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Xunantunich Mayan Site, Belize

Abandoned cities of the Mayan Empire dot the landscape across Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. Some are quite famous (think Chichen Itza, which I visited over a decade ago, or Tikal, which will be the subject of an upcoming post). Others are much less known. Xunantunich, practically on the border between Belize and Guatemala, is in the latter group.

To access the archaeological site of Xunantunich, you have to cross the river Mopan, which is only possible via this hand-operated ferry.
Xunantunich, Belize
Depending on the water levels, the ferry may or may not be able to transport vehicles. With our luck, no cars were allowed onto the ferry on the day of our visit, which meant that we had to shlep a mile uphill after disembarking. Interestingly enough, there are a couple of private landholdings adjoining the protected site – they surely experience these vehicular constraints with regularity, which must be real inconvenient at times.
Xunantunich, Belize
The variety of trees in the woods surrounding Xunantunich is a veritable highlight all in itself. Our guide did an excellent job explaining all of the different species to us, but unfortunately, my brain is no longer able to retain such supplementary details. The reddish-bark tree is colloquially known as “the tourist tree” – think what would happen to a light-skinned beach-goer who does not apply a sufficient amount of sunscreen – that associative visual stuck in my memory, but little else did.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Pronounced “shoe-NUN-too-NICH”, which is translated as “the Stone Woman” (which is based on the 19th-century superstition and is definitely not what it was called originally), this city experienced its heyday way back in the 7th-8th centuries C.E. Xunantunich is not a huge site, with a number of defined structures presided over by the pyramid known today as “El Castillo”.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
You can see tiny figures of people at the top level of El Castillo. We will ascend there as well, stopping to look over the site from different heights and angles.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
The top part of El Castillo displays amazing friezes on the eastern and western sides. The fact that you cannot see them approaching the pyramid on the main plaza (from the north) makes discovering them all the more dramatic.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
I always climb high points where accessible but this was the first time that I ever realized how dangerous these ancient structures might be. The top platform of the pyramid is probably 25 meters high and has no safety railings. I am not afraid of heights but I was certainly uneasy standing a yard or so from the edge. Stepping in between these walls provided a measure of comfort in addition to a nice perspective.
Xunantunich, Belize
Back on the ground, a few local residents hold their pose for the photographers.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
And we are back at the crossing.
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich is definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the San Ignacio area. A slightly more famous and stately Caracol is also accessible from San Ignacio, but requires non-trivial two-hour drive to get to. One more Mayan site, Cahal Pech, sits right on the outskirts of San Ignacio – with Tikal coming up later in our itinerary we decided not to overdo it with Mayan ruins.

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