Stepping Back in Time at Xunantunich
The sun’s rays were scorching the top of my head as I wandered around admiring Xunantunich (pronounced Shoo-nan-tun-ich), one of the most fascinating Maya sites in Belize.
With hundreds of archaeological ruins spread throughout the country, Belize is chock full of history and culture. While many sites have been extensively excavated and are available for viewing, others remain mysteriously covered in the tangles of thick jungle. There are so many sites to choose from that it can be a challenge deciding which to visit.
One thing is certain though, magical Xunantunich should definitely be near the top of your list.
Built during the Classic Period, this area was once a major ceremonial site composed of six major plazas, with more than 25 Mayan temples and palaces. Situated on a natural limestone ridge a stone's throw from the Guatemalan border, the whole site appears to suddenly emerge out of the trees and expands in front of your eyes.
The incredible thing is, were it not for the parking lot, Xunantunich would remain almost completely obscured by the dense jungle. Not to mention, the site can only be accessed by crossing the Mopan River with a hand-crank ferry, the type of thing you would expect to find in an Indiana Jones movie.
Stepping on board the rustic ferry certainly set the mood for my visit to Xunantunich and made me feel like I was stepping back in time.
Anchoring Xunantunich together is the towering 40 meter high El Castillo, Spanish for "the castle", which is notable for its detailed friezes and also happens to be the second highest Maya pyramid in Belize. El Castillo can be climbed and gives you excellent views over the whole plaza.
From the top, the Belizean landscape fans out in rolling hills and jungle. It's easy to get lost in the view, imagining what life must have been like thousands of years ago for the Maya, who were one of the first civilizations to pioneer the fields of architecture, written language, astronomy, agriculture, mathematics, and the arts.
With no other tourists around, the unobstructed 360° view from the top of El Castillo was extra special. The refreshing breeze and peacefulness allowed me to simply enjoy the moment and let my thoughts wander through time.
Ancient cities are the stuff of legends and Xunantunich wouldn't be complete without a legend of it's own. Although the ancient name of the site remains unknown, perhaps lost to time forever, the modern name given to Xunantunich means "Stone Woman" in the Maya language.
Referring to the ghost of a woman dressed completely in white, the "Stone Woman" has been rumored to be seen floating up the stone steps of El Castillo before disappearing inside. She was first spotted by locals at the end of the 1800s, and there have been reported sightings ever since.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her during my visit, but sadly no luck.
In comparison to other popular sites like Tulum and Chichen Itza, Xunantunich benefits from not yet being overrun by tourists. Here you can explore the site on your own, climb the ruins, and take your time soaking it all in without feeling rushed.
This is one of the things that I enjoyed the most at Xunantunich: aimlessly wandering around the ruins, imagining a different era, a foreign civilization, their customs, traditions, and way of life.
If you're looking to get away from the crowds and explore a Maya site without feeling rushed or pushed around, then Xunantunich is the place to go.
Getting to Xunantunich & important info
- Situated on the Western Highway across the Mopan River from the village of San Jose Succotz, Xunantunich can be reached by ferry daily between 8 am and 5 pm.
- Located within the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve, the site charges each visitor an entrance fee of $5 USD or $10 BZ.
- Due to its location in the jungle, Xunantunich can get very hot during the day and there is often little or no breeze on the plazas. Be sure to pack a hat, sunscreen, and sip plenty of water.
- Public restrooms are available in the parking lot.
Many thanks to Travel Belize for hosting my tour to Xunantunich. All opinions are, as always, my own.