Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, Belize

The sun god wears ornaments on his large ears and sits next to the symbol for the moon on El Castillo’s frieze. Adorning the west and east sides of the 130-foot tall pyramid, the astrologically themed friezes draw the visitor closer and closer to the highlight of Xunantunich.

Xunantunich was the first Mayan site in Belize to be open to the public. Not large geographically, it contains one of the highest Mayan structures in Belize—El Castillo. From atop this limestone behemoth, breathtaking views span in every direction: the Belize River Valley, the Cayo District and Guatemala, just a few miles away. Additionally, the rest of Xunantunich is spread out below.

El Castillo

El Castillo at Xunantunich, Belize

The name means either “Maiden of the Rock” or “Stone Woman”, depending on who interprets the Yucatec dialect. Either name stems from an image of a woman in one of the friezes.

In the late 1800s the infamous Thomas Gann began “excavating” Xunantunich. In reality, he was digging up artifacts which are all now lost along with his recorded history. Following excavations were just as shady, with important Mayan artifacts disappearing and dynamite being used to none to gently to open up the structures. In the 1990s a concerted and detailed excavation began.

Archaeologists uncovered eight stelae (monuments) and two alters. Stelae are normally carved, but most of the ones found at Xunantunich are smooth and plain. It may be that they were once covered with painted or incised plaster that has since worn away.

There are three main sections to the ancient site: the ceremonial center and elite residences; the middle class residences; and the ballcourt complex where the Maya played a rather vicious game resulting in the losers’ deaths. The six major plazas are surrounded by more than twenty five palaces and temples.

And of course, there is El Castillo looming over the southern end of the complex. The partially excavated pyramid was at one point filled in by the Maya and another pyramid built on top, in typical Mayan fashion. The friezes have been restored and covered in plaster, both to protect the original work and to clearly display it for the visitor. In addition to the carvings of gods and astrological symbols is a beheaded man, which archaeologists are at a loss to explain.

Frieze on El Castillo

The frieze on El Castillo, Xunantunich, Belize

Getting to Xunantunich is almost as fun as visiting the site. From San Ignacio take the bus eight miles east and get off at San Jose Succotz. From there take the hand cranked ferry across the Mopan River and walk almost a mile up the steep hill to the ruins. A new visitor center introduces Xunantunich to the visitor with models, a history of Mayan culture, maps, and an explanation of the archaeological work.

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