Xunantunich Maya Ruins – “Maiden of the Rock”
The name of this ancient Mayan ruin is a tongue twister, but to indigenous peoples who made this sacred site their home for millennia, Xunantunich was a safe, secure hilltop area with plenty of vantage points, just in case a neighboring army of usurpers or explorers from abroad sought to claim this stronghold. Though this site was settled–according to social scientists–around the 1st Century BC, builders didn’t develop the area until the 7th Century AD. The mystery surrounding the collapse of this Mayan population around 850 AD hasn’t been solved, but not a soul was left here by 1000 AD.
Xunantunich Maya Ruins
Though the excavated portion of Xunantunich occupies about 300 square meters of land, there is more to be unearthed. What remains behind tells of a quintessential Classic Period ceremonial center, but what separates this from other ruins is the domination of El Castillo, the tallest structure (sometimes called a pyramid) in Belize. It’s thought that this huge structure was the last ruling family’s ancestral shrine. The compound is divided into plazas for easy identification, but if you need more guidance to interpret features, find detailed information about the ruin at the visitor’s center.
Why should you visit Xunantunich Maya Ruins?
First, the aerial view from the top of the 130-foot-high El Castillo is worth the climb. From that vantage point, you’ll see an orderly layout surrounded by lush jungle and rainforest. Next, since many archaeological attractions in Belize can be hard to reach, Xunantunich is the exception. You won’t be required to forge rivers, squeeze into caves or bat bugs as you walk through jungle, and you don’t have to be a student of Mayan history to appreciate the plaza, stucco friezes, ceremonial masks and enigmatic designs scrawled along the bases of buildings in this fascinating compound.
Where in Belize is it located?
If you’ve a map of Belize, you will notice that this ancient Maya village is situated in western Belize, about 80 miles west of Belize City in the nation’s Cayo District. Specifically, it’s 6.5 miles west of San Ignacio on the Western Highway. It’s so close to Guatemala—less than a mile, in fact—that you may be able to spot it sitting atop a hill overlooking the Mopan River on your way to or from the neighboring nation.
When is the best time to go?
Because this easy-to-reach Mayan historic site is located on elevated land that can escape flooding when seasonal rains fall, Xunantunich is usually accessible 24/7. That said, if rivers rise as a result of a particularly wet green season, boarding the ferry to make the shore-to-shore river journey could be problematic, so if this site is atop your “must-see” list, visit Belize before June and after August.
Best way to reach Xunantunich
You’ll probably get a kick out of the free, hand-cranked ferry that leaves the village of San Jose Succotz, traverses the Mopan River and delivers you to the opposite bank where you’ll travel by foot or by vehicle about a mile (uphill) to the attraction’s ticket office on the Western Highway. You must request the ferry because there is no set schedule, though operating hours run from 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., so unless you intend to swim, don’t forget to book it.
Best way to experience Xunantunich
Plan to spend the day here so you’ve plenty of time to see everything, take photos and learn more about the site’s two building spurts (the first, about 800 AD and the second around 900 AD). The frieze travel writers talk most about is on the east end of the building where you’ll also find Chaac, the rain god. If you want to impress fellow travelers, share this tidbit: When the first buildings were constructed, El Castillo occupied the center of the village, but when the second construction wave doubled the site’s size, El Castillo wound up on the southern edge.
In 2016, a local team discovered a tomb of a Maya ruler underneath the main temple in Xunantunich, one of the biggest tombs ever discovered in Belize.
Interested in visiting Xunantunich Mayan Ruins on your Belize Vacation? Contact Untame Belize, a top-rated adventure travel company in Belize to book this tour.