The ancient Xunantunich Mayan Ruins are an incredible place to visit when traveling around Belize. As one of the most unique places to visit in Belize, the Maya complex gives an intriguing insight into the country’s history. The largest structure El Castillo is still one of the tallest buildings in all of Belize and offers a beautiful view of the ancient Mayan city and the beautiful jungle of Belize! Though many other Mayan sites in Belize are difficult to visit because of their more remote location, Xunantunich is located close to civilization and other Belize tourist destinations. A visit to this Mayan highlight is therefore a must on any Belize itinerary. This blog will tell you more about this unique place to visit, including practical tips and background information.
How to get to Xunantunich in Belize
Like most Mayan cities, Xunantunich is also hidden in the jungle, but fortunately close to civilization. Xunantunich is located in the interior of Belize close to the border with Guatemala and near the popular tourist destination San Ignacio in the Cayo district. The Mayan complex is usually visited from San Ignacio, which is included in every Belize itinerary.
Read more: best things to do in San Ignacio.
The Maya city is located along the road from San Ignacio to the border with Guatemala. If you travel by public transport, take the bus from San Ignacio with Benque Viejo as its final destination. This is the village on the border with Guatemala. Ask the bus driver to stop at the Xunantunich ferry. Hitchhiking is also a good option, as there is usually a lot of traffic on this road. With the Xunantunich ferry – actually more of a large raft that is pulled by hand and that can even be used by cars – you cross the Mopan River. From there you can easily walk to the entrance of Xunantunich.
Where to stay near Xunantunich
As you can easily visit Xunantunich from San Ignacio, it makes sense base yourself there and book a place to stay in San Ignacio. San Ignacio has many great places to stay, both in the city itself and in the lush jungle outside the town. We chose to book a few nights in the town itself as well as spend a few days in a beautiful jungle lodge to fully experience both sides of San Ignacio. If you don’t have enough travel time to do both, choose one of the unique places to stay outside the city and book one of the unforgettable jungle lodges of San Ignacio.
One of the places we stayed was Ka’ana Resort which is very close to Xunantunich, located on the road from San Ignacio to the Maya site. It is a beautiful small-scale resort with tropical gardens and atmospheric casitas. This was our best stay during our time in Belize because of the hospitality of the staff, the beautiful gardens, the lovely casitas with natural materials and a private patio, the great swimming pool and the organic vegetable garden. Ka’ana has its own taxi service, so we could ask the driver every morning to drop us off in San Ignacio or, for example, at the Xunantunich ferry.
After crossing the Mopan River, a short drive or walk will take you to the Xunantunich Visitor Center, behind which you will find the ancient ruins. Did you know the word Xunantunich means ‘Stone Lady‘? It refers to a local legend that a stone lady ghost appearance has often been spotted by locals at this location. Of course, this is a modern name that only emerged when the ruins were rediscovered. It is unknown how the Maya called their ancient city.
The History of Xunantunich
Xunantunich is a much younger city than other Mayan complexes in Central America. Only when many other cities declined in size and importance, this city flourished. That was around 600-670 AD. Archaeologists are not yet sure why this happened and whether the rise of Xunantunich is related to the decline of other cities. It is possible that the elite of Xunantunich could take control of this area when the other cities lost their power. The best years of Xunantunich probably didn’t last very long either. Though other Mayan cities flourished for more than a thousand years, Xunantunich only existed in its full glory for a few hundred years. The excavations have found evidence that a major earthquake eventually brought an end to the city.
The ruins were rediscovered around 1900, after which there have been occasional excavations. Early excavations may have dispersed some of the finds to museums around the world, where it is not known that these objects were ever excavated here. During your visit you will immediately see that not the entire Maya city has been excavated. Part of Xunantunich consists of overgrown hills, under which even more structures are hidden. A shame? Perhaps, but it also adds to the mystery of this ancient city. We have heard that other cities are deliberately not fully excavated and the jungle still grows over the old ruins, because this interplay with the jungle is also part of the history of such an ancient Maya city.
El Castillo, the tallest structure in Xunantunich
Xunantunich does not only have temples, but also many palaces. As we often associate the Mayan complexes with their impressive temples as there are often the largest and most impressive buildings, we almost forget that these cities were also inhabited. The simple houses have decayed over time, but the houses of the elite and the royal families are usually still there. Sometimes it’s even the most beautiful and well-preserved building nowadays, as is the palace at Xunantunich. The most striking building of Xunantunich is El Castillo which was not a temple, but a palace.
With a height of 40 meters, El Castillo is still one of the tallest buildings in Belize. We alternately read that this would be the highest or second highest structure (after the pyramid of the Maya city of Caracol). Visitors can climb to the top of El Castillo for a beautiful view of Xunantunich and the jungle environment. From several sides, there are stairs leading you up the terraces to the highest level. Visitors can also climb other buildings and temples (but not all, read the signs). But because these are less high, the view is a little less spectacular.
Remarkable and not to be missed are carvings on the east side of the El Castillo structure. We did not see anything like this in any other Maya city in Central America. We learned that these are replicas of the original, so the originals are no longer exposed to the elements and will be better preserved. Today only carved figures on the side of El Castillo remain. But in the past, the entire structure was surrounded by these unique carvings.
Other Mayan sites near San Ignacio
More Maya cities are hidden in the jungle near San Ignacio. The city makes a great base to explore more Maya sites and history in the area. The closest is Cahal Pech, which is pretty much in the city itself. The legendary Caracol is hidden deep in the jungle and can only be reached from San Ignacio, so many day trips are offered from the city. The most famous excursion in San Ignacio also takes you to a very unique Mayan site: the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, where human sacrifices have been found. And did you know that you can also visit the famous Mayan cities of Guatemala, Tikal and also the lesser-known Yaxha, on a full-day tour from San Ignacio?
#1 The ATM Caves
Not far from Xunantunich and San Ignacio are the famous Actun Tunichil Muknal caves. This excursion is hailed as one of the most unique things to do in Belize and is certainly very different from most places you can visit in Central America. The ATM tour takes you to an ancient Mayan cave, where human sacrifices were found.
Where a visit to Mayan ruins normally requires little physical effort, the ATM tour is a unique adventure. After a short but strenuous hike through the jungle you reach the entrance of the cave system. The system is largely flooded, so you will have to swim through the caves to get to the well-known cave that this tour is all about. In the caves, it is pitch dark and the only light comes from the headlamps of you, the guide and the rest of the group. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos during the tour.
Especially considering that the ATM cave is an ancient Mayan sacrificial site where many bones have been found and still lie, you’ll get that this is one of the most adventurous things to do in Belize. The tour is physically strenuous and you need to be reasonably fit to properly accomplish all the swimming and scrambling work to get to the main cave.
#2 Cahal Pech
Right next to or actually still in the city – and therefore within walking distance from the town center – you can visit the ruins of Cahal Pech. The ruins are a lot smaller and less impressive than, for example, Xunantunich or Caracol, but they are said to be the oldest Mayan structures in Belize. The Mayan complex is a lot less visited than its bigger counterparts, making this a peaceful visit without large groups or maybe even without meeting another visitor.
Cahal Pech has a strategic location on a hill, so that the environment and the river could be closely monitored. It was once the home of the elite of the Mayan people, leaving many temples, palaces, a ball court, pyramid-shaped structures and plazas surrounded by structures. There is also a small visitor center with a museum, where you can see some finds from Cahal Pech. What makes Cahal Pech different from all the other Mayan sites in Central America, is that this was not an ancient Mayan city of great political significance, but simply the residential complex of a wealthy family. This makes Cahal Pech a very different kind of Mayan ruin to visit than many other complexes.
Caracol is often called the most impressive Mayan city in Belize. The location certainly adds to the dramatic effect of this Mayan city, as Caracol is located deep in the Belizean jungle. As the location of Caracol is extremely remote, you cannot get here by public transport. The easiest way to visit Caracol is by a rental car or with an organized tour from San Ignacio.
Around the seventh century, Caracol was probably one of the most important cities for the Maya in this region. Throughout history, the city has fought many wars with neighboring Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala. At its peak, Caracol probably had about 140,000 inhabitants. The ruins of Caracol were discovered less than a hundred years ago and excavations only started in the 1950s. Caracol has still not been fully restored, like the well-known Tikal for example. It will probably never be fully restored though, as Caracol should remain part of its jungle environment, partly covering the buildings, which is also part of the history and story of the Mayan ruins.
#4 Tikal and Yaxha in Guatemala
San Ignacio is this close to the border with Guatemala that a day tour to this neighboring country is a logical choice if you are not already visiting Guatemala after Belize. We recommend making a day tour to Tikal from San Ignacio. If you have enough time and energy, you can also stop at the lesser-known, but amazing Yaxha Mayan Ruins along the way for the most magical sunset from the top of an ancient pyramid.
As travel distances are long and you also have to cross the border between Belize and Guatemala, it is a pretty long day trip from San Ignacio though. We therefore chose to make this trip without a tour and stay in Guatemala for a few nights.