Xunantunich, meaning “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman” in Maya is one of the most visited Maya sites in Belize. It is located near the village of San Jose Succotz in the Cayo District. This site was first explored by Thomas Gann in the late 1890s and by Teobert Mahler of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.
According to the Institute of Archaelogy, the data gathered from the excavations suggest that Xunantunich was successful in the Terminal Classic period (A.D 700-900). Research suggests that during this time, Tikal which is 32 kilometers away, was already abandoned. According to Jennifer Taschek and Joseph Ball, “Most of Mayan civilizations were crumbling. Xunantunich was managing to expand its city and its power over other areas within the valley. It lasted a century longer than most of the sites within the region. It is known that Xunantunich superseded Buena Vista as the hub of socio-political administration for the upper valley, in addition to the main location for elite ancestral and funeral rites and ceremonies. One theory is that the move was made due to political strife in the lowlands due to neighbours vying for control over Buena vista, and that Xunantunich is a much more easily defensible site (located on top of a hill)”.
When travelling to the site today, you have to cross the Mopan river by a hand-cranked ferry. You walk, drive or if you really want an exciting experience, ride by horse less than a mile to the site. The site measures approximately one square mile and includes six major plazas surrounded by 25 temples and palaces. The site itself is surrounded by the rainforest and a wealth of animals, birds and even a family of howler monkeys if you’re lucky enough to see them. This site can either be explored on your own or along with a guide. To really get an understanding of this great Maya city, it is recommended that you get a guide to walk you through.
One of Xunantunich’s prominent structures is the great temple known as “El Castillo”. It is the second tallest structure in Belize at 130 feet (40 m) tall. From the top of “El Castillo” you can see the border towns of Benque Viejo and Melchor in Belize and Guatemala respectively. You can also see the Mopan river valley. An outstanding feature of “El Castillo” is the partially reconstructed frieze on the lower temple depicting a mask with large ears that may represent a sun god. On the west side of El Castillo archaeologist’s excavations revealed another carved structure depicting a seated figure surrounded by leaf-like structures. There is also another figure in a dancing position holding on to ropes that may represent birth ropes that Maya women would hold on to while giving birth.
The site has a visitor’s center, as do most archaeological sites in Belize, with a wealth of information about its history and home to four carved Maya stelae.
What makes Xunantunich a really special archaeological site to visit is the spectacular 360 degree view it offers to the brave hearts who dare to climb El Castillo to its summit. From the top of the ruin you can really see how the Maya civilization was as organized and efficient in using their resources as today. For all the experiences it offers, Xunantunich is definitely one of the places that you must visit if you are in the Cayo District.
Have you visited Xunantunich Maya Ruins? If so, tell us what you think about it.