Xunantunich Archaeological Site
One of Belize’s most impressive Maya ceremonial centers, Xunantunich rests atop a natural limestone ridge with a grand view of the entire Cayo District and Guatemala countryside. The local name for the site, Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-ta-nich), or “Stone Lady,” continues to be used, even after the ancients’ own name for the site, Ka-at Witz, or “Supernatural Mountain,” was recently discovered, carved into a chunk of stone.
Xunantunich in 2012
The Maya calendar places great significance on the year 2012 and countries throughout the Mundo Maya are planning a yearlong uplifting of Maya culture with events and ceremonies at various Maya archaeological sites.
To learn about what is planned for 2012 at Xunantunich, please visit the Xunantunich in 2012 page from our Maya 2012 travel guide.
Xunantunich is believed to have been built sometime around 400 B.C. and deserted around A.D. 1000; at its peak, some 7,000–10,000 Maya lived here. Though certainly not the biggest of Maya structures, at 135 feet high El Castillo is the second tallest pyramid in Belize (missing first place by one foot!). The eastern side of the structure displays an unusual stucco frieze (a reproduction), and you can see three carved stelae in the plaza.
Xunantunich contains three ceremonial plazas surrounded by house mounds. It was rediscovered in 1894, but not studied until 1938 by archaeologist Sir J. Eric Thompson. As the first Maya ruin to be opened in the country, it has attracted the attention and exploration of many other archaeologists over the years.
In 1950, the University of Pennsylvania (noted for its years of outstanding work across the Guatemala border in Tikal) built a facility in Xunantunich for more study. In 1954, visitors were invited to explore the site after a road was opened and a small ferry built.
In 1959, archaeologist Evan Mackie made news in the Maya world when he discovered evidence that part of Xunantunich had been destroyed by an earthquake in the Late Classic Period. Some believe it was then that the people began to lose faith in their leaders—they saw the earthquake as an unearthly sign from the gods. But for whatever reason, Xunantunich ceased to be a religious center long before the end of the Classic Period.
Located eight miles west of San Ignacio, the site is accessed by crossing the Mopan River on the Succotz ferry, easily found at the end of a line of crafts vendors. The hand-cranked ferry shuttles you (and your vehicle, if you have one) across the river, after which you’ll have about a mile’s hike (or drive) up a hill to the site.
The ferry, which operates 8 a.m.–3 p.m. daily, is free, but tipping the operator is a kind and much-appreciated gesture. Don’t miss the 4 p.m. return ferry with the park rangers, or you’ll be swimming. Be forewarned that during rainy season the Mopan River can rise, run fast, and flood, thus canceling this service until conditions improve.
Entrance to the site is US$10 per person; guides are available for US$20 per group and are recommended—both to learn about what you’re seeing and to support sustainable tourism, as all guides are local and very knowledgeable.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition