If you have a passion for historical places and things past and olden, the ancient Mayan site of Xunantunich, located in western Belize, is sure to take your breath away. For people vacationing in Belize, a visit to Xunantunich and other Mayan sites should be a priority.
Xunantunich refers to an ancient Mayan city that dates back to 300 AD and is believed to have been inhabited till 900 AD. In Yucatec dialect, the name means ‘Maiden of the Rock’ or the ‘Stone Woman.’ This is not the ancient name of the city (which is still unknown) but comes from a more recent legend. According to the legend, which started to spread from around 1892, a ghost woman, clad in white, used to haunt the site. She was seen to appear before ‘El Castillo,’ the largest pyramid of the city, and then disappeared into one of the stone walls of the pyramid.
Archaeological researches inform that the city of Xunantunich was ringed with a number of small villages that dotted the lush countryside around. The city was dependent on the villages for resources while the villages themselves were self-sufficient. It is believed that the site was abandoned around 900 AD after an earthquake hit the city.
The modern history of Xunantunich begins when Thomas Gann, a British medical officer, visited the place with a view to explore its archaeological past. The photographs of the site taken by Gann were displayed in 1904 in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, in Cambridge, Mass. Gann revisited the place in 1924 and had claimed to discover many Mayan artifacts. However, the whereabouts of these treasures are currently unknown.
Today Xunantunich looks like a series of plazas bordered by a number of pyramids. Most of the oldest structures are still intact. The tallest and the most famous pyramid of the place is El Castillo which (at 130 feet) is also the second tallest of all Mayan pyramids. The stucco friezes on the west sides of the pyramid have been restored and the visitors can have a clear view of them from the top of the pyramid. It is a short but steep climb to the top and you will not regret it. The panoramic view from the top of the lush green Belize country, the Guatemalan Peten District and the Mopan, Macal and Belize River valleys more than compensate for the exhaustion of the climb.
The site was first opened to public in 1954 after a ferry and a road to the site were built. Today you can either drive to the site or can take a bus from San Ignacio. The bus will leave you at the San Jose Succotz village. Here you will need to take the ferry to cross the Mopan River and then take a short one mile hike to reach the ancient city site. If you are traveling by car, the car will be taken across the river by the same hand-cranked ferry and the remaining distance can be covered by car, too. The ferry service operates everyday 7:30 am– 4 pm and is free of charge. The entrance fee is BZ$10 for foreigners and $5 for locals. The lodging facilities located at Cayo District also offer day trips to Xunantunich. These tours are popular with the visitors and normally cost US$25–$50 for one person. One can also visit the place on horseback.
Once you arrive at the site, you can start by paying a visit to the Xunantunich Visitor’s Center. The small museum displays a 3D model of the site, maps, and photographs from the earliest archeological expeditions at the site. Also on display are three stelae from the ruins. The visitors may also find the graphical description of the city’s evolution as portrayed in the museum edifying.
While you are in Cayo District, you may also like to visit other nearby Mayan archaeological sites that include Cahal Pech, Chaa Creek, Caracol, Barton Creek, Naranjo and Buenavista del Cayo. Vacationing in Belize may also include visits to the other Mayan ruins that are found in the country. These include Altun Ha in the village of Rockstone Pond (located north of Belize City), Cerros in North Belize, Nim Li Punit in southern Belize and Lamanai in the Orange Walk District.