimming around. This reservoir was dug by the Maya hundreds of years ago, and still provides water for the archeologists.
Ceiba tree
    Trees of the Maya – In the forest around the ruins are trees important to the Maya. Twin Ceiba trees are 400 years old, a single large tree is 800 years old. The Ceiba tree, "tree of life," was sacred to the Maya, its gigantic roots connecting to the lower world, the trunk and branches reaching to the upper world. The cohune palm nuts were used for cooking oil, the branches for thatching. The Maya burned the berries of the copal tree for incense.
      Rio On Pools – After visiting Caracol, tours usually stop at the Rio On Pools. Bring your swimsuit for a cooling dip in the river, it's a great place to play under the small waterfalls and in shallow pools. Changing rooms are available.
    Tip: From Cayo, it's a short distance to the spectacular Maya ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. Day tours are offered, but it's much better to stay at Tikal and spend at least two full days exploring the site.
kids books belize maya
The Ancient Maya  
The Ancient Maya
Jackie Maloy

Before you visit the Maya ruins in Belize, find out about the ancient Maya, their cities, temples and palaces in the rainforest, society, arts and religion, plus fun facts about the ancient Maya – flat foreheads and large noses were considered beautiful, wealthy Maya wore jaguar skins, jade was highly prized. (Picture book)



Action-packed retelling of a Mayan myth, in graphic novel format. Twin brothers "Hunter" and "Jaguar Deer" challenge the Lords of Xibalba (Death), outsmarting and beating them at their own game. (Graphic novel)


The Hero Twins myth kids books belize
kids ancient Maya: Amazing Inventions You Can Build Yourself activity book  

Super introduction to ancient Maya daily life and history, calendar and hieroglyphs, gods and sacrifices, plus 25 activities and crafts – make a clay drinking cup, royal jewelry, or burial mask, cook tortillas, count with Maya numbers, and more. (Activity book)


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