One of the beauties of Belize is the country’s efficient public transportation system. It is possible to travel freely by bus throughout Belize relatively cheap considering the distances covered. Regular service exists through bus terminals in Belize City and Belmopan. Express service between Belize City and Chetumal, Mexico, and more recently, bus service from Belize City to Cancun or Merida, Mexico provides excellent Mexican bus connections on regular intervals. Along the way it is also possible to stop at the beach side Mayan ruins of Tulum.
Once inside Belize, one option is to view the small Mayan site of Santa Rita just on the outskirts of Corozal. It is more of an adventure to negotiate a water taxi trip from the main dock in Corozal to the larger Cerros ruins located a 30 minute boat ride nearby.
It’s even more of an adventure to visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. The trip is 26 miles up the New River from Orange Walk by speed boat. In order to reach there, arrange for a trip in Orange Walk Town to take this scenic boat ride through dense jungle habitat along the river’s edge. Along the way you will view some Mennonite villages so don’t be surprised to see the youngsters waving along the way. Watch out for crocodiles! The Lamanai tour is a great day trip from Corozal, Orange Walk, or Belize City. Be aware of crowding during mid day cruise ship tourist groups.
When heading to Western Belize, take the local bus between Benque and Belize City that departs every 30 minutes to an hour from the Belize City bus terminal. Be sure to stop for a couple of nights at Lower Dover Field Station and Jungle Lodge in Unitedville for a great Mayan getaway experience in the jungle. We are located at mile 59 near the old Three Flags store, now the Mile 59 Superstore. Only 3/4 mile walk from the Western highway, Lower Dover contains some of the most accessible Mayan Ruins in the whole country. At our jungle lodge, we have built 5 cabanas so our guests can stay in close proximity to this recently discovered Mayan ceremonial center. Our 100 acre jungle property surrounds the still unexcavated site along the Belize River, and although the archaeologists have yet to reconstruct the ruins, it is still possible to be amazed at their immense size and structure. Every year, for the foreseeable future, the Belize Valley Archaeology Reconnaissance Project (BVAR) will continue to do work at the Lower Dover Mayan site core in order to figure out this amazing new discovery!
Between Lower Dover and Tikal sit two excavated Mayan sites named Cahal Pech and Xunantunich. Each sit along the Macal and Mopan Rivers respectively. These Mayan sites are accessible by local bus between Benque and Belize City. Cahal Pech is located in San Ignacio, overlooking the river valley at the top of one of the towns large hills. Options to get to the ruins include: take the bus up the hill after a short break to pick up passengers at the bus station in San Ignacio, walk the hill when the bus stops, or (preferred) take a cheap taxi after grabbing a bite to eat in town.
Xunantunich is located further west off the Western Highway towards the Guatemala border. It is necessary to exit the bus at the ferry near the large brown Xunantunich sign just before Benque. This location is also the best place in the country to buy Mayan arts and crafts made by local artisans in traditional ways. After crossing the ferry, you must either hitch hike a ride from a fellow tourist or walk the 1 mile or so hike to the actual Mayan ruin entrance.
From the top of the main Mayan temple of Xunantunich “El Castillo” it is possible to view large areas of Belize and Guatemala on either side of this fairly easy to climb temple lookout point.
Both Xunantunich and Cahal Pech provide great examples of what Lower Dover will look like soon enough. All of these Mayan sites had some interaction and contact with the Mayan capital of Tikal through the river systems of the Macal, Mopan, and Belize River. The Mopan and Macal Rivers meet just outside San Ignacio to form the Belize River at “Branch Mouth”. Lower Dover likely played a key role in regulating trade along the Belize River downstream.
The Belize River was the Belize Mayan canoe (dory) highway to the Caribbean Sea. If fact, until the early/mid 1900’s, when the Western Highway was built, overnight boat transportation was the only way to reach San Ignacio and Belize City! The Ruta Maya canoe race celebrates this journey to the sea every year in March with a 4 day/ 3 night race from San Ignacio to Belize City. Look for the Lower Dover canoe in the Ruta Maya canoe race this year!
If heading west to Tikal in Guatemala, express and local bus service exists to Benque from Belize City, with stops in Belmopan and San Ignacio. From Benque it is necessary to travel by taxi or walk the mile distance to the Guatemala border. On the Guatemalan side in Melchor, regular local collectivo buses travel to Flores and/ or Tikal for cheap. Note Belize requires an exit tax of $37.50 BZE when leaving which funds Belize government agency P.A.C.T. for land conservation efforts throughout the country.
It is possible to get between Tikal and Flores via freqently scheduled bus service. Tours to Tikal can be arranged locally in Flores. In order to reach Flores, Guatemala from Belize, take the collectivo vans or local busses parked at the border in Melchor, on the Guatemalan side, to the junction at El Cruce. If travelers are headed to the island of Flores to spend the night, keep on the highway going left. For direct trips to Tikal from the Belize border, exit the local bus (or continue on Tikal collectivo) and head right (north) towards El Remate at El Cruce. El Remate is the last village before entering Tikal National Park in the Peten of Guatemala.
When traveling in Western Belize and Guatemala, it is possible to notice the heavy Mayan presence in the area to this day. The Mayans did not vanish like many believe. Maya culture remains, in the faces of the people, their daily lives , and in the traditions passed on from those living 1000 years ago in the Maya heartland of Central America.