As seasoned travellers know, a journey in itself is often as interesting as the destination. A trip to Altun Ha is just such a journey.
As you rumble along the Old Northern Highway, which is more pothole than pavement, you’ll see a few small hamlets with their inhabitants eager to smile and wave. Traffic is light, so you can easily take in the surrounding scenery, and stop to use your binoculars to focus in on that tiny feathered marvel perched on a barbed-wire fence. You may spot a deer springing into the bush or even a gibnut or other furry creature scavenging for food.
Flourishing during the Classic Period of Maya civilization, Altun Ha is located 30 miles north of Belize City and six miles from the Caribbean Sea.
The true ancient name is unknown and “Altun Ha” is a Mayan translation of the nearby village named “Rockstone Pond.”
Even though Altun Ha is small as compared to other ruins in the region, the extent to which the site has been cleared and restored makes it easy to imagine its past glory and wealth as a major ceremonial center. Plaza A is a large grassy area, surrounded on all sides by pyramids and is adjoined by Plaza B which contains the largest structure on the site, the Temple of the Masonry Altars, which rises 54 ft. above the plaza.
A trek to the top of this pyramid is rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the site and over the treetops of the jungle. This temple went through eight phases of construction and the round altar at the top is unique to this site. It was the focus of an unusual sacrificial ceremony in which copal (incense) and beautiful jade carvings were offered into a blazing fire.
The archaeological site covers about one square mile of area, with at least 500 visible structures and likely had 3000 inhabitants, with a peak population of 8000-10,000 included in the surrounding areas. Evidence dates the earliest settlement here to 200 BC, with varied construction phases ending about 900 AD. Occupation continued after this for approximately 100 years with re-occupation occurring the 13th and 14th centuries.
The most spectacular find here was a six-inch high (15cm), ten pound, jadeite carving of the head of Kinich Ahau, the Sun God, which was found in the tomb of an elderly male priest. Because three of the seven priestly tombs in the Temple of the Masonry Altars were plundered, having their contents destroyed and the crypts filled with soil, researchers believe that the final demise of Altun Ha was perhaps brought about by violent peasant revolt.
There is a trail running due south from Plaza B which leads you to the main reservoir and onward through Zone E, a residential area, and several small mounds are visible along here. Many burials were recovered in this area, providing vast information about the inhabitants. At the edge of the reservoir is the site of the first temple built at Altun Ha, dating to the Pre-classic Period (100 AD).
Many tour operators in Belize City run daily trips to Altun Ha, and it is a standard 1/2 day outing for cruise ship visitors and other tourists departing on afternoon flights. It is easy to find on your own if you’ve rented a vehicle and there’s news of a small restaurant having opened nearby called Maya Wells. The highlight of our early morning visit was the profusion of birds-namely, more than a dozen Montezuma Oropendolas flying back and forth over the plaza, and a huge flock of Blue Buntings hiding in a fruit tree.