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Monday, January 24, 2022

The stunning pre-classical ancient city of Altun Há

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore one of Belize’s most popular tourist attractions, the truly ancient Altun Há.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The ancient city of Altun Há was once one of the most important Mayan cities in Northern Belize. Today it’s among the most visited attractions in this tiny Central American country, especially by cruisegoers arriving at Belize city’s nearby port.

Structure B4 is located in the core of Altun Há’s largest ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Altun Há translates to Rockstone Pond in the Yucatec-Mayan language — making reference to the city’s many artificial water cisterns or chultunes. Though an ancient glyph believed to represent the ancient city’s true name was discovered in the 1970s, its decipherment remains elusive, thus the city’s ancient name remains a mystery. 

The remains of Altun Há first caught the attention of archaeologists in the late 1950s. The site was first mapped by W.R. Bullard of the Royal Ontario Museum, with excavations kicking off in 1964. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that Altun Há was occupied by the Maya as early as 1000 BCE, back in the time referred to by archaeologists as the formative or archaic period. Though most of the structures visible today at the site date to the 4th century CE, there is good reason to believe that some of their foundations date back at least another millennia.

Given its early date of foundation, it is likely that Altun Há’s first residents were migrants from the Peten in the southwest, likely from cities such as Mirador or Nakbé. If this is indeed the case, the city may have served as a gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula in the north, bypassing the heartland of powerful city-states of the Classic Period such as Tikal and Calakmul

Large complex adjacent to Plaza A in Altun Há Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Altun Há lay in proximity to several small rivers and creeks, but also contains a great number of chultunes, or artificial cisterns, from which the site derives its name. The site sits on the north-central coastal plain of Belize and continues to be an extremely swampy area.

If you have visited Kohunlich in southern Quintana Roo before, you will likely already be familiar with the beautiful Kohun palms found throughout Altun Há. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Despite its beauty and size, relatively little pottery has been discovered at Altun Há. This suggests that the city had a relatively small population and likely was not self-sustaining. It has been suggested that instead of farming, Altun Há specialized in the production of high-quality artifacts out of materials including jade. 

A finely carved jade head artifact was found at Altun Há in 1968 by archaeologists working for the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo: Courtesy

The area surrounding the site is extremely lush and biodiverse, but due to the relatively large amount of tourists that visit daily, it is not the best sport to observe the region’s wildlife. For that, you would be much better off visiting a truly remote site like Caracol

The layout of the section of the site open to the public is made up of several architectural groups, the largest of which are known as Plaza A and Plaza B. 

The view of the western portion of Plaza A as viewed from the summit of Structure B4. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Architecturally, the site shares several similarities with other large ancient cities in the region, particularly Lamanai. However, the most obvious source of inspiration for the city’s many grand temples is the distant Teotihuacán, located 1,500 kilometers away in the heart of the valley of Mexico. 

Rounded edges adorn the base of Structure B4 in Altun Há, northern Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the site you will notice a group of pyramid-like structures covered almost entirely in vegetation. Archaeologists have cleared out a narrow path to allow visitors to climb these structures, but the way in which these steps have been carved out appears somewhat arbitrary and more for the sake of aesthetics than anything else. Please correct me if I am missing something. 

Pyramidal structure lie near the entrance to the Altun Há archaeological site in Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As you delve deeper into the site you will notice a large plaza with several sprawling ceremonial platforms and richly adorned monumental structures.

Structure 1A is believed to be one of the most ancient, relatively intact structures at Atlun Há. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most striking temple found in this section of the site is known as Structure B4. The structure likely served as both an administrative center as well as the residence of the city’s lord. 

Structure B4 is surrounded by a series of small buildings and chambers which likely housed members of the city’s ruling class. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Besides being the largest structure at Altun Há, Structure B4 is also one of the most beautiful, sporting a fairly well-preserved series of stone masks along its main stairway. 

Though all that remains of these grand masks today is stone, in their day they would have been covered in stucco and adorned with incrustations of jade and other precious stones. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Structure B4 at Altun Há is one of the country’s most famous landmarks and is featured on the label of Belize’s most popular beer, Belikin. Photo: Courtesy

If you go

Most people visiting Altun Há begin the journey in Belize’s largest city, Belize City. Unless you have already pre-purchased a tour to Altun Há from aboard a cruise ship, finding a reputable tour guide can be a little tricky. If you are interested in visiting, I would highly recommend doing a little research and booking a tour online instead of just showing up in Belize City looking for tours. I hate to generalize, but there are lots of sketchy folks offering tours in the city. 

A map shows the location of Altun Há in Central America. Image: Google Maps

The first time I visited I was unable to find a tour operator and ended up just hiring a taxi driver who proceeded to buy a couple of six-packs of beer to guzzle down on our drive to the site. He offered me some, and I proceeded to drink as much as possible to make sure there was not too much left for him to imbibe. 

A sign on Belize’s main highway shows the detour to Altun Há. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Safety aside, renting taxis to get around to archaeological sites in Belize can also get quite expensive, so again, I highly recommend planning ahead. Entrance to Altun Há is 5 USD or 10 Belizean dollars. 

Wildflowers grow in the jungle surrounding Altun Há. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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