After a somewhat nerve-wracking introduction to Belize, I approached the rest of our time in the country with nothing but positivity.
I was in a brand new country, and a beautiful one at that! And with a full two weeks to explore, I was convinced I could see a sizeable amount. After all, the country is as small as the state of Massachusetts.
First up on my agenda was tracking down some rocks to look at.
While it’s Mexico that gets most of the attention when it comes to ruins, the Mayan kingdom actually reached down to parts of Central America, including modern-day Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. By this point, I’d spent six weeks travelling through the Yucatan and I have to confess I was starting to feel ruined out, but after hearing that the ruins of Xunantunich were easily accessible from San Ignacio and were likely to be void of tourists, I knew I’d regret skipping out on them.
And now, a pronunciation lesson: Xunantunich is pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch.
It means “stone woman” in the Maya language, because the ruins are supposedly haunted. And I am glad I only discovered this just now while researching for my post. Back in the 1800s, people started spotting a woman dressed entirely in white with bright red eyes. She would appear in front of El Castillo — the main pyramid at the complex — climb the stone stairs and then disappear into a stone wall.
Despite the complicated name, making the trip out to Xunantunich from San Ignacio required little brain power.
Vibrant chicken buses crawl their way out of town every so often, and after 15 minutes of bumpy riding, a huge sign by the side of the road let’s you know you’ve arrived. Total cost for the journey? 1.50 Belizean dollars or 75 U.S. cents.
From the bus stop, you’ll board a hand-crank ferry from the 50s that takes you across the vibrant green river whenever the operator feels like doing so, and we handed him a small tip for our 30 second ride.
Dave and I were the only people to both get off the bus and board the ferry, and I was instantly struck by a sense of isolation. Once we reached the other side of the river, we were surrounded by trees and countryside, and aside from the paved road leading up to the ruins, few signs of civilisation. The only sounds were the trickling of the river and the buzz of crickets.
I looked ahead, knowing we had a mile-long hike uphill ahead of us, and started walking.
I’d read online that cars and pickup trucks often make the ride across the river and up to the ruins, and that you could most likely flag them down for a lift when they passed, but nobody else seemed to be visiting Xunantunich today. I walked in silence up to the ruins, feeling as though we were the only people for miles around.
Of course, I was soon proven wrong when we got to the entrance and met the jolly woman at the ticket office. We handed over our 10 Belizean dollars entrance fee — 5 USD — and ambled inside.
And there was nobody there.
I’d visited several Mayan ruins in Mexico in the month before heading into Belize, and every single one of them had been crammed full of people. While I’d assumed Xunantunich wouldn’t be quite so popular, I wasn’t expecting to have the entire square mile complex to ourselves.
It turns out that Xunantunich isn’t a hugely popular destination for travellers, and even less so during the midday heat, when we were there.
Back when Xunantunich was at its peak, at around 800 A.D., it was a major ceremonial site, with something like 200,000 people living within an area of 75 square miles. The city consists of six plazas and more than 26 Mayan palaces and temples, all of which you can explore and climb all over.
What I found fascinating was that, until you reach the entrance to the complex, you’d have no idea these structures were even there. There’s so much jungle and wildness surrounding the site that you can’t see it until you’re right there inside of it.
This was my favourite tree:
We clambered over the smaller ruins for a while, before turning to the main attraction. El Castillo is the name given to the 40 metre high pyramid that dominates Xunantunich, and unlike its namesake at Chichen Itza, you’re free to climb all over it.
So that’s exactly what we did.
The views from the top were breathtaking, and we could see the jungle sprawling for miles around. To the west, just one kilometre from Xunantunich, lay the Guatemala border, our next destination, and I spent a significant amount of my time gazing into the country with excitement.
Given the heat and the general lazy theme of the day, Dave and I perched ourselves up on top of El Castillo for a full thirty minutes, taking photos of each other with the view and chatting about the fact that I’d just been contacted by a publisher and oh my god, did I really want to write a book about my many issues for the rest of the world to read and judge?
For the entirety of that half an hour, we were the only people up there, and if I wasn’t starting to get sunburnt I could have spent a full afternoon taking in the view.
Fun story! Dave and I had recently run out of sunscreen and popped into a souvenir shop to grab some. The only bottle they had on offer was *Mayan sunscreen*. It wasn’t until several days later, as we were rapidly getting more and more burnt that I bothered to look at the ingredients and realised the vast majority of it consisted of carrots.
If you can see that white line in the distance, by the start of the hill, that’s the Guatemalan border.
We climbed back down the pyramid when a group of loud people joined us at the top, and opted to spend a few minutes lingering around the smaller ruins before heading back to San Ignacio
As we wandered past the ruins and through the trees, I heard a deafening sound that chilled my bones.
“What’s that?” I hissed urgently at Dave.
The world began to spin as the only thing I could logically think about was that there was a dinosaur at Xunantunich, and it sounded hungry.
Have you ever heard howler monkeys before? If not, listen to the audio in this video that Dave took while we were there!
They sound like freaking dinosaurs, right?!
We stayed for a few minutes to take some video then quickly left.
I am not a fan of howler monkeys.
Xunantunich: Well Worth a Visit!
Long-time readers of the site will already be aware that I’m far more passionate about things that aren’t ruins when I travel — food, mostly — but I’ll still never deny my unexplainable compulsion to explore them. Even if I know — and I do — that I’ll most likely struggle to maintain my interest beyond a couple of hours, there’s always a small part of me that yearns to see them for myself.
I was fortunate to visit several of the Mayan sites in Mexico: Coba, Chichen Itza, and Tulum, and while I’d possibly not name them my biggest highlights in Mexico, I was glad to have seen them.
Xunantunich was one of my highlights of Belize.
I’ll fully admit that part of it could be that shortly after I left San Ignacio, I began work on my book proposal for How Not to Travel the World. This then led to me drowning in an enormous ocean of stress and self-doubt as I attempted to put together a narrative about my disastrous life. While Dave spent lazy days sunbathing in Placencia and Caye Caulker, I was often eyeing him with jealously from our beachfront hut, wrestling with words and knowing I couldn’t close my laptop.
That probably played a large part in it.
But it was more than that, too. I’m a bit of a contradiction in that two of the things I love most when I travel are the incredibly famous, over-the-top-overly-expensive-and-overrun-with-tourists attractions, but also the places that few tourists choose to visit. I don’t go off the beaten track in particularly dangerous places, but if I don’t know anyone who’s been somewhere, and it seems safe, it immediately makes me want to check it out.
Xunantunich checked the second box.
We spent two hours in total checking out the ruins, and saw maybe half a dozen other people while we were there, too. After Mexico, I know how tricky it can be to explore Mayan ruins in solitude, but it was simple in Belize. The fact that it’s easily accessible from San Ignacio is just another bonus.
So if you like ruins, or you like exploring kickass sites without the crowds, or you like monkeys that sound like enormous dinosaurs, come to Xunantunich! It’s a wonderful place to spend a few hours.