Xunantunich Belize

Day Trips from San Ignacio Belize: Exploring the Ancient Maya Ruins at Xunantunich

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.

Exploring Xunatunich

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. 

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Empowering Maya Women at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize

I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize.  In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.

As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.

Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.

The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.

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A Visit to the Lamanai Ruins of Belize

One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.

Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.

Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.

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How Ecotourism is Helping Protect Endangered Howler Monkeys in Belize

The Yucatan Black Howler Monkey is the largest monkey in the Americas, and found only in a small section of Central America. Originally called baboons by the locals, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey has been listed as an endangered species since 2003 and its population has declined over 60% due to loss of land, hunting and disease. Yet an innovative, community-led grassroots project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary located in the Belize River Valley outside of Belize City is doing wonders to conserve and protect both the monkeys and the local community who support them. It was the first place I visited on my trip to Belize with G Adventures and was the perfect way to start off a week of adventure and sustainable travel.

I arrived in Belize City on a non-stop morning flight from cold, wintry Minnesota. The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted with the sticky, thick humidity of the tropics. A smile instantly came across my weather-worn face. I was ready for some sun and adventure, both which would be coming over the next eight days in Belize exploring the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and marine life in the world’s second largest barrier reef.

After gathering my luggage, I was greeted by a representative from the Black Orchid Resort where I’d be spending the first two days of my trip. Located next to the mangrove banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom, it was the perfect alternative to staying in Belize City. The Black Orchid offered peace, beauty and nature yet was not too far away from the major tourist attractions and very close to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where we would be spending our first full morning.

After an evening of settling in at the hotel and meeting my fellow group of travelers with G Adventures, we were ready to depart for a morning tour of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). I was extremely excited to visit the CBS because I love monkeys and I am passionate about seeing sustainably run conservation projects on the ground. We arrived around nine and were met by our guide Robert who would first give us an overview of the project and then take us on a wonderful nature walk within the sanctuary where we would learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and be able to observe the monkeys in the wild.

The CBS is an exemplary community-led grassroots conservation project that works to protect the natural habitat of the endangered Yucatan black howler monkeys while also working hand in hand with the local community through education, community development and sustainable ecotourism practices. The CBS was founded by American primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich in 1981 after he identified the region of the lower Belize River Valley as one of the largest habitats of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Working with the local community of private landowners, the pioneering idea of creating a voluntary sanctuary for the monkeys was formed. Property maps were drawn up for each landholder and they were asked to sign a voluntary pledge that outlined the management plans for conservation.

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Xunantunich Belize

Top Things to Do in Belize in a Week

On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.

After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.

After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world.  I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.

Belize Barrier Reef

Setting sail on a catamaran to Belize’s Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef

Snorkeling with sea turtles, nurse sharks and rays is a highlight of any trip to Belize. Photo Credit: Anda De Wata Tours, Belize

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Rendezvous Caye, Belize

Un”belize”able Belize: A Day at Rendezvous Caye

Our first destination of call during our Royal Caribbean cruise this past Christmas was to Belize.  After exploring Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, Belize has been on my wish list for quite some time and unfortunately I’d only get a taste of this un”belize”able place (as the tour operators rightly called Belize). But a taste was enough to whet my appetite and understand why so many tourists are flocking to the amazing English-speaking cayes (small islands) off the coast of Belize.

Belize Barrier Reef

The majestic blue-green hues of the Belize Barrier Reef were stunning.

By far the largest attraction in Belize is her beautiful, vibrant barrier reef. Belize boasts 190 miles (300 kilometers) of the 560-mile long (900 kilometers) of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System which is the second largest barrier reef in the world spanning from Cancun on the northeast tip through the Riviera Maya and up to Honduras. Most people come to Belize to enjoy the diverse scuba-diving and snorkeling activities afforded by the reef, however, there are many other fabulous things to do and see in Belize.  Belize hosts her own share of noteworthy Mayan ruins, adventure sports and amazing wildlife.

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Tips to Make a Family Cruise Run Smoother

This past Christmas we took our first ever family cruise. It was my second cruise. The first cruise I did was over seven years ago on the Queen Mary when I was four months pregnant with my daughter Sophia. It was a business trip for my husband and my parents watched my son Max during our vacation.  I recall the trip being relaxing, enjoyable and fun. We sailed from New York City to the gorgeous southern town of Charleston, South Carolina and then to the Bahamas for a day.

Fast forward eight years, and we were on our first family cruise with the kids and my sister and her family. Four adults, four children ages 5-9 and four days and five nights on the Royal Caribbean meant we were in for quite an adventure jam-packed with fun, excitement and a small number of entertaining mishaps.

Our crazy kids

Our crazy kids

Looking back, it was a fabulous trip and we had an absolutely wonderful time glimmering with special memories. Yet it wasn’t without a small amount of “newbie cruiser” mishaps which prompted me to write this list of tips for surviving and enjoying your first family cruise together.

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