It’s not as famous as Mexico’s Chichen Itza. It’s not as tall as Guatemala’s Tikal.
But here in western Belize, the Xunantunich Mayan ruins will make your jaw drop.
And maybe your palms sweat.
Pronounced shoe-NAN-to-nitch (or as some tourists mangle it, Tuna Sandwich) its name means “stone maiden.” The dominant structure, El Castillo, is notable not only for its elegant friezes of hieroglyphs depicting rulers and gods, but for the fact that visitors can still climb to the top of the 130-foot temple, if they dare.
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Unlike at Mexico’s Chichen Itza, which was closed to climbers in 2006 after a woman fell to her death, Xunantunich’s climb is done in bits and pieces, with plenty of flat places to stop — and even a handrail staircase for the final descent.
Still, it’s not for everyone.
“I’m afraid of heights,” one tour guide confessed as he stood in the shade on a plaza halfway up, watching the rest of his group ascend to the very top. “The view is still good from here.”
Reached independently by car or as a day-trip excursion for cruise ships docked in Belize City, Xunantunich is one of Belize’s top attractions, although many Americans have never heard of it.
The entrance near the village of San José Succotz is surrounded by small shopping kiosks selling crafts and textiles. From there, every person, vehicle and animal must cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry to enter the park.
Then it is a 1-mile uphill trudge to the visitors plaza (or a swift ride in a minibus, welcome in this humid climate where the average temperature is 88 degrees.)
From there, you walk a bit farther, past a gift shop, a new visitors center that opened in March, groves of allspice trees, then onto a grass-covered plaza and the striking sight of El Castillo.
In Xunantunich’s heyday, roughly 600 to 900 AD, “the walls would have been whitewashed plaster and almost certainly painted,” says Jason Yaeger, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor of anthropology, who has spent every summer for 23 years in and around Xunantunich. The site spreads out with 26 structures and multiple plazas, many still uncovered.
In terms of importance, “It is a middle-sized site, not as big as (Guatemala’s) Tikal certainly, but at certain times in its history, it was the capital of an autonomous kingdom,” said Yaeger.
Although many people think Mayan culture was restricted to what is now Mexico, the grand kingdoms of the first millennium spread throughout what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Xunantunich just became a tourist attraction in the early 1990s as excavations progressed and tourism infrastructure was added. Today it draws about 46,000 visitors a year.
Beautiful as the area is, the site and region do have reminders of the sometimes cruel world of the Maya. There’s a ball court, where the loser of the games faced sudden death — literally. Not far from Xunantunich is a mysterious cave that was important for Mayan ritual and human sacrifice.
For Yaeger, it is worth spending extra time in the region to see not only Xunantunich and other ruins, but also Actun Tunichil Muknal (in English, Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), thought by the ancient Maya to be an entrance to the underworld. The cave was rediscovered in 1989.
“It’s an all-day adventure tourism trip,” he says. “You hike through jungle and swim a river to get to a cave, then walk through an underground stream for a quarter-mile, then climb into a giant chamber where the Maya left offerings. Sacrificial victims, food offerings, skulls, they are still there on the altars, left where the Maya placed them.
“And you see a small niche where a woman was sacrificed 1,200 years ago, and there are (sparkling calcite) crystals all over her bones,” Yaeger said.
After that, a climb to the top of Xunantunich’s El Castillo will seem simple.