The Magic of Xunantunich Maya City in western Belize

The Magic of Xunantunich Maya City in western Belize


What is it about Xunantunich?

Well, lots, actually, but we were still surprised to see our favourite ancient Maya site splashed across North American media from Canada down to sunny California this week in late May.

Yes, we stumbled across this wonderful ancient Maya site in the Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada) online edition, and then two days later; there it was again in the Sioux City Journal (Iowa), and again in the Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California).

We shouldn’t be surprised, as Xunantunich is such an amazing find anywhere, and even stands out in the Maya heartland of Belize, but three times over the course of a few days?

Anyway, seeing it brought back so many memories of great times there that we felt the need to mention it again.

Mayan for “Stone maiden” Xunantunich is definitely one of Belize’s prettiest Maya archaeological sites, renowned for exquisite architecture, beautiful frescos and stelae, as well as its park-like atmosphere and stunning views from the top of El Castillo, the iconic pyramid temple.

Xunantunich was an important ceremonial centre built around AD 600 near the end of the Maya Late Classic Period, boasting a population of some 10,000 people at its peak, and apparently continued to thrive while other Maya centres such as Tikal and Caracol were in decline. However by around 1000 AD Xunantunich was abandoned.

Today Xunantunich quietly thrives again as, for our money, Belize’s most charming tourism destination. Across the Mopan river from the village of Succotz, you reach the site via a hand cranked ferry and either enjoy the walk uphill through a forest filled with monkeys and birds, or drive up to the informative visitors centre, which gives a good introduction to the local history and the importance of the site as a ceremonial centre.


Xunantunich’s centre contains two main plazas; plaza A and plaza B with groups C and D located around the periphery. The most impressive building is El Castillo, (or Structure A6 in archaeologist parlance). This beautiful pyramid with intricate stucco friezes sits some 183 meters above sea level and some 42 meters above plaza level. From its summit above the tree canopy you can enjoy spectacular vistas of jungle and farmland with the towns of San Jose Succotz and Benque Viejo Del Carmen on the Belize side and Melchor de Mencos across the Guatemalan border.

Of El Castillo’s two stucco friezes, the western side had most of the stucco destroyed, but the eastern frieze is more complete, clearly displaying various motifs and symbols of Maya astronomy and cosmology. The vaulted rooms at the top of the pyramid provide shade and are a welcome place to relax after the steep walk up and take in the views.

This is a great site for a day trip or picnic, and just walking around, checking out the ball courts and other structures fires the imagination, allowing you to picture how life would have been so many centuries ago when the entire Chaa Creek area was a thriving agricultural and trade hub, with the Macal and Mopan rivers important links carrying people and goods to various centres all the way down to the seacoast.

People come from far and wide to see this lovely remnant of the ancient Maya civilisation, but its close proximity to Chaa Creek makes it an easy and delightful excursion for their guests. It’s also features in Chaa Creek’s all-inclusive wedding and honeymoon vacation packages, affording an opportunity to actually get married with the grand pyramid as a backdrop, exchanging vows while standing on the same stones that so many centuries ago were used for Maya ceremonies. And the picturesque setting will be the highlight of any honeymoon album.

However, whatever your reasons are for visiting Xunantunich, you won’t go away disappointed. And by all means, don’t forget the camera.

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