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This Backpack and Snorkel Travel Guide (Altun Ha Purple Guide) provides information about the best things to see in Altun Ha.
Altun Ha is the name for an ancient Mayan site that was occupied from approx. 900BC to 1,000AD, abandoned in the 11-hundreds and was the place of some limited activity afterwards. The name Altun Ha is Yucatec Mayan and means "Rockstone Water".
Excavations that took place in 1964 to 1970 have unearthed only a small portion of the approx. 25 square mile city which has a population of about 10,000 people at its heyday.
Altun Ha is the most visited Mayan site in Belize, particularly due to large amounts of cruise ship passengers that come here when a cruise ship anchors in Belize City. Cruise ships are typically in port on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. You can find the port schedule here.
The map below shows the structures that can be visited:
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Groups A and B form the central precinct of Altun Ha. Together with groups C, D, and E they form the urban area and zones G-N the suburbs. The city even had two causeways. One of them was likely a raised walkway through a swampy area that may have been impassable without it.
The oldest structures are located in zone C, which you cannot visit.
Excavations have uncovered connections with the powerful Mexican site Teotihuacan near Mexico City. In a tomb under temple F8, the remains of an adult male were found who was buried with 248 Pachuca green obsidian objects, 23 ceramic jars, bowls and dishes that can only come from the Teotihuacan area.
In another tomb, tumbaga gold-copper alloy was found. This is significant, because the Maya in this area did not have gold at the time when Altun Ha was occupied. This suggests trade with what is now southern Central America.
Construction of Plaza A, which was mostly used as a religious plaza, started in 250 AD and eventually replaced a ceremonial center further to the west. Plaza B is much smaller than Plaza A. It was built after Plaza A and was predominately used as a residential area.
The “Temple of the Green Tomb” (A-1) has, like typical Mayan temples, a large central stairway and an enclosure on the top. What makes it different is that it has three terraces which is designed more like temples in Lamanai about 20 miles to the west.
Behind the first temple is a second temple which sits on the very top. It appears that the large stairway at the front fell into disrepair while the temple was still in use. It appears that another stairway that originated from structure A-2 and the palace A-8, which used to stand behind A-1 and A-2, had become the main access to the temple. Accessing the temple from the palace was likely more convenient for the elite than detouring through Plaza A.
The name “Temple of the Green Tomb” comes from the “Green Tomb” inside of it where a man, most likely a ruler of Altun Ha, was buried around 550 AD with over 300 jade artifacts and shell necklaces, ceremonial flint objects, pottery, hides, stingray spines and a codex (a bark-book).
The jade was likely mined in Copan, about 200 miles to the south in today’s Honduras, and is an indication of strong ties of both cities.
This building was dismantled by locals looking for stones to build their houses. The footprint suggests that it was a palace that was attached to the back of structure A-3.
This is the smallest temple structure around Plaza A. It was first built at around 400AD and appears to have undergone continuous development through to the 9th century. Like structure A-1, it has three terraces.
During excavation a limestone altar, which depicts the king with his arms crossed sitting on his throne and another man kneeling at his feet, was found here.
This structure forms the entire northern side of the formerly completely enclosed Plaza A and it is the largest structure in Altun Ha.
Structure B-1 has been partially restored and is not only a mound of rubble as its neighbor A-4.
The “Temple of the Masonry Altars” (B-4), is dominating Plaza B. It is significant, because of what was found here in 1968. Inside the temple, Sun God's Tomb was found. It was covered in cloth and had a skeleton of an adult male on a wooden platform. Next to lots of perishable goods, 43 non-perishable artifacts were found, like ceramic bowls, jadeite anklets, bracelets and beads, pearls, and so on. Among the artifacts was a carved jade head of the Sun God Kinich Ahau. And this is what put Altun Ha on the map. This jade head is so valuable that the Belizean government keeps it locked in a guarded vault at Belize’s Central Bank.
The head is 14.9cm tall (5.9in) and has a circumference of 45.9cm (18.1in) and weighs 4.42kg (9.37lbs). It is the only of its kind in existence and was carved from a single jade block from Guatemala’s Motagua River Valley region. The jade head was likely carved only with stone tools, which may have taken months, if not years. You can see it on Belize’s currency and on the back of your entrance ticket.
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Overall, more than 800 pieces of jade were found at Altun Ha which indicate that Altun Ha must have been a wealthy city.
This was a small temple.