Altun Ha is the closest archaeological site to Belize City and the most accessible site in the country. Its main temple is famously depicted on the Belikin beer label. Altun Ha was a Maya trading center as well as a religious ceremonial site, which may have accommodated as many as 10,000 people.
Archaeologists have dated construction to about 1,500–2,000 years ago. It wasn’t until archaeologists came in 1964 that the old name “Rockstone Pond” was translated into the Maya words “Altun Ha.” The site spans an area of about 25 square miles, most of which is covered by vegetation.
Altun Ha was rebuilt several times during the Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic Periods. The desecration of the structures led scientists to believe that the site may have been abandoned because of violence.
A team led by Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum began work in 1965 on the central part of the ancient city, where upwards of 250 structures have been found in an area of about 1,000 square yards. So far, this is the most extensively excavated of all the Maya sites in Belize.
The concentration of structures includes palaces and temples surrounding two main plazas. The tallest building is the Sun God Temple, standing 59 feet above the plaza floor. At Altun Ha, the structure bases are oval and terraced. The small temples on top have small rooms built with the Maya trademark—the corbel arch.
Pendergast’s team uncovered many valuable finds, including unusual green obsidian blades, pearls, and more than 300 jade pieces—beads, earrings, and rings. Seven funeral chambers were discovered, including the Temple of the Green Tomb, rich with human remains and traditional funerary treasures.
Maya scholars believe the first man buried was someone of great importance. He was draped with jade beads, pearls, and shells. Next to his right hand lay the most exciting find: a solid jade head now referred to as Kinich Ahau (“The Sun God”), which is the largest jade carving found in any Maya country. The head weighs nine pounds and measures nearly six inches from base to crown. It is reportedly now housed in a museum in Canada.
Altun Ha is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Entrance costs US$10. A gift shop and restrooms are at the entrance. Note that Altun Ha is a popular destination for cruise-ship passengers, so if you don’t want to share your experience with 40 busloads of gawking cruisers, be sure to check with the park (tel. 501/609-3540) before arriving. In general, it’s easy to avoid the crowds if you get there when the park first opens. You’ll see more birds and wildlife that way as well.
A couple of local tour guides will be waiting at the entrance. They charge about US$10 per group per half hour and are well worth it. If you’re coming to Altun Ha as part of a package, consider insisting that your tour provider use a local guide, to ensure that local communities receive something other than a crumbling road. To that end, also consider purchasing something from the independent artisans with crafts for sale.
From Belize City , follow the Northern Highway north. Drive past the Burrell Boom turnoff (to the Baboon Sanctuary ) and continue to about Mile 19, where the road forks; the right fork is the Old Northern Highway and leads to Altun Ha and Maskall Village.
The entrance to Altun Ha is 10.5 miles from the intersection. The road is in horrible condition and is not getting any better with the increased traffic.
For more travel information on things to see and do at Altun Ha and in the surrounding area, please visit the Altun Ha section of our Moon Belize travel guide .