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Monday, January 24, 2022

The awe-inspiring beauty of Xunantunich and its lush jungle

Xunantunich is an ancient Maya archaeological site in western Belize, located just under 1 kilometer from the Guatemalan border. Despite being in close proximity to the border and the city of San Ignacio, when arriving at the site itself it feels as if one were hundreds of miles away from the modern world and all of its problems.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
El Castillo is one of the most imposing at Xunantunich in all of Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

One of several unexcavated large pyramidal structures at Xunantunich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Given its proximity to the Guatemalan border, Xunantunich is a must-stop on the way to Tikal from Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Example of Mayan Corbel Arched interior chambers at Xunantunich, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Large platforms in Xunantunich’s largest ceremonial center exhibit the influence of the Tablero Talud architectural style of central Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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 view approaching Xunantunich’s main ceremonial center atop an enormous artificial platform. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

A beautiful toucan peeks out just long enough for me to snap a photograph. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The largest and most famous structure at Xunantunich is known as El Castillo, a 40-meter / 130 feet tall pyramid, surrounded by smaller structures.

El Castillo at Xunantunich is the second-largest ancient structure in Belize, second only to the Caana pyramid at Caracol. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Xunantunich’s El Castillo is certainly large, but it is also extremely beautiful as it is adorned with a large amount of surviving stucco featuring beautiful designs and emblems. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

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. 

Though stucco friezes only survive on the east side of the pyramid, they are splendid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The masks on the facade of Xunantunich’s El Castillo are nearly all identical with crossed banda in their mouths.

Stucco masks likely represent the rain god Chaac, though in a style very different to that found further north in the Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from El Castillo, Xunantunich’s ceremonial center features several other beautiful monuments, including pyramids, residential complexes, and ceremonial platforms large and small.

Ancient structures are visible from the summit of El Castillo in Xunantunich, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The largest of the two ballcourts excavated at Xunantunich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The archaeological wonders of Xunantunich are only enhanced by the breathtaking beauty of its surroundings. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

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.

A map shows the location of Xunantunich in Central America. Image: Google Maps

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.

A raft is used to cross the Mopan river on the way to Xunantunich. Tips for the operator are expected. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

A sign points the way to Xunantunich. It says one mile, but in reality, it is a little further. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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