Xunantunich: Belize Back Country Travel and Climbing the Ruins

According to belizetourism.com, “If you visit only one Maya ruin in Belize, it should be… Xunantunich.”

After our laid back evening on the streets of San Ignacio, our hunger ignited by fragrant street market mangos, papayas and Belizean chicken, we were too tired to cobble together a street picnic.

So, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the jungle, spreading white linen napkins across our bug-doped legs at a country club-like steak house, called the Running W.  At the top of the menu? A  $26 Belizean-/$15.50 American -dollar steak tenderloin.  I giggle now, thinking of our current six-month flirtation with veganism.  (But that’s another story.)

In the morning, we bid the Log Cab-Inn—with its reversed hot and cold knobs, 3-inch roaches, wobbly toilet, exposed wiring, and minimal sheets, towels and pillows (above average for Belizean back country accommodations)—goodbye and headed down the road to Xunantunich.

Eight miles from San Ignacio, we motored into the village of Jose Succotz, so small, by the time you say Xunantunich (zshoo-NAN-too-NEECH) you’ve missed it.  Here we loaded our pimped-up-ride onto Belize’s second, hand-cranked ferry—with its fifteen-pound, attendant Iguana—and crossed the Mopan River on our way to Belize’s most impressive Mayan ruin.

The Maya originated in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C.  This civilization peaked around 250 A.D. in Guatemala, southern Mexico, western Honduras and northern Belize with over 2,000,000 citizens.  The ruins they left behind inspire many questions.

Entering the plaza ruins, towering pyramid-like structures required we throw our heads back to take them in.  The tallest pyramid, El Castillo at 130 feet, is large by Mayan specs, only surpassed in size by the Caana structure at neighboring ruin Caracol.

The guide pointed to a swath of Mayan figures carved into El Castillo: “The exposed frieze is actually a fiberglass replica,” he said. I felt disappointed until I realized this is only one small fraction of the pyramid, and the fiberglass protects the real frieze underneath.  A stickler for authenticity, I never would have known had he not said anything.

As we ascended the three-foot-high, hand-carved steps, I imagined the hands that chipped away at each boulder. The immense stairs weren’t made for walking.  I needed to clutch each step to pull myself up. Flooded with a sense of smallness in the face of this effort, I wondered about the Mayans.

At nine-years-old, Ilse was probably closer in size to the original Mayans who built this place.  While she and her father disappeared up a zigzag of steps off the back of the pyramid, Lena and I turned back to tackle the front side for a photo opp.  My tiny, 6-year-old, Lena hiked up her dress, hoisting one leg up each step as if climbing onto a horse. She didn’t complain. FOR. THIRTY. STEPS!

I hugged the rock steps inspecting each crevice for a sign that might point to a day thousands of years ago: a stain? A stone tool? A thought discarded by the universe? Whose sweat before mine salted these rocks?

Belize.com explains:

…certain temples were positioned so that precise observations of the equinox, solstice and other astronomic events could be made by sighting plants and stars along defined line positions on special buildings.

How would our modern societies be different if the placement of our public structures was more-oft inspired by something beyond us?

The name Xunantunich is interpreted as “Maiden of the Rock,” according to belizetourism.com.  As my daughters bolted around the ungainly steps and exposed passageways of this ancient temple, I wondered:

What was it like to have been a young Mayan girl? Or her mother?  Were girls sacrificed here? And would the honor of being chosen have displaced the fear of the unknown? 

 Did parents have mixed emotions about the sacrifice of their child, or was their belief so strong and their relationship so different with their child and the universe that I cannot comprehend?


The guide later explains that, indeed, the occasional human sacrifice occurred at these temples. Usually enemy soldiers and slaves, but indeed free-born boys and girls.

And, I was right, the steps were not made so much for moving around the structure—getting to the top or the bottom—rather for a place to pause and contemplate at each level.

I am grateful for the moments to step into a different culture and time and consider different ways of thinking.

What travel moment has caused you to step differently and see your world from a different place?

19 thoughts on “Xunantunich: Belize Back Country Travel and Climbing the Ruins

  1. One school break our family and another family of four with two teenage girls to match our own, traveled through Arizona. Although not nearly the size of the El Castillo, Toozigut and Montezuma’s Castle were, to me, the most beautiful structures I had ever seen. The occupant’s disappearance is, like the Mayans, a mystery. I would walk around with awe, taking note of each well placed stone, and using my imagination to recreate the life that once occupied the walls. Amazingly, after days of traveling to visit different native american sites, peering down to the bottom of meteor crater, walking through a ghost town (Jerome, which is no longer a ghost town!), we did not visit the one site that Arizona is most known for: The Grand Canyon!


    • Great anecdote! You’re spot on about Arizona’s ruins as well, and to think “What happened?” “Where did the ancient people go?” and “What kind of work occupied their daily lives?” Yes! All those great locations in AZ and to miss the Grand Canyon!? Well described Lisa! – Renee


  2. Renee, thank you so much for taking me on your journey. I love how the text and the photographs work together. Really lovely! As for my travel moment, it was when my 11 year old daughter and I were in a flooded windowless bathroom in Pisa. We had been waiting hours for a bathroom and both had on tight jeans (after those wonderful Italian meals). The toilet was a hole in the floor. We were trying not to sink ankle deep in the puddles of the uneven floor. In order to do so one of us had to hold the other to keep her balance hovering over the seat, jeans down at the knees. It was when I was doing the hovering that the power went out. We didn’t get out of there with dry feet, and that’s when I realized how spoiled we are that we take our amazing bathrooms for granted. Sorry it’s not more profound!


  3. Such a cool place – I love your thought: I hugged the rock steps inspecting each crevice for a sign that might point to a day thousands of years ago: a stain? A stone tool? A thought discarded by the universe? Whose sweat before mine salted these rocks?

    I’ve always thought of Belize as just a ‘beach’ vacation spot – I’d rather check out ruins than lay on a beach – maybe next time my wife wants to hit the beach resorts we can head down here since it looks like there is a lot of non-beach activities I can partake in.


    • Thank you so much for the close reading. I’m thrilled that moment caught your attention… it arrested mine as well — while there and while recalling! Belize offers so much for everyone: upscale areas, archeology, jungle, deep sea/pelagic fishing, shallow snorkeling, back country jungle, diving, mountainous and coastal regions… keep watching: I will post more, later, on Belize. Your typical beach party stuff can be found at Ambergis Caye. On the blog, I want to get to some other stuff right now. But, yes, you’re right, it’s much much more than a “beach” spot. Check out lodges in interior: SEven Sisters… if you want upscale check out the Coppola, as in Director Francis Ford, series of resorts… they are near the upper end if that’s where your travels take you for accommodations: Blancaneaux Lodge, Turtle Inn, La Lancha


  4. Another lovely portrait of Belize. When I visited Peru last year, I recall thinking about many of the questions that you raise here. I’m particularly taken with the sense of community that existed and all the work that was performed for the common good versus the individualism that we face today.


    • Thanks Tammy. You suggest an interesting question. How did cultures evolve from community emphasis to that of the individual? Was individualism more human nature or culturally based? Would love to know more about your Peru travels! – Renee


  5. The Mayans built quite a culture. I have visited other ruin cities made the the Mayans, but I have never been to Xunantunich. Looks like an awesome place – and it’s pretty clear you had a good time. Thank you for sharing the experience.


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