The Western Caribbean, Then and Now: Ancient Altun Ha and Modern Belize City

The Western Caribbean is known for its coral reefs, but on land you can explore Altun Ha, an ancient Mayan city in modern-day Belize.
The Western Caribbean is known for its coral reefs, but on land you can explore Altun Ha, an ancient Mayan city in modern-day Belize.

Thirty miles north of Belize City, hidden in an ancient jungle, lies Altun Ha. Only in the limelight since 1963, this Western Caribbean secret showcases ruins of the iconic structures of the Maya, who are thought to have occupied the city from 900 BCE to 1000 CE. Lined with quiet stone structures that cast light on the story of its former inhabitants, Altun Ha today holds the mystique of an ancient culture that contrasts and complements the buzz of nearby Belize City.

Ancient Altun Ha: Wealth and Trade in the Western Caribbean

The Sun God's Tomb, also known as the Temple of the Masonry Altars, is one of the most famous tombs at Altun Ha. Constructed roughly around 600–650 CE, the tomb contained the skeleton of an adult male surrounded by cloth, field skins, pottery, and jade objects, among which archaeologists also found a carved jade head. (While researchers originally believed the head to be representative of Kinich Ahau, the sun god, more recent findings suggest that the head could also be a portrayal of a Mayan jester god.)

The tomb's offerings denote the man's high status, possibly that of a high priest, and serve today as evidence of Altun Ha's role as a trade center. In fact, artifacts with origins as remote as the Valley of Mexico have been discovered throughout Altun Ha. Among them, items such as jade necklaces, pearls, beads, and other valuables, are believed to have been worn by those of the highest statuses. Symbols of Mayan wealth have continued to be discovered.

Around the 11th century CE, Altun Ha was abandoned (with the exception of several temporary occupations). It's believed that the Maya abandoned Altun Ha as the result of violence or an ongoing revolt.

Modern-Day Belize City

Flash forward 1,000 years to modern-day Belize City. With 57,169 people, it might not be considered a large city by global standards, but it is the largest city in Belize. Like ancient Altun Ha, Belize City serves as a major trade hub, harboring the principal port for Belize and serving as its main center of finance and industry. Belize City was once known as the small Mayan city of Holzuz, which visitors can learn more about at the local Museum of Belize.

When you're in Belize, stop by the Belize City Swing Bridge. Considered the heart and soul of Belize City, the bridge traditionally swung out to allow fishermen to navigate the Belize River. The only manually operated bridge of its type in the world, the structure now serves as a charming opportunity to view waterside activity and take in bustling Belize.

Eastern Belize is home to both Altun Ha and Belize City — a perfect blend of ancient civilizations and modern culture that's sure to leave you wanting more. On your next Caribbean cruise, try a Belize City shore excursion, where you can take in the quiet ruins that time forgot, and the city you're sure to remember for a lifetime.