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Visit Xunantunich Mayan Ruins in Belize

As the hunter from the village of San Jose Succotz quietly walked through the jungle near the ruins of Xunantunich, he was thankful for the tall canopy that shaded him from the fierce, tropical sun. Although the sweat poured off his face in the humid understory, he knew it would have been much worse under clear skies. As he started to ascend the steep hill slowly, he knew he was approaching Xunantunich with each, muddy step. The climb was not going to be an easy one but if it meant catching the large tapir whose tracks he was following, he could feed his family for a week. He didn’t want to get too close to the old ruins of Xunantunich because of all the stories about how the place was haunted but what choice did he have? Ghosts of Xunantunich or no, feeding his family was far more important than heeding the superstitious kids in San Jose Succotz.

When he reached the top of the hill, the hunter stopped to catch his breath and could barely make out the silent, gray, rocky ruins of Xunantunich through the dense, green foliage that reverberated with whining cicadas.  He suddenly felt a chill despite being covered in sweat but shook it off and continued onwards, following the tapir trail directly towards Xunantunich. Feeling that he was getting close to his quarry, with excited steps the hunter moved quickly through the forest until he reached a clearing at the base of the largest pyramid that dominates Xunantunich. Here at the bottom of the looming, Mayan structure, the tapir trail seemed to disappear.

As he searched for its tracks, a flash of color caught his eye near the top of the pyramid. Immediately looking up, his sharp eyes fell upon an unfamiliar woman dressed in traditional Mayan clothes. Although she looked to be around twenty years of age, there was something very odd about her and she seemed to fit right into place at the ruins of Xunantunich. Before he could say a word though, the woman turned around to walk into one of the chambers at the top of the pyramid. Unable to find the tapir trail, the hunter climbed the steps of the pyramid at Xunantunich to see who that strange woman was. However, when he reached the top, the chamber she had walked into was empty and he was left all alone at Xunantunich, feeling confused and a bit frightened. When he got back to San Jose Succotz, his telling of the event was mostly greeted with laughter, odd looks, and outright disbelief. One old villager though took the hunter aside and asked him if he knew what the word, ‘Xunantunich’ meant. After the hunter exclaimed that no, he did not know what ‘Xunantunich’ meant, the old man told him, “Xunantunich means ‘stone woman’, and I think you saw her just as I did when following a tapir trail to Xunantunich forty years ago”.

Although visitors to Xunantunich probably won’t see the “stone woman” supposedly seen by several locals seen since the 1800’s, they will certainly see one of the tallest pyramids in Belize and a ruin site from the late classical period of Mayan history.

Description of Xunantunich

Whether coming from the east or the west along the Western Highway in Belize, the ruins of Xunantunich are visible from the highest points of the road as one approaches the village of San Jose Succotz. The most easily seen structure from the highway is the most prominent of Xunantunich; the main pyramid known as “el Castillo”. Standing nearly 130 feet in height, el Castillo is nearly as tall as the huge pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Caracol. The largest structure at Xunantunich, el Castillo is found to the left after entering the site and can be climbed. Utilized by the rulers of Xunantunich as living quarters, it was also used for governing the city and housed a shrine. Climbing this multi-use building reveals friezes with astronomical symbols and carvings of jaguars. Although these are replicas in order to protect and preserve the originals from wind and rain, they were expertly carved to accurately copy the large carvings once visible to the 10,000 inhabitants of Xunantunich. This part of the pyramid also houses the chamber into which the “stone maiden” vanished at Xunantunich. The shrine or temple at the pyramid is found up on top, above the area with the friezes. Climbing on top of the pyramid offers fantastic views of the surrounding area that Xunantunich once occupied; land now covered in dense rain forest and small farms. On clear days, the Mayan city of El Naranjo may have been visible from this highest spot at Xunantunich.

Carvings on the peak of the El Castillo Pyramid
Carvings on the peak of the El Castillo Pyramid (Photo Credit: www.flickr.com by Zhu)

Right el Castillo is a few plazas with several structures. The set of buildings closest to the pyramid houses several altars and stelae although those with intricate carvings (the most interesting) were relocated to the visitor center, or were taken by Thomas Gann from Xunantunich. Trails to the west or left of this set of structures pass the ruins of a ball court, a few granite spheres, and eventually lead to smaller buildings. Although the function of the stone spheres is unknown, the buildings are thought to residences that were used by the middle-class elite of Xunantunich. These middle-class elite residents of  Xunantunich may have owned important businesses for the community. Trails from these smaller buildings lead to another plaza at Xunantunich with several buildings and structures that are currently being excavated and investigated. South of the pyramid, there is another set of trails that lead to some tombs and structures found in an area that was used for burials at Xunantunich.

The visitor center also acts as a small museum that showcases some of the treasures and more interesting pieces found at Xunantunich. Local guides can also be hired at the visitor center for detailed tours of Xunantunich given by descendants of the people that lived in the ruined city. The Xunantunich visitor center is located just past the entrance to the site at the top of the steep, forested, entrance road. Due to its location just above the forested road, the visitor center is also a good spot to look for birds such as toucans, parrots, tanagers, finches, and other rain forest wildlife. Although the rain forest at Xunantunich is too small to support populations of tapirs, or other large animals, smaller mammals such as armadillos, squirrel-like agoutis, and mischievous coatis are still encountered.

History of Xunantunich

Unlike other Mayan sites of large, important cities, those of Xunantunich have a much shorter history. Although the area around Xunantunich was probably settled around 300 to 600 B.C., few structures were built until one thousand years later. For most of Xunantunich’s history, it was probably a small, quiet village of thatched huts inhabited by Mayan farmers that grew squash, beans, and the most important crop for Mayans; corn. Xunantunich didn’t develop into a city until around 700 A.D. known as the late classical period of the Mayan civilization, around this time the populations and infrastructures of most Mayan cities had begun to decline. At the same time, that huge Caracol was seriously declining (during the 800s); Xunantunich was experiencing a building boom that resulted in the construction of the second highest pyramid in Belize. The conversion of Xunantunich from village to city was probably due to an alliance with the Mayan city of Naranjo. Located west of Xunantunich in modern day Guatemala, Naranjo managed to defeat Caracol in battle in the late 600s finally.

Art Work on the Wall
Art Work on the Wall

The spoils of this victory may have been used to build Xunantunich and also gave the rulers of Naranjo incentive to establish the site as an outpost that could help protect and buffer Naranjo from attacks by the Mayans of Caracol, as well as from possible invasions that originated to the east. Construction in Xunantunich may also have boomed while the infrastructure and stability of other cities collapsed simply because they were the last city around. Somehow avoiding the undetermined factors that led to the decline of the other Mayan cities, the inhabitants of Xunantunich may have been able to put more resources into building and infrastructure instead of utilizing precious resources for military endeavors or to pay tribute to other Mayan cities. The population of Xunantunich may have also been augmented by Mayans fleeing from the abandoned cities. These new immigrants to Xunantunich may have brought skills, knowledge, and enough manpower to build the structures that now act as an interesting ruin site for tourists. Whatever the reasons were that enabled the rise of Xunantunich, its time as a city was all too brief compared to Mayan sites such as Tikal and Caracol.  Just three hundred years after it was established as a city, Xunantunich was abandoned despite surviving an earthquake around 900 A.D.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that explorations of Xunantunich were made. Carried out by the British medical officer Thomas Gann, he excavated some of the Xunantunich ruins, but unfortunately removed many items including some important stone carvings whose whereabouts remain unknown. Other excavations at Xunantunich took place at various times during the twentieth century and continue into the present time. Unlike the endeavors of Thomas Gann, finds of other archaeologists have been left on site and can be seen at the visitor’s center located at the Xunantunich ruins. At this informative visitor center, not only can tourists learn more about Xunantunich, but they can also do so by interacting with the descendants of the people that used to live there as most of the workers at Xunantunich come from the closest village.

Stanning view of Xunantunich Ruins
Stanning view of Xunantunich Ruins (Photo Credit: www.flickr.com by Lindsay)

Directions and Transportation to Xunantunich

Situated in the western part of the Cayo district near the Guatemalan border, the area around Xunantunich is rich in Mayan ruins. Xunantunich is one of the easiest Mayan ruins to access. Found about eight miles west of San Ignacio along the Western Highway, Xunantunich is located just across the Mopan River from the village of San Jose Succotz. Whether arriving by foot or by car, an interesting hand-cranked ferry is used to safely bring visitors across the swift waters that are an attraction to kayakers. Upon crossing the river, the steep entrance road of around one kilometer in length must be climbed to see the ruins of Xunantunich. Although this is accessible by vehicle, four-wheel drive is sometimes necessary to reach the ruins of Xunantunich.

Accommodation near Xunantunich

The closest accommodation to Xunantunich is found in and around San Jose Succotz village. The two most popular places to stay are at the Trek Stop and the appropriately named Xunantunich Hotel. The Trek Stop offers basic but clean cabins and also rents out tents for their camping area; the only option for camping near Xunantunich. Situated on the grounds of the Tropical Wings Nature Center, lodgers at the Trek Stop also have the opportunity to see a butterfly garden, trails through tropical forest, nature-themed exhibits, and Mayan ruins much smaller than those of Xunantunich.

The small Xunantunich Hotel found in the village offers basic comforts and the chance to interact with the residents of San Jose Succotz.

San Ignacio offers a wider variety of choices for lodging for visitors to Xunantunich, including the more upscale San Ignacio Hotel. This hotel overlooks the Macal River, has a good restaurant and is the headquarters for the Green Iguana Restoration Project. These ‘chickens of the trees’ have become very rare due to overhunting around Xunantunich area. Noting their scarcity, the owners of the hotel allow the hotel grounds to be used to raise dozens of Green Iguanas for release into the forests near Xunantunich.

Some other hotel options in San Ignacio for visitors to Xunantunich are the Cahal Pech Village Resort, Venus Hotel, Hi-Et Hotel, the New Balmoral, and the Casa Blanca Guest House.

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