Altun Ha

Cahal Pech



Altun Ha

Located 30 miles (50 km) north of Belize City and about 6 miles from the shore of the Caribbean Sea, Altun Ha, was first settled around 250 BC. It was around 100 AD that the construction of the buildings - which can be seen there now - were started, something which was to continue throughout the Classic period ending in the 10th century.


About 900 AD a number of the tombs of the elite were looted suggesting some sort of revolt against the city’s rulers. Although the site continued to remain populated for another hundred years there was no new major buildings. The population then started to decline and the city reverted to a small agricultural village with many of the stones from the buildings being used for the construction of the homes by the residents.  Altun Ha was rebuilt several times during the Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic Periods an indication of its turbulent history. The site was discovered in 1963 with excavations beginning in 1965; it is currently the most extensively excavated of all the Maya sites in Belize.


The name Altun Ha comes from the Maya translation of Rockstone Pond. At its height Altun Ha was a significant trading centre with a population of around 10,000 living in and around the city. Covering an area of 5 square miles (8 km), the central square mile of the site has the remains of around 500 structures. At its centre are two plazas named Plaza A and B, these contain a number of structures and are surrounded by towering temples. Plaza A includes the Temple of the Green Tomb where jewellery, flint and jade items were found. In the adjacent Plaza B is the largest temple in Altun Ha the Temple of the Masonry Altars, which is 54 feet high (16 m). It is believed that this temple was the centre of the community’s religious activity. Leading up to the top of the temple is a single stairway at the front. At the top is a temples with small rooms built with corbel arches and with an altar. Inside the temple a number of tombs were discovered which were believed to have been the burial place of the high priests. It was from this temple that a 15 centimetre high jade head of Kinich Ahau, the Maya Sun God was found, this object is considered to be one of the national treasures of Belize. A unique feature of Altun Ha is that no carved stelae have been found.


Just outside the two main plazas is a short nature trail which leads to Clay-lined Rockstone Pond, which was used as a reservoir in Maya times. This engineering project involved producing a large excavation that was then plastered with limestone cement and the diverting of a stream to provide a plentiful supply of water.

Cahal Pech

The name Cahal Pech, is a combination of Yucatecan and Mopan Maya meaning “Place of Ticks,” a name that was given to it in the 1950’s due to the surrounding area being used at that time for the grazing of cattle.  

Located near the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo district of Belize, Cahal Pech was first settled around 1200 BC where it was to become, during the Late Preclassic period (300 BC – 300 AD), one of the most important centres in the Belize River Valley region.

It continued to grow during the Classic period (300 – 900 AD) and it is believed that during the Late Classic period between 10,000 – 15,000 people lived in the city and its' vicinity with the Valley being quite densely populated at that time. It is known that Cahal Pech economy was based on trading and its location at the confluence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers and the other near-by centres made this ideal.

The date of its discovery is unknown but excavation first took place in 1988 and was essentially completed in 2000.  However, some archaeological excavations are still being carried out and the site has been declared an archaeological reserve. Recent excavations have suggested that Cahal Pech, which was most likely settled by Maya from Guatemala, is one of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize.   

It is believed that Cahal Pech was the home of an elite Maya family and it includes 34 structures, in an area of just over 2 acres.  The structures are located around 7 courtyards with interconnecting passages that link enclosed courtyard groups with the larger plazas. It also includes several residential-type buildings and Temple pyramids, with the tallest being pyramid being 77 feet high. The site also contains 2 ball courts, 5 plain stelae and an altar.

The palace areas used by the elite were for both residential and administrative purposes and had restricted access. The buildings are constructed from cut limestone blocks obtained from nearby quarries and bonded together by the use of lime plaster. Many of the structures have vaulted/corbelled roofs, which only allow narrow widths to be spanned, thus producing rooms that are long and narrow. A good example of the sleeping arrangement with the stone beds used by the Maya can be seen in a number of the rooms.

Cahal Pech was abandoned around 800 - 900 AD during the collapse of the southern Maya lowlands, along with many of their other cities. This resulted in the people moving to new areas such as the coastal regions of Belize, Highland Guatemala, and throughout the northern Yucatan Peninsula. However, following the apparent abandonment, some people appeared to continue to live around one of the plazas or to visit it periodically. 

The site is particularly important for the information it has provided on the earliest Maya settlers of western Belize and a large number of hand-moulded ceramic figurines have been found at the site. During the 1970’s the site experience problems with the looting of artefacts and a great deal of information may have been lost due to this. 

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