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Nestled within 130,000 acres of protected forest, Chan Chich offers visitors close encounters with diverse tropical wildlife and the remains of an ancient Mayan empire that seems as interconnected with the region as a ship in the sea. Chan Chich, meaning "little bird," names the area, the river that runs nearby, and the lodge that sits directly in the middle of a lower plaza in one of the main centers.

Trail signs at Chan Chich Mayan Site
Trail Signs at Chan Chich Mayan Site

The Chan Chich area encompasses several prominent Mayan sites that can be explored through a self-guided tour or with a local naturalist guide. Favorite trips range from trails pointing out local medicinal plants to night walks in the surrounding jungle. Aside from the countless endemic bird species flying through the forest canopy, expect to encounter howler and spider monkeys, lizards, squirrels, agouti, peccary, brocket deer, and, if you're lucky, the elusive jaguar.

Chan Chich Lodge
Chan Chich Lodge

The Chan Chich Lodge, situated in the lower plaza of one of the Mayan sites directs most traffic within the area. Popular among, bird watchers, archaeologists, canoers, horseback riders, and naturalists, Chan Chich Lodge blends the natural surroundings of the reserve with the Mayan influences of the surrounding region. The plazas surrounding the lodge served as markets and ceremonial grounds during the early Classic period (300-600 A.D.). Three hundred years later, a second plaza was constructed in an expansion phase for the city.

Burial Chamber at Chan Chich
Burial Chamber at Chan Chich

Archaeologists believe the two buildings on the west side of this plaza were used to mark the summer and winter solstices, thereby utilizing the great plaza as an astrological marker. The crumbling towers and pyramids catered to the administrative duties, religious ceremonies, and burial grounds of the elite. The pole and thatch residences used by the masses have long since washed away over thousands of years of jungle rains.

Main Plaza at Chan Chich with Looter Trench Visible in one Temple
Main Plaza at Chan Chich with Looter Trench Visible in one Temple

Chan Chich lies within a region known as Gallon Jug. Originally used as a source of timber until the 1960's, Gallon Jug now supports modest farming efforts and cattle ranges just south of the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. Plans to include this parcel of land into the Rio Bravo forest system (incorporating the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatamala and Kalakmul in Mexico) would protect about 350,000 acres of tropical forest. Aside from the Chan Chich Lodge and archaeological site, several other explored and unexplored Mayan sites lie within the forests of Gallon Jug.

ocelated Turkey at Chan Chich Lodge
Ocelated Turkey at Chan Chich Lodge
Margay, One of Six Wildcats Found at Chan Chich Mayan Site
Margay, One of Six Wildcats Found at Chan Chich Mayan Site

Most visitors access Chan Chich by air from Belize City to the tiny Gallon Jug airstrip. The flight is around 20 minutes on a small aircraft. If driving from Belize City, bring your four-wheel drive vehicle and plan on taking all day. Although a long drive (4-5 hours), it can be a tour in of itself as the quiet road winds its way through a number of different ecosystems. Drivers can also reach Chan Chich via Spanish Lookout in the Cayo District or from Orange Walk Town.

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