Xunantunich Mayan Ruins—Top Things to See (+ Tips)

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If you visit San Ignacio, Belize, you’re in for a real treat—the Xunantunich Mayan ruins.

This archaeological site is the tallest Mayan ruin in the country. It’s close to the western border with Guatemala and just a short trip from the center of San Ignacio.

What can you expect from the ancient Xunantunich Mayan ruins? Read on to find out about the ruin, how to get there, and how much time to plan for your visit.

people at the top of one of the mayan ruin sites, xunantunich, xunantunish mayan ruins, xunantunish ruins

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Xunantunich Mayan Ruins Visit Information

These ruins are often less popular with tourists, a win for you! It is sometimes busier when it opens in the cool morning, as it can get quite hot during the day and it’s not very shaded.

You usually don’t have to worry about crowds, though.

If you’d like to pick up something, you’ll find a small shop bordering the parking lot with souvenirs. You may find some snacks and drinks available for sale.

There’s also a great small market on the side of the ferry on the other side of the river from the ruin. They have a lot of great handmade items for sale, including carvings, blankets, other knitted items, jewelry, and more.

I got a gorgeous small carved Mayan calendar to go with my painted Peruvian calendar.

local arts and crafts shop, woman and young bill standing outide of the shops selling fabric

Xunantunich Pronunciation and What It Means

Xunantunich is certainly a mouthful, so let’s start with a lesson on pronouncing it! Xunantinuch is pronounced “shoo-nan-too-nitch.” It takes a few tries to have it flow smoothly, for sure!

Have you heard of the Xunantunich ghost? Rumor has it that the ruin is haunted. Xunantunich means “maiden of the rock,” or more commonly, “stone woman” in Mayan. Does this lend credence to the rumor?

Stories about a woman dressed in white with red eyes started circulating in the late 1800s. The woman appeared in front of the main pyramid, El Castillo. She climbed the stone stairs and then disappeared.

No one knows the story about the woman. And no, I didn’t see her when I visited.

Interestingly, the second ruler of Xunantunich was a woman, which was quite rare. Her tomb was found during the excavations. However, part of the skeleton was crushed during the process.

Is this the stone woman? No one knows for sure.

Xunantunich History

Thomas Gann, British surgeon and district commissioner of the area known as Cayo, British Honduras, found the site in the mid-1890s. He settled there to explore the ruins and learn about the Mayan People.

His successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, continued excavating the site more scientifically. The ruin remains an archaeological site, with multiple projects exploring the area.

Xunantunich served as a Mayan ceremonial center. At its peak, nearly 200,000 lived in the area surrounding the center. The area grew in size from around 600 A.D., though there was evidence of settlements in the area before that.

It’s unknown why, but the site appeared to have been abandoned in around 750 A.D., though it was re-established from around 780 to 890 A.D. This is interesting because this was the time period when most of the surrounding Mayan settlements were failing.

Xunantunich lasted nearly 100 years, longer than most of the other Mayan areas in the region. Why? No one knows, though maybe we will someday.

xunantunich ceremonial center, sunny skies with a few clouds, xunantunich history, castillo xunantunich, xunantunish belize, mayan sites in belize

Xunantunich Map

Xunantunich is located on top of a ridge above the Mopan River. In fact, you need to cross the river to access it.

There is a large site map of the site near the visitor center. There are no printed copies, but you can take a picture of it to help provide a perspective of the archaeological site.

On it, you’ll see the visitor center, plazas, and some other areas of historical importance.

xunantunich map, map at the entrance of the park

What to See at Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

The center of Xunantunich is around one square mile (2.6 km), so it’s easily walkable. In this core area of the former city, six plazas are surrounded by over 26 palaces and temples.

There are four primary sections to the site, called Groups A through D. Most of the excavation to date and the primary structures are in Group A. The Xunantunich Archaeological Project is ongoing, with active excavations in the area.

Take the time to wander around the area. It’s quite beautiful, with flowering trees and gorgeous views.

Visitor Center

Make sure to stop in the visitor center as it’s fascinating. Some exhibits show the excavations’ timeline and the settlement’s history.

There are artifacts from the excavations and a model of the settlement as it was believed to have looked. You’ll also find details about the ball game that was popular in this region at the time and more about the culture of the people.

It’s quite informative, as is the Education Center. Both are on the property before you walk up the steps to the main area of the ruin.

inside the visitor center, two paintings of the xunantunich people, xunantunich tours, xunantunich visitor center

El Castillo

The highlight of Xunantunich is the structure known as El Castillo. It’s around 130 feet (40 meters) tall and one of the tallest structures in all of Belize.

Archaeological investigation indicates that the temple was built in two phases, starting around 800 A.D. It’s a large and impressive structure.

Interestingly, El Castillo is solid inside. And if you look out to the plaza beneath it, there are six levels of terraces and plazas below.

It was believed to have been used as a shrine by the elite city rulers. Four staircases are leading to the top, one of which you can still climb. It’s quite steep, and though there are areas with railings, the entire stairs don’t have them.

stairs to the top of the ceremonial temple, rock stairs, steep stairs, el castillo pyramid at xunantunich in belize

City leaders stood at the top to talk to the people down below. They also used the top of the structure for star gazing and ceremonies. You can also see a good distance around the river valley and Guatemala from this vantage point.

El Castillo Frieze

But what makes it most remarkable are the friezes near the top of the building. These stone carvings eroded on the northern and southern sides completely.

A project was undertaken to reconstruct and reinforce the frieze on the eastern wall. The frieze was recreated with fiberglass over the original stucco carvings.

The frieze tells a story about the royal family giving birth to a god. It also depicts the gods of creation and the tree of life, extending from the heavens to the underworld.

The El Castillo Pyramid at Xunantunich in Belize is one of the top draws to visit.

el castillo, up close view of the frieze art, el castillo pyramid at xunantunich in belize

Ball Court

You can see part of the remains of a ball court for a game called Pok-ta-pok. Make sure you head to the visitor center to learn more about this game, which was popular in the region.

It was a cross between basketball and soccer. They used a ball made of rubber mixed with cotton from local trees. It was around ten pounds and firm.

The game was played with two teams using their elbows and hips to hit the ball into a stone hoop at each end of the court. The losing players may have been sacrificed, so the stakes were high.

How to Get to Xunantunich

You have two options to get to Xunantunich. First, you can take a “chicken bus” from the center of San Ignacio. They run often and are quite inexpensive (under one US dollar).

If you go this route, you must hike up the hill to the settlement, which will take twenty minutes or so. It’s around a mile long. Sometimes, you can grab a ride with a driver.

The easier way is to hire a driver. You can negotiate on the price, but expect to pay around $30 USD +/-. For that, you’ll get the 15-minute drive there. They will drive you up the hill and wait for around two hours.

If you’re interested in staying longer, you can also negotiate that.

Crossing the Mopan River

The fun part of the trip is the Mopan River crossing. You’ll board a hand-crank ferry from the 1950s to take you across the river. It can fit around four cars, and you’ll likely be asked to leave the car and stand on the ferry.

An operator works to guide the cars on and off the ferry. Then, there is a man who provides the muscle to cross. It runs when the operator wants to run it, which is usually frequent.

There is no cost to the ferry, but it’s a good idea to tip the man doing the work.

Xunantunich Tours

Do you need to take a tour of Xunantunich? It’s not required; you can learn about the ruins from the visitor center.

Though, considering a tour is a good idea if you want to learn more about the ruin.

Here is a great tour option where you can add on cave tubing, cave kayaking, or horseback riding in the area.

Tips to Visit the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

Here are some tips for visiting the ruins to ensure you have the best time there.

  1. Bring water. Make sure you stay well hydrated when you visit the ruin. There isn’t anywhere to purchase water once you’re inside the property, so bring a bottle or two along with you. I love this bottle that’s a filter and bottle in one. It packs to the size of the filter, and you can squeeze it to pour water into a larger bottle if you choose.
  2. Be prepared to walk. Wear comfortable shoes as you’ll do a good bit of walking around the area. And keep in mind that the steps are rugged and uneven if you climb the ruins.
  3. Don’t skip sunscreen and bug spray. This is a recommendation for anywhere you go in Belize and the area. I love this sunscreen and wear this one on my face. This is the bug repellant I don’t go without, and it’s available in a handy spray now if you prefer. I use this bug repellant to spray my clothes before heading out. It makes bug-repellant so much easier.
  4. Go early. You’ll avoid the highest heat of the day and may avoid some larger group tours that come through. It’s generally not very busy, but tourists do come in waves.
  5. Shop after your visit. The market near the river is amazing, and I highly recommend you shop there. Wait until you finish touring the ruins, though, as there’s nowhere to hold things while you do.
  6. Bring cash. Many places in Belize require cash for payment, and this is no exception. Bring cash for the entrance fee and bring coins or small bills for tips.

Should You Visit the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins?

If you enjoy visiting Mayan ruins and learning about history, I highly recommend a visit. Even if you see Cahal Pech in San Ignacio, it’s worth seeing the Xunantunich ruins.

Not only is this ruin less crowded, but the grounds and the views are really gorgeous! Cahal Pech is the former home of a wealthy person or royalty, and Xunantunich is a former city.

Both give you an incredible view of Mayan life at its empire’s peak.

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