Chances are, the world won’t end in December, and neither will the interest in the Maya’s culture sparked by apocalyptic interpretations of their calendar, says Antonio Beardall, a research assistant at Belize’s Institute of Archaeology.
“People are fascinated by the Maya because of the mysteries that surround their culture — how they lived, their rituals, and, of course, their eventual decline,” Beardall says.
Belize boasts one of the greatest concentrations of excavated Maya sites of any Central American country, so cruise passengers who tender into Belize City have their pick of ruins to expore, as well as natural wonders and other historic sites.
Journey through time
Howler monkeys will likely be among the first to greet you as you travel northwest along the New River to Lamanai, a Maya metropolis that thrived for centuries after its neighboring settlements mysteriously collapsed.
“The Maya occupied Lamanai into the 1600s and rebelled against the Spanish, burning down the two churches they had built,” Beardall says. Visit the churches’ remains and then climb the high temple for a panoramic view of the complex, which includes a 13-foot stone mask and a former British sugar mill.
For a quicker trip, hail a taxi and head north to Altun Ha, a Maya city that once housed 10,000 people. Climb the five-story Temple of Masonry Altars, or walk the plaza and keep an eye out for resident toucans.
Wonder at wildlife
Belize’s barrier reef has suffered from a recent lionfish invasion. Help prevent at least a few of these flamboyant interlopers from devouring native reef dwellers by culling them during a scuba diving adventure with Sea Sports Belize, located just a block from the cruise terminal.
“We bring cilantro, onions, and tomatoes out on the boat and make a lionfish seviche for everyone to try,” says tour owner Linda Searle.
Sea Sports also offers jaunts to Shark Ray Alley, where snorkelers can commune with gentle nurse sharks and stingrays.
Had enough of the sea? Hire an outfitter and hike 30 minutes through the forest at Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. There, you’ll plunk an inner tube down in the Sibun River and drift along a peaceful tributary, dodging stalactites and watching for wildlife as you go.
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Take a stroll
Walk around the tip of the harbor from the cruise terminal and pause on the Swing Bridge — a prime spot for people- and boat-watching.
Then continue down Albert Street to St. John’s Cathedral for a stately counterpoint to Belize City’s otherwise ramshackle Caribbean charm. Visitors can trace the country’s colonial history by reading the plaques on the wall, which spell out the fates of early settlers of British Honduras.
When hunger strikes, follow the lead of Belizean schoolchildren who snack on meat pies, flaky pastries filled with spicy beef or chicken. Locals debate which restaurant makes the best meat pie, but Dario’s has been serving them for over 16 years.