Resting majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mopan River and the Guatemalan countryside of Western Belize lies Xunantunich, one of the largest ancient Maya cities ever built. These impressive yet mysterious ruins were lost for centuries until discovered in 1890 by a local villager who mistakenly thought he had seen a ghost of a maiden giving Xunantunich its infamous name which translates into “Stone Maiden”. Built in the 7th century, these incredible ruins feature some of the most stunning hieroglyphics and friezes in ancient Maya culture as well as intricately carved stellas, 25 temples and well-preserved palaces.
Today Xunantunich is Belize’s most visited site, and the surrounding area of the Cayo District has become one of the most popular destinations in mainland Belize known for its multitude of Maya sites as well as its incredible caves, waterfalls, rivers and lush jungles. There are tons of adventure activities to be found which include hiking, kayaking, swimming, canoeing, zip-lining and of course exploring the incredible cave systems. You can easily spend a few days here with the highlight of your visit being a trip to Xunantunich.
The Maya empire evolved around 2000 BC and thrived until their decline in 1500 AD. The highest point and power of Maya Civilization was known as the Classic Period from 250 AD – 900 AD. It was during this time that the political system changed into a Theocratic system where rulers represented the Gods to the lower class people on earth. Knowledge was power and since low-class people had no education, they believed whole-heartedly in their rulers. The Classic Period was a flourishing period of massive growth and the building of the incredible temples, pyramids and cities that are left behind today.
Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC but it was little more than a village. The large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. An estimated 7,000-10,000 people lived at Xunantunich during its peak and the city was quite possibly politically aligned with neighboring Naranjo just 9 miles west in Guatemala. In 1000 AD Xunantunich was abandoned right around the time that many other large Maya cities were being dismantled as the Maya civilization was falling apart.
Xunantunich is unique because it is the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in the country. The ruins were first explored in the 1892 by Dr. Thomas Gann, a doctor from Britain. Gann returned a second time in 1924, unearthing many Maya treasures which have tragically been lost or given away to private collectors. There has been continuous excavations and restorations since 1990 by the University Of California (ULA) under the direction of Dr. Richard Leventhal. These excavations continue to bring new discoveries and treasures helping historians and archeologists piece together the ancient Maya past.
One of the biggest and most impressive Maya buildings ever found was discovered in Xunantunich. Known as “El Castillo” (The Castle), it is covered in elaborately carved friezes, and remains the second-tallest tallest man-made structures in Belize. One of the figures carved on El Castillo is a three-dimensional seated person which is rumored to be the “stone maiden” that the villager saw when he stumbled upon the site.
Getting to Xunantunich
Xunantunich is located just outside of San Jose Succotz which is about 6.5 miles west of San Ignacio, a colorful town in its own right and the main tourist hub of the Cayo District of Western Belize. To reach the ruins, you must cross the Mopan river by a hand-cranked cable ferry which is half the fun. Once you arrive across the river, it is a short 10 minute walk through lush jungle up to the site where you have an absolutely stunning view overlooking the Mopan River and the nearby Guatemalan countryside.
What to see at Xunantunich
Xunantunich is enormous but most of the ruins you are going to see are located in the central core area which is approximately one square mile with six large plazas containing 26 palaces and temples. For ease in navigation, today the site is divided into four sections: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D. Group A encompasses the city core and was where the ruling family lived while the other sections were once used by farmers to grow the vast amounts of crops needed to feed the city. When we toured the ruins, we only visited Group A as that is where most of the ruins are excavated.
As you walk up the hill top, you enter the first plaza of ruins and it is quite spellbinding. We once again timed our visit right just like at Lamanai and had the entire place to ourselves. We had arrived two hours before closing time and that seemed like the perfect time to go despite the harsh angles of the sun for photos.
The epicenter of Xunantunich consists of four major architectural groups: Groups A – D. Group A, the most prominent area, is dominated by the 130 foot (40 meter) high Structure A6 or “El Castillo” or “the castle”. This massive structure is a large multi-complex building that served as dwelling, shrine and administrative hub for the rulers back in the height of Maya power. The eastern and western summit of El Castillo has a series of stunning large stucco friezes with carved elements that represent astronomical symbols, the sun God, moon and Venus. For the best view in the entire ruins, it is a must to climb up to the top of El Castillo.
The stunning friezes on El Castillo:
El Castillo has a series of 13 sacred stairs where the rulers would climb up to talk to the Gods. The stairs began in the plaza, looping around the back of the ruins. All of the buildings in Xunantunich (as well as in other Maya ruins) were astrologically constructed and filled with symbolism of creation and the Gods. The views atop El Castillo are absolutely breathtaking and give you a sense at the massive size of the city. It was here atop the second highest point in all of Belize that the ruler communicated with the Gods and his people.
As we left Xunantunich I was stuck by the magnitude and size of these ruins. I honestly had no idea that I would be so utterly captivated and fascinated by the Mayas before going to Belize. But similar to Lamanai, Xunantunich was quite magical. Little did I know it was still nothing compared to what I’d see the next day across the border in Guatemala at Tikal. I would be even more blown away than I was already.
If you go
Where to stay:
The neighboring towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena share a combined population of over 15,000 people and are divided by the Mopan River. It is the second largest urban area after Belize City yet is world’s away. San Ignacio has its own unique charm of restaurants, bars and a large farmer’s market held right outside the main square of town. It is the perfect base for exploring the many different activities and sites within the Cayo District. The ruins of two Maya sites are not far away. The site of Cahal Pech is located just a mile south of San Ignacio atop a hill and the sensational Xunantunich is located a mere 6.5 miles west of San Ignacio just outside the town of San Jose Succotz. Many other interesting things worth exploring are nearby such as the world-famous Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave) and the more tranquil Barton Creek Cave are easily done as a day trip from town. We stayed at the Midas Resort but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are under 30 and want to party. However, the one advantage is it is walking distance to town and the hotel restaurant is good. It can be loud however at night at the pool bar. There are plenty of other lovely places to stay that we passed along the way to San Ignacio.
Where to Eat
The one benefit of staying at the Midas Resort is that we were walking distance to town and I was truly impressed with the wide variety of quality restaurants in San Ignacio. Ko-Ox Han-nah is a very popular place that is very good yet there are plenty to choose from. However, my absolute favorite was the Crave House of Flavor which was probably my best meal in Belize.
Plan Your Visit
Allow for approximately two hours and try to confirm in advance what days the cruise ships are visiting. We went in late afternoon right before closing and I was amazed to find we had almost the entire site to ourselves with hardly any other tourists. It was wonderful!
Nearby Day Trips
There is tons to do in this part of Belize and you could easily spend a good 3-5 days here as your base. The Maya sites in this area include Caracol, Xunantunich, and Cahal Pech and you can also explore the world-famous underworld of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave however be warned it is not for the faint at heart. It requires a solid four hours or more of trudging, swimming, crawling, squeezing and climbing through the dark confines of a cave but it was by far one of the most outrageously cool adventures I’ve ever done! Unfortunately I was not able to take any photos inside inside the “living museum” (it contains Maya artifacts and human remains dating back thousands of years) because cameras are not allowed. But it was by far an incredible experience! Check out the photos online and read TripAdvisor reviews before deciding if you are up for the challenge. It is pretty wild.
If you don’t want the crazy cave adventure of ATM, there are plenty of other cave experiences such as easy walking, canoeing and even riding an inner tube through the caves. There are also gardens, hikes, walks and other sightseeing options for those who don’t enjoy caves.
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