Top Ten Belize Adventures

Mayan Ruins at Xunantunich
By Patti Lange & Chicki Mallan

The word Xunantunich (zoo-nahn-too-NEECH, "Stone Lady") is derived from local legend. A thousand years ago, Xunantunich was already a ruin. It's believed to have been built sometime during a.d. 150 - 900, the golden age of the Maya. Though certainly not the biggest of Maya structures, at 135 feet high El Castillo is one of the taller structures (Maya or otherwise) in Belize. El Castillo has been partially excavated and explored. The eastern side of the structure displays an unusual stucco frieze (it looks new and fresh, as if it hasn't been too long since its reconstruction), and you can see three carved stelae in the plaza. Xunantunich contains three ceremonial plazas surrounded by house mounds. It was first opened by noted archaeologist Sir J. Eric Thompson in 1938 after centuries of neglect. As the first Maya ruin to be opened in the country, it has attracted the attention and exploration of many other archaeologists over the years.

This impressive Maya ceremonial site is well worth a visit and a climb—from the top the panorama encompasses the thick green Guatemalan Peten District, the Maya Mountains, and a grand view of the entire Cayo District and Belize jungle stretching for miles to the horizon. To get to the top, follow a path that meanders across the front and side of the structure. At the top is a typical small Maya temple; watch out for the large step over a hole in the cement—it should be fixed by now! On one of our last visits, the site was empty except for one lone believer meditating on the very top of the roof of the temple in a perfect lotus position. He appeared to be in complete harmony with the blue sky and puffy white clouds above, the jungle below—and perhaps with the Maya gods of Xunantunich within.

Text © 2001 by Chicki Mallan & Patti Lange. Used by permission of Moon Handbooks. All rights reserved. Book is available through local bookstores and online booksellers.


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