In the Yucatec-Mayan language, Xunantunich means “stone woman” — a reference to a mythological figure who is said to live in the nearby jungle. This mysterious woman is rumored to dress completely in white and has eyes that glow red. This shares some attributes similar to folk tales from the Yucatán, such as the myth of the Xtabay.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Xunantunich was the capital of the Belize Valley, an extremely fertile area for agriculture thanks to the quality of its land and the abundant water of the Mopan River.
At its height during antiquity, it is estimated that approximately 200,000 people lived in the Belize Valley, a demographic high that has still not been equaled in the region.
Research at Xunantunich kicked off in the late 19th century with digs conducted by the famous archaeologist Thomas Gann. Most research in the area came to a halt during World War I, but by the end of World War II, excavations resumed.
The earliest structures at Xunantunich appear to date to as early as 1000 BCE, but it’s not until the 5th century CE that the site seems to have taken on the form observable today.
The core of the ancient city is built atop an artificial platform and contains several large structures and pyramids, though large unrestored mounds can easily be seen around the outskirts of the site — hinting at the fact that Xunantunich was much larger than most visitors would assume.
The ancient city is also a paradise for birdwatchers, but keep in mind that there are also a good amount of less desirable creatures lurking. These include extremely aggressive ants and several species of snakes, most of which are not venomous. It is a good idea to bring along a good pair of thick boots and keep your wits about yourself, just in case.
The largest and most famous structure at Xunantunich is known as El Castillo, a 40-meter / 130 feet tall pyramid, surrounded by smaller structures.
Xunantunich’s El Castillo combines its great size, unique style, and a great many stucco friezes to be one of Mesoamerica’s most stunning structures.
The masks on the facade of Xunantunich’s El Castillo are nearly all identical with crossed banda in their mouths.
Aside from El Castillo, Xunantunich’s ceremonial center features several other beautiful monuments, including pyramids, residential complexes, and ceremonial platforms large and small.
Within the core of the site, it is also possible to see two Mesoamerican ballcourts where the Pok ta Pok ceremony, sometimes referred to as a game, was held.
Aside from its impressive ancient monuments, it is hard to overstate just how lush and beautiful the area surrounding the archaeological site really is. The first time I visited nearly 15 years ago, the sight of Xunantunich really did do wonders to lift my spirits, just when I needed it. It’s truly a magical place.
If you go
Getting to Xunantunich is easiest from the nearby town of San Ignacio. Buses running from the town to the Guatemalan border depart often and stop at the detour to the site, or take a taxi, which should not run more than $5 US or so.
Once you arrive at the detour to the site you will have to cross the river on a barge and then walk a couple of kilometers to the site. The walk is fairly easy, though it can get muddy during the rainy season.
The entrance to the site is a very reasonable $5 US. Guided tours are also available, and I would recommend seeking them out in San Ignacio.