Pronounced ‘shoo-nan-too-neech’, Xunantunich, one kilometre from the town of Benque Viejo on the Guatemalan border in western Belize is an incredible Mayan archaeological site that dates from around 600AD. It is said to be the longest established in Belize.
Xunantunich translates in the Yucatec Maya language as ‘Stone Woman’ or ‘Maiden of the Rock’ after a 200-year old local legend of the ghost of a beautiful Mayan maiden with fire-red eyes. It is said that she appeared to local hunters, beckoning them to follow her into a cavern but who disappeared before they could do so.
It’s believed that the first settlers in the area arrived between 600BC and 300BC but the ruined city you see today was constructed from around 650-700AD. The core area measures little more than 300 square metres and consists of three ceremonial plazas surrounded by palaces, pyramids and residential mounds and the largest are decorated in beautiful friezes and Classic period masks.
The jewel in the crown is El Castillo (‘The Castle’) which, at 130 feet tall, was the tallest man-made structure in Belize before the discovery of Canaa at Caracol. It is covered in magnificent stucco friezes depicting astronomical symbols as well as three carved stelae. It served as a triumvirate of shrine, administrative centre and dwelling for the city’s elite and is worth the trip alone.
The museum/visitor centre holds some beautiful jewellery and pottery finds and while it’s not as expansive as other Mayan ruins in the region, it’s a wonderful snapshot of the ancient Mayan civilisation dating back almost 2,000 years.