Chetumal & Beyond – A Look at Mayan Ruins You Might Have Missed

Story and photos by Bill Thompson

I’m a great fan of the ancient cities of the Maya and I’ve visited many of them in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.  Some – Chichen Itza, Tikal and Copan, for instance – are massive cities with so many structures you could spend days at each one.  Others are difficult to get to and skipped by many tourists who are on a fixed schedule with limited time.  Some of these are majestic too – Caracol and Lubantuun in Belize, Yax Ha in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico are a few that come to mind.

The best way to visit these sites is to spend some time with them. I’ve put together a 5-day trip that will show you 5 ancient sites and include a beach excursion at the end.

Start your journey in Chetumal, Mexico, a friendly, bustling town of 250,000 in the state of Quintana Roo and on the border of Belize.  You can fly here from Mexico City (Volaris) or rent a car and drive from Belize City (about 2.5 hours on good highways).

My Belizean friend and I met up at the Belize City Airport and took his truck north to the border.  We checked in at Los Cocos Hotel, a very nice place in Chetumal that’s 2 blocks from the cultural museum, which is one of the newest and most extensive collections in Mexico.

One of the surprises on this trip was how few tourists come to any of these ruins, despite the spectacular ruins you can easily visit.  Over 2 days we walked through 4 great sites – and a much smaller one called Santa Rita – and we saw less than 10 people total.

The building called Twenty-Seven Steps in Chetumal. Photo by Bill Thompson.
A building called Twenty-Seven Steps.

We arranged a guide and promptly at 9 the next morning we were in Raul’s van heading for 2 of the 4 ruins we planned to see in the area.  It took only 45 minutes to get to Kohunlich, which was excavated in 1967.   It’s a large archaeological site with several excavated buildings and many more that remain as they were found.  The Temple of the Masks is a spectacular building built around 500 A.D. that has a central staircase flanked by huge stone masks.  Five of 8 remain, and are in surprisingly good condition.

These ancient stone masks are over eight feet tall. Chetumal. Photo by Bill Thompson.
These ancient stone masks are over 8 feet tall.

An elevated platform called Twenty-Seven Steps probably held residences for the elite.  From the top you will get a great panoramic view of the jungle all around you.  Plan to spend around 2 hours at Kohunlich.

We stopped in the small town of Calderitas for lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the water called Las Tortugas.  Then it was onward to Oxtankah, less than an hour away.  It’s a small site with no tall buildings.  It was the least impressive of the 5 ruins we visited on this trip, and we included it primarily because of its close proximity to Kohunlich. It was basically a neighborhood to Kohunlich, which is a few miles away as the crow flies.  Oxtankah was only extensively excavated 20 years ago.  It was occupied for a much longer time than other Mayan sites and the Spaniards built a chapel amid the ruins, the shell of which still stands.  One piece of advice – for some reason this site has mosquitoes in abundance, where the other 3 don’t.  Wear a lot of repellent or prepare to be bitten!

We spent about an hour at Oxtankah walking through the grounds and the ruins, and by 5 p.m. we were back at the hotel for martinis and dinner.

One of the sites at Dzibanche. Photo by Bill Thompson.
One of the sites at Dzibanche.

The next morning we met Raul and were off for a 1 hour trip to Dzibanche, one of the most beautiful Maya sites I have ever seen.  When we left the van, we saw nothing but vegetation, but soon the massive shapes of ruined buildings appeared like ghosts through the trees.  Tropical birds were in almost every tree and monkeys jumped about from limb to limb high above us.

Soon we were standing amid towering pyramids while monkeys howled in the trees around us.  Some of the best-preserved Maya woodcarvings were found on lintels here in 1927, and they are on display today.  Plan to be here for around 2 hours – there’s a lot to see and you’ll enjoy the peaceful setting.

Just a mile down the road from Dzibanche is Kinichna.  It has only one excavated building, The House of the Sun, but that one is a massive temple that is quite tall with 5 structures incorporated into it.  It’s quite a hike to the top but well worth it for the incredible view.

House of the Sun, Chetumal. Photo by Bill Thompson.
The House of the Sun.

After a delightful lunch at El Abuelo in Escarega, another waterfront restaurant on the way back to Chetumal, we returned to the hotel by 4.

If you wish, you can end your trip at this point and return to Belize City or depart for home from Chetumal.  If you want to relax for a couple of days, as we did, I highly recommend a 2 hour drive to the coastal town of Mahahual.

We stayed at the El Fuerte Hotel and had ocean view rooms for under $60 USD each.  Mahahual is a great little beach town. There are lots of restaurants along the malecon, you can go fishing, kayaking or surfboarding, or you can enjoy a rum punch and a cigar under an umbrella.

After 2 nights, we returned to Belize City. On the way, we stopped for street tacos alongside the road in Corozal, Belize, and we popped in to one more ruin called Santa Rita, which is only a couple of blocks off the main highway right in the middle of town.  There’s only one large building that you can visit, but in 1985 archaeologists found a skeleton covered in jade and mica ornaments, making the site more interesting than it might otherwise be.  It’s worth the quick trip if you are driving to Belize City anyway.

Five Mayan sites and a beach vacation in 5 days.  In my book, that’s hard to beat!


Top 5 Places to Travel: Stories from a World Traveler

Work and wanderlust have kept me on the road 200 days or more every year for the past three decades, until this...

Step Back In Time and Into the Wild with a Trip to Orcas Island

The benefits of travel go far beyond a simple change of scenery or the ability to engage in non-routine activities. One of...

Finding Prince: Dog-Friendly Road Trip in West Virginia

West Virginia is a pet-friendly paradise with outdoor adventures and scenic road-trip routes. It’s also where one sweet pooch found his way...

Utah’s Dark Skies: Canyonlands National Park

Take in the skies while floating and hiking in Labyrinth Canyon. Sights include towering canyon walls, remnants from early river runners...