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Altun Ha is a small, well-preserved Mayan ruin. Only a few of the most imposing temples, tombs, and pyramids have been uncovered and rebuilt; hundreds more lie under the jungle foliage. Still, there are two large central plazas surrounded by midsize pyramids and mounds, as well as the beginnings of the excavation of residential areas. While nowhere near as extensive as some other sites, Altun Ha offers admirable quality and detail of excavation and restoration, allowing for great visibility into what the site would’ve looked like in its prime. Sections of different structures have been left in various states of repair and restoration, giving visitors a sense of the process involved. Moreover, while the climb to the top of the tallest pyramids here is rather easy by Mayan standards, the views are still wonderful. The site was named after the village in which it’s situated—Rockstone Pond, the literal Mayan translation meaning “stone water.” At the back of the site, behind Plaza B, is the namesake pond. Archaeologists theorize that the pond is an example of a pre-Columbian waterworks project and a demonstration of the ingenuity of Mayan engineering.

Despite its somewhat diminutive size, Altun Ha was a major trade and ceremonial center. In its prime, during the Classic Period, Altun Ha supported a population of about 10,000. Many jade, pearl, and obsidian artifacts have been discovered here, including the unique jade-head sculpture of Kinich Ahau (the Mayan sun god), the largest well-carved jade from the Mayan era. Today, it’s kept in a bank vault in Belmopan, out of public view, although you can see a replica at the onsite museum, which is near the pond (the jade is also pictured on most of the country’s paper money). Some of the pieces found here show a direct link to the great Mexican city of Teotihuacán.

The largest (though not the tallest) temple here is the Temple of the Masonry Altars, which fronts Plaza B. It has been well-restored, and the pathway to the top is well-maintained and even features handrails. However, if you’re fairly fit and not acrophobic, I recommend you climb the almost entirely unrestored Temple A-6, which is truly the tallest building at Altun Ha. A climb to the top of Temple A-6 affords an excellent panorama of the entire site. Be careful climbing down; the Mayans were a society run by priests and holy men, not lawyers. A more litigious society would have never permitted the construction of such steep and treacherous stairways.

Transportation note: There is no public transportation to Altun Ha, so you’ll need to take a tour, a taxi, your own wheels, or hitchhike. If you’re driving, Altun Ha is located about 48km (30 miles) north of Belize City on the Philip Goldson Highway. Once you’re on the Old Northern Highway, it’s 18km (11 miles) to the Altun Ha road. From the highway, it’s another bumpy 3.6km (2[bf]1/4 miles) to the ruins, which are well-marked on the left side of the road.

For tours: Half-day tours to Altun Ha from Belize City cost between BZ$80 and BZ$200. Full-day tours can be combined with visits to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary or the Community Baboon Sanctuary and should run between BZ$200 and BZ$350. Many of the tours include lunch and an optional spa treatment at Belize Boutique Resort and Spa. Note that Altun Ha is a popular stop for cruise ship guests, who typically visit midweek and can crowd the ruin while there.