Above: View of Xunantunich from the summit near El Castillo

Archaeology: Ancient Maya Cities

Belcampo Belize stands near some intriguing and little-known Maya sites, including Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun. The latter earned its name, which means “Place of the Fallen Stones,” after amateur archaeologist and treasure hunter Thomas Gann dynamited the tops of several buildings in the early 20th century (the original Mayan name is lost to time). Despite his “excavations,” the site remains compelling, with reconstructed sections standing in contrast to the rubble. In the walls that escaped Gann’s depredations, the stonework shows impressive precision, with each block perfectly fit into place. Some walls even display traces of the original ocher paint that decorated the pyramids’ exteriors.

To see several of the most well-known and spectacular Maya cities, it’s better to base yourself at a luxury property near San Ignacio. The closest ruin is Xunantunich, but despite its proximity to town, we had the place virtually to ourselves. Xunantunich dates from the Classic Period and was first excavated in the 1890s, but recent archaeological work has unearthed several large buildings and a number of striking stucco friezes. The most remarkable structure is a 130-foot stepped pyramid known as El Castillo. A rough path (unsuitable for those with vertigo) leads to the summit, from where there is a stupendous, panoramic view that encompasses the whole site as well as forested hills extending far into Belize and Guatemala. We sat for half an hour with our backs against a stone, buffeted by a warm tropical breeze, reveling in the space and solitude.

The border with Guatemala is just 15 minutes from Ka’ana and The Lodge at Chaa Creek, making its Maya sites easily accessible from Belize. More than once we’ve toured the most popular ruined city, the majestic Tikal, but we’d never made time for enigmatic Yaxha, about an hour from the border. This expanse of nine plazas and some 500 buildings proved to be sensationally atmospheric, because again, we walked alone through the semi-excavated site. Numerous pyramids, palaces, observatories and ball courts have been unearthed, but many more buildings surrounding them remain covered in palms and strangler figs. The top of Structure 216 has sweeping views of the jungle and Lake Yaxha. We stood alone there at sunset, accompanied only by our guide, as the hoots of howler monkeys echoed across the treetops.

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