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Exploring the Xunantunich Maya Ruins in Belize

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

The ancient Maya site of Xunantunich near San Ignacio, Belize is one of the most important Maya ruins in Belize. With its huge, picturesque pyramid and archaeological wonders, the Xunantunich Maya ruins are a top place to visit in Belize.

About Xunantunich

Belize Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

The Maya ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch) is a large archaeological site and was once a major ceremonial site and vibrant society.

The ancient city rose and declined between AD 700 to 1000, and while many other cities in the region were in decline during this period, Xunantunich was thriving.

The site was left largely untouched until the first modern explorations took place in the 1890s by amateur archeologist Thomas Gann. His successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, established the region’s first ceramic chronology during his work at the site.

It was around this same time that the ancient site got its modern name. Xunantunich is a Mayan word meaning “stone woman”. The name comes from the specter of a woman dressed in white that some claim to have seen standing at the opening atop the tallest pyramid El Castillo. I’m all for a good ghost story, but when you visit, take a look at that opening and you can see the white stone at the back — perhaps too many long, hot days in the Belizean jungle and the lighting are playing tricks on people’s minds?

Major excavation of the site began in the 1959-1960 by a Cambridge team led by Euan MacKie. This excavation was able to infer that some of the buildings had been shattered by a sudden disaster, like an earthquake, leading to the decline of the city.

Getting to Xunantunich: Crossing the Mopan River

Ferry on the Mopan River

Xunantunich is located in western Belize, about 70 miles west of Belize City and right near the border to Guatemala, in the Maya village of San Jose Succotz, Belize.

There are plenty of guided tours that will take to to Xunantunich if you don’t want to make the journey on your own. We took a tour organized by our resort and had a wonderful guide to walk us through the site.

To get to the ruins, you have to cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry. If you’re crossing in a vehicle, you’ll have to exit the vehicle and stand on the ferry as it goes across, which is much better for experiencing the ferry anyway. The ferry is free to ride and is the only way across the river here.

Then you drive up a tall ridge until you make it to the ticket desk and visitor center. The ancient Maya site stretched out over this whole area, but you’ll need to walk up a steep hill before coming to the uncovered stone structures.

Top Xunantunich Tours

Exploring the Xunantunich Maya Ruins

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

Until you’ve scaled the large hill, you’d never know there was a Maya city hidden within this jungle.

The site sits on a flattened ridge that holds six major plazas and more than 25 structures. You can get up close to, touch, and climb many of the structures. There are clear roped off areas and signage telling you where you cannot climb or touch.

The site also has a small visitor center with a museum that gives you a closer look at some of the monuments and artefacts uncovered here.

Climbing the Pyramids at Xunantunich

Climbing the Ruins at Xunantunich

You can climb to the top of El Castillo, the tallest structure on the site as well as the second tallest structure in Belize, and the smaller A-1 structure in the middle of the main plaza.

El Castillo is a 130-foot tall pyramid that served as dwelling, shrine, and administrative building for the elite rulers of the city. The large structure absolutely dwarfs anyone standing next to it.

El Castillo at Xunantunich

You’ll ascend El Castillo first by the front stairs then by the side on the east to reach the very top. At the top of the east and west sides are fiberglass replicas of the carved friezes that adorned the structure. Some of the figures on the east side include a representation of the sun god flanked by the moon and Venus.

El Castillo Friezes at Xunantunich

From the top of El Castillo, you’ll have a breathtaking view of the Maya ruins, Belize, and Guatemala.

View from the top of the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

Take some time to enjoy the views after your long, hard climb. It’s also a great spot for a photo opp.

Photo on top of El Castillo at Xunantunich

You’ll then descend the pyramid on the west side. This side gives another great view of the massiveness of the structure.

El Castillo at Xunantunich viewed from the west

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Exploring the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins in Belize

Have you climbed the Xunantunich Maya ruins in Belize? Let me know about your trip in the comments!

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  1. Mayan ruins have always been on our radar – from Palenque to Uxmal to Tikal – so this post was a joy to read. And love that you shared how the name Xunantunich comes from the specter of a woman dressed in white – timely for an October read!

  2. Wow these ruins look amazing! I visited some in Mexico a decade ago but you couldn’t really climb on them. It’d be so cool to walk up those steps!

    1. I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve been able to climb pyramids both in Belize and in Mexico. It’s such a shame that some people feel the need to destroy beautiful things.

  3. Wow it looks beautiful here. I do not think this would be a trip I would want to do on my own either so I would probably chose the guided tour option like you did. This seems like the perfect day trip to see some beautiful views and get some good exercise in! Thanks for sharing.

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