Xunantunich is a Mayan ruin in Belize. While there are many Mayan ruins in Mexico, this ancient civilization also stretched beyond the borders of present-day Mexico, and there are also ruins in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The ruins at Xunantunich Belize sit at the top of a hill overlooking the Mopan River. Built during the classical period, there are six major plazas and more than 25 palaces and temples. The ruins at Xunantunich are most famous for El Castillo, meaning the Castle, a 130-foot pyramid above the plaza. This ceremonial site is a popular attraction for anyone exploring Belize.
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are easily accessible from the nearby town of San Ignacio. Public transportation is widely available from the town up to the river, where a hand-cranked ferry brings passengers and vehicles across. The final mile to Xunantunich can either be hiked or driven. At the site, there is a refreshment center for adventurous travelers who choose to arrive on foot! Open daily from 8 am until 4 pm, Xunantunich Belize also has an impressive museum on site. The name translates to “Maiden of the Rock,” and it was the first Mayan site in Belize to be opened to the public.
The ruins at Xunantunich are often mentioned for not only the impressive El Castillo, but also for one defining feature of this temple. An intricate stucco decoration at one time surrounded the entire temple. Called a frieze, this decoration is very detailed and beautiful. Visitors can take the steep, but short, climb to the top of El Castillo and see this up close and personal. Two portions have been restored by archaeologists, one on the east, and one on the west side of the temple. The climb is rewarding as well for the 360-degree views that are gained at the top. From the top of the temple you will be able to see over the jungle canopy, and as far as Guatemala, which is only a few miles away.
When visiting Xunantunich, don’t skip the museum. Inside a 3-D model of the entire site is on display, as well as three carved stone slabs. These stelae are significant not only for their artistic beauty, but for the stories they tell and details they reveal about the ancient Mayans. During a trip to Xunantunich Belize you will also learn why the city was abandoned. The architecture is from the classic period, and construction probably began about 300 AD. Archaeologists theorize that the site was abandoned in approximately 900 AD because of an earthquake. Archaeologists have found evidence to strongly suggest that this was the end of Xunantunich.
The ruins at Xunantunich were discovered again in the late 1800s. The first known photograph was taken in 1904, and in 1924 the first excavation began. Many treasures were found during this first excavation, but unfortunately, the archaeologists’ original records were lost. The locations of the items they found are unknown, and scholars today theorize that museums with Mayan exhibits may be showing these pieces and not even know it. Excavation began again in the 1990s, and a new visitor’s center has been built. The entrance fee is relatively low, and accommodation is available locally if you want to stay overnight. This Mayan treasure deserves to be added to any itinerary for a trip to Belize.