I had two big goals when I traveled to Belize (well, besides surviving my first trip abroad). Both were personal firsts for me – scuba diving in the open ocean, and second was to see Mayan ruins. I achieved both goals and I ended up visiting four ruins: Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, and then finally Tikal in Guatemala.
Xunantunich means “Stone Lady” in the Mayan language, and is on the Western edge of Belize; only a half mile from the Guatemalan border. I stayed in the small town San Ignacio, located close to many of Belize’s non-ocean attractions. To visit the Xunantunich site our vehicle had to cross the Mopan River via historic hand-cranked ferry. I was told this is the last of it’s kind in Belize, built in 1954. We had to exit the vehicle as standard precaution before it was driven onto the wooden ferry. Locals have taken advantage of this rule and setup little outdoor food stands and gift shops hoping to lighten a few tourists pockets as they wait.
Xunantunich was the first Mayan ruins open to the public in Belize. Although it’s called Xunantunich, nobody knows the real name that was used by the Mayans way back in 650 AD. The “Stone Lady” name came from local legend, referring to a female ghost that inhabited the temples. The site is large, covering one square mile with six plazas and more than 26 structures. The largest is El Castillo, the 2nd tallest in Belize (Caracol being the tallest). At 130 feet tall it’s enormous. Think about all the time and effort it took to shape and build by hand!
Once we were across the Mopan’s water we drove up a steep hill a about one mile through the jungle and parked. The site is well maintained, the grass is cut, there’s a gift shop and bathrooms. Now was time for walking. Lots of walking.
The temples and structures are spread out. To really understand how it once was you will need to listen to a guide. Even though the plazas have been cleared out for easy walking, it’s very hot and humid and there’s not much shade. Be sure to bring water and wear light clothes. I was a sweaty mess within minutes but thoroughly enjoyed myself. One of the very cool things about the ruins in Belize, is that you are still allowed to carefully walk through and on top of the temples and structures. This made for some amazing views not only of the other temples but also of the lush jungle that surrounded us.
Another feature of these ruins was the large and detailed friezes on top of El Casitllo. Friezes (a band of sculpted decorations) if you’re unfamiliar with the word as I was, are similar to hieroglyphs. If you have a knowledgeable guide they’ll be able to tell you the meaning and stories behind them.
This was an excellent half-day tour and I recommend it for anyone interested in Mayan history and ruins. Be sure to go with a guide, bring water, and if you can go early – before it’s very hot. When we finished at Xunantunich we headed to nearby Cahal Pech which I’ll be posting about later.