A major attraction that just happened to be within easy walking distance for us was the Mayan temple ruins at Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-too-nich). This was the first of the Mayan temples in Belize to be opened to the public (1954), with a hand-cranked ferry over the Mopan River providing access. We spent our first morning there while in the San Ignacio area, exploring what was left of this site - first settled between 200-500 AD (depending on who you believe). The peak years of this small settlement were between 700-900 AD. As with the rest of the Mayan cities in Central America, civilization seems to have crashed by 1000 AD when the building of great temples and written records ceased.
Xunantunich was re-discovered by Europeans in 1894 but serious exploration of the site was not carried out until thirty years later. This is a relatively small site as Mayan ones go, so it makes for a good half-day trip, one that we thoroughly enjoyed! We were out and about early (8:30 AM), so it was quite a peaceful stroll up the 2-km road from the ferry as we came upon the entrance to the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve (US$5 pp entry).
After looking at several interesting relics of stone stella and a historical overview of Xunantunich located in buildings to protect them from the elements, we continued out onto the flat open space of the site (2nd photo). This is quite a small Mayan site compared to others we have visited - Tikal the largest, then Chichen Itza and Tulum all being larger.
Located at the opposite end of Xunantunich from the main temple of El Castillo, is a smaller structure (3rd photo) with several levels and stairways. The information on site indicated that this was where the ruling class and/or high priests ended up living. There is evidence of earthquake damage to the structures in Xunantunich and it is believed that, toward the end of the habitation of this site, the working class lost faith in the protective powers of their rulers, and that at least one of them may have been sacrificed to the Gods.
The largest structure at Xunantunich is the 135-ft (40-m) high El Castillo pyramid, the second tallest one in Belize. The top of this structure still has intricate 10-ft (3-m) high carvings on two of it's faces - with the larger (Eastern) of these friezes protected by a replica artifical covering, as shown here with me standing below it for scale. As for the purpose of the friezes, articles on Xunantunich say they are related to rulership and the accession of power with masks representing the sun god as well as signs for celestial bodies. Steps lead to the top of the structure from two sides and although steep, are not difficult to climb.
With a pyramid as tall as El Castillo and being located on top of a limestone ridge, the views from the top are spectacular (2nd and 3rd photos)! We were really impressed with the panoramic sights laid out before us as we looked across the border into Guatemala and also over the surroundng Belizian jungles! It was also great to be able to look down on the Xunantunich site itself to get a different perspective on the other buildings. The one furthest away in the 3rd photo is believed to be the housing area where the ruler/priests lived when this site was a thriving Mayan community. The almost total silence, except for the refreshing breeze that helped to cool us down after our climbing exertions, was great as we just sat there on top for several minutes enjoying this moment in time.
However, it was not long before we noticed the first tour crowd arriving at Xunantunich while we were still perched atop El Castillo. Although they busied themselves at the far end of the site for a while, some very small people could soon be seen drifting toward the main attraction of the Reserve (4th photo). Although the side of the pyramid looks to angle down very sharply here, it was not actually too bad to navigate. The steps and pathways on the two sides of the pyramid were quite easy to use - not nearly as scary as Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan area!
The first thing you will want to know is how to pronounce the name of this Mayan site. Try this...."zoo-nan-too-nitch".
It is believed that Xunantunich was used as a ceremonial center and was home to the Mayan aristocracy from 700-900 AD. There is evidence of an earthquake around 900 AD after which time it appears the settlement had been abandoned.
Climb to the top of El Castillo for a fabulous view of the surrounding jungles and across the border to Guatemala. El Castillo is also adorned with elaborate friezes on it east and west sides. These friezes are actually reproductions made from fiberglass that are covering and preserving the originals underneath. See my travelogue for more photos from Xunantunich.
Admission is $5US. Ruins are open 730am to 430pm.
Xunantunich is a Mayan archeological site close to San Ignacio, built between 600 and 1000 AD. The ruins have been excavated and in some cases restored. Some of the friezes have been recreated from fiberglass molds of the originals. The originals were then re-buried behind the replicas to prevent further deterioration. You are free to climb up the pyramids and take in the view at the top.
The site has a visitor center and a small gift shop. Admission is $5 USD ($10 BD).
Take the local bus West to Xunantunich. The driver will stop for you right at the park's entrance. Hand cranked ferry ride across the river is cool. Look for the iguana's in the trees.
If your planning to walk in, get their early. Real Early. Park opens at 8:00 am. We rode the ferry across w/ the guy who opened the park.
Pretty steep walk of about a mile. It was cooler and cloudy in the morning so the walk in wasn't too bad for us. As we were leaving around 11am it was blazing hot and people were walking in soaking wet w/ sweat.
Ruins are nice. Small museum offers very good information.
The Castillo is pretty amazing as you can climb all the way to the very top. Amazing views up there! Really whet our appetite to see Tikal. Xunantunich was nicer in that you could climb to the very top of the pyramid. At Tikal, you could climb half way up Temple IV, all the others you could not ascend.
Xunantunich was one of my favourite Mayan ruins in Belize. Unlike most of the other ruins I was able to investigate this large ruin on my own, so I could climb up and down the large pyramids and tombs at my leisure.
The site was historically was not as important as those as Tikal and Caracol. In fact it was probably a junior partner to the later city. Unlike those two cities, Xunantunich was still occupied at 1000 A.D., probably because of its location to a large river. Xunantunich was largely looted and then excavated in the 1930's.
Today Xunantunich is dominated by the huge El Castillo. This wonderful building is soars 40m over the jungle and is one of the prominent images of Belize. From the top you can see all of the site, much of Western Belize and into Guatemala. Another interesting feature of the El Castillo is that it is surrounded by fine stucco carvings that have been well restored. The rest of the site actually is surrounding three plazas, each surrounded by buildings. The most interesting of these is the building archaeologists call the "Palace". This was just recently excavated and was more likely a meeting place for the local royality.
A word of warning about Xunantunich, it gets hot here. Unlike some of the other Mayan ruins, the pyramids here are exposed fully to the sun and during the peak hours it is very hot. Be warned before you decide to take a climb up and down these ruins and bring lots of water.
Xunantunich costs BZ$10 to visit and is open from 7:30am to 4pm. I visited by bus which run by here quite often. Just ask to be let off.
The Maya ruins of Xunantunich is one of the biggest attractions in Belize. The ruins are reached by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-winched ferry, and the view from the top of the highest structure, El Castillo, is absolutely breath-taking. El Castillo, or A-6, towering at around 130 feet (40 m), is the second-tallest structure in Belize.
To get to the site, you have to cross a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River. (We were advised by some not to forget to tip the operator!) Along the river, there are numerous souvenier stands hawking their wares, prices are high though.
Xunantunich is an archeological site 12 km east of San Ignacio and 4 km west from the Guatemalan border . It is reached via a ferry crossing the mopan river. From there is a 2 km walk uphill. The main structure is El Castillo, a 40 meters high pyramid.