When my Caribbean cruise visited Belize, we planned to do the cave tubing, but the weather had other plans. Instead we visited the Altun Ha Mayan ruins, which we paid for ourselves so obviously all opinions are mine. Some links in this post are affiliate links that earn me a commission if your purchase through them.
I love Belize, and it never fails to amaze me how many different things there are to do there. I’ve been three times now, and while my kids and I love snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef, this last visit, I planned to do the zipline and cave tubing.
I did this excursion on my first visit, and everyone loved it. Unfortunately, the area had way too much rain for way too long, and the river ran too close to the roof of the cave, so they closed it. After some debate, my friend and I instead decided to visit the Altun Ha Mayan ruins.
I’ve always wanted to see Mayan ruins, but my kids were never interested. After my visit, I am glad I went, but my kids probably still aren’t old enough to appreciate them. If you have kids who are mid teens or older who enjoy history, this is a better fit than my kids who love water and animals.
I appreciate that visiting the Altun Ha Mayan ruins is less expensive than many other cruise excursions. We booked our trip outside the cruise line, which reduces the price further.
Nervous about booking an excursion not through the cruise line? Don’t be! While there are times you want to book through your cruise ship, there are many good reasons and destinations where you should consider booking on your own.
Looking for more cruise excursion ideas? Check out some of my favorites at the bottom of this article!
What are the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins?
Belize, like many other Central and Southern American nations, had a thriving Mayan culture that built amazing cities. The Altun Ha Mayan ruins are about an hour from the cruise port, so expect a ride. Most guides do a great job entertaining along the way, and many also offer stops on the way there, back, or both.
The ruins cover six different sites, labeled A to F, but generally you visit only A and B. Some are not open to the public, while others are mosquito infested. There is plenty to see in the time you spend at the Altun Ha Mayan ruins just visiting those two sections.
Although the ruins cover a little over 3 square miles, the majority of what you see during your tour is the size of a few football fields with four buildings surrounding a square.
You cannot go inside any of the buildings, but you can climb three of the four. We climbed all three, and that exploration took just about all the time alloted to the visit.
Interestingly, the Altun Ha Mayan ruins weren’t discovered until 1963, and they are far less well known than the Mayan ruins in other locations like the Tulum ruins near Cancun and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. The good news? This generally means that the ruins are less crowded than many others, so you can experience them without the same crush of people.
The city was founded in 900BC, and it remained viable through 1000AD. The city peaked from 400-900AD, however, and most information we know about it comes from that primary period.
Archaeologists believe the city ended about 950 when the peasants rose against the rulers. They buried Altun Ha in debris and abandoned it.
Book your visit to the Belize Mayan ruins here.
What to Expect at the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins
When your bus drops you off, the ruins require that tour groups have no more than 15 people for each guide. This isn’t strongly enforced, however, so make sure you book a tour through a reputable company to maximize your own experience.
Before you enter the plaza with the buildings, you have a chance to use the restroom and take a quick break. If you are a smoker, this is your last chance to smoke, as cigarettes, etc., are not allowed within the main area of the ruins.
You also have the opportunity to purchase bottled water before entering the main site of the ruins. At the time we went, each bottle cost $1USD.
As you enter the corner of the plaza, your guide provides you with the history of the area and describes what the various buildings were used for. I found myself particularly fascinated by the story of the Sun God.
In B4 – the ceremonial temple – they held the bloodletting ceremonies. The priests used a stingray spine used to pierce the Sun Gods genitals, while his 13 wives had their ears pierced all the way up, as well as their nipples. The high priests also poked the tongue and collected blood in bowls. They drank some and burned more as an offering.
This was how they spiritually enter the underworld in that temple. There are seven levels to the temple. The Sun God had 7 sons buried there, as well. You can see the focus on the numbers 7 and 13 throughout the Altun Ha Mayan ruins.
Another fascinating fact? Every 20 years, the city would reconstruct or update its buildings. For as long as they’ve lasted since the demise of the city, I’m fascinated that they had such a short life cycle when occupied.
Once you get the main history of the ruins and buildings, the guide leads your group to the top of the tallest of the buldings, The Temple of the Masonry Altars. This temple stands a little over 52 feet in height.
The climb to the top uses narrow stairs that aren’t evenly spaced or level. Given that all tour groups climb this, expect it to have a line where you have to pause while others take their time ascending or pause to catch their breath.
The view is worth the climb, and it’s awe inspiring to see the majesty of the area. At the summit, you hae a large flat area to view, as well as a four foot or so drop down to a smaller flat area facing the square that you can visit to see a more unobstructed and less crowded area. This is a great place to both take photos and have your photo taken.
After this, your guide generally leaves you to your own devices with a time to meet up to head back on the bus.
A word of warning, the steps going down are slightly more treacherous than those going up, so take your time descending. At the bottom before you head back to the square, you’re likely to see entrepreneurs holding small crocodiles with their mouths bound. For a fee, you can have your photo taken with them – no surprise, we skipped that.
Some visitors take more time at the summit or find a place on the plaza to relax after the first temple. Alternatively, there are two other buildings you can climb to explore, including one with a huge “throne” that makes a fantastic photo.
As this is part where you can explore on your own, we encountered far fewer people on the other buildings than the temple. That gave us more opportunities for fun photos and a more relaxing exploration of the areas.
If you are physically able, I highly recommend you climb and explore as many of the ruins as possible.
Who Should Visit the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins
I’ll be honest. The more physically fit you are, the more you will enjoy the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins.
The site is not wheelchair accessible, and if you have a cane or walker or are otherwise mobility impaired, skip this visit. There simple is no way to accommodate those needs.
While we saw many families with kids there, I feel my kids would not yet enjoy the ruins when they have other opportunities to explore Belize. Were they younger, they’d likely enjoy scampering about the plaza and climbing the ruins, but they would miss the historical impact of it.
Older teens and adults in good shape are likely to find the ruin and stories fascinating. My parents have no issues walking in general, but with the uneven ground and multiude of steps, I wouldn’t bring them either.
The length of the tour is about right. We had plenty of time to explore – although I could have used another 20 minutes or half hour – which kept anyone from getting bored at the ruins. The long bus ride on the way back, no surprise, was far quieter than the one on the way there.
If you have never seen Mayan ruins, this is an experience you should have at least once. It’s a fascinatng piece of history. That said, I don’t feel like I need to visit Mayan ruins in every location I visit. As you can’t enter the ruins in general, this is a one and done for me, as opposed to other excursions I may choose to repeat in destinations – like the Secret River in Cozumel that I’ve already done twice and would do again in a heartbeat.
What Should You to the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins?
This excursion requires a lot of walking, and though the area is grassy throughout, there are a lot of rocks and stones. This isn’t the place for sandals. Couple that with the stairs, and make sure you bring sturdy walking shoes.
You remain outside for the duration of your time at the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins. At the ruins site, you have no shade. Make sure you bring sunscreen, and consider bringing an umbrella even if it isn’t raining. It’s great to block the sun – just be careful of other people! Alternatively, bring a sun hat. This one is my all time favorite hat for traveling.
While we didn’t have an issue with mosquitoes, I know much of the site is not part of the tour because of bugs. It never hurts to bring along bug spray – and did you see that the CDC came out with a study that lemon eucalyptus oil is as effective as DEET?
Don’t forget cash. US dollars work just fine. If you want to purchase water, it’s $1 on site, so bring small bills. There are also souvenirs available after you finish exploring the ruins and the gator photos if you choose. Most importantly, tip your guides! They work hard to ensure you enjoy your visit.
Have your phone or camera fully charged, and bring it. Remember to leave your phone on airplane mode to avoid international charges, but this is a great opportunity to take fun photos. And yes, this destination allows selfie sticks. My personal favorite selfie stick comes with a tripod so you can take photos from further away and hold cameras more steady. Again, be a nice tourist and don’t get in anyone’s way if you use one!
Aside from that, you don’t really need anything else. This is a fairly low maintenance trip in terms of preparation, and that’s part of the fun!
What Souvenirs Are Available at the Altun Ha Mayan Ruins
As you exit the main portion of the ruins to head back to your buses, you pass a row of stalls selling all sorts of items.
Many are food related, so if you want to try some local snacks from pineapple to coconut to candies, this is a great chance to purchase some. Other stalls sell Mayan themed items and other local handicrafts.
You can bargain with the vendors, and they all accept American dollars, so you don’t need to convert to local currency. They know tourists visit the area, so prices are created to reflect that. This is not the cheapest place to purchase souvenirs.
Are you ready to visit the Altun Ha Mayan ruins now?
Don’t forget to book your excursion!
Looking for more fun ideas for your next cruise? Here you go:
- Aruba pirate ship experience
- Grand Cayman shipwreck snorkeling
- Belize Great Barrier Reef snorkeling
- Roatan: Pirates, Birds, and Monkeys
- Curacao: Ostrich Farm Excursion
- What to pack
- St. Maarten: A Day Trip
- St. Kitts: A Day Trip
- St. Lucia: A Day Trip
- Barbados: Pirate Ship Adventure
- Explore the Secret River in Cozumel
- Check out all my other cruise tips
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