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?
…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?