Xunantunich | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Xunantunich

San Jose Succotz, Cayo, Belize

Sarah Roller

24 Nov 2020
Image Credit: milosk50 / Shutterstock.

About Xunantunich

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.

History of Xunantunich

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. It’s thought that Xunantunich was possibly in alliance with the city of Naranjo, and between them controlled much of this stretch of the river. The city was deserted by about 1000AD, slightly later than many of its Maya contemporaries.

Europeans first ‘rediscovered’ Xunantunich in the late 19th century, and major excavations took place in 1959-60.

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.

Xunantunich today

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. You can climb El Castillo for panoramic views – it’s well worth doing even if it’s steep! The intricate frieze running around it is a copy.

Watch out for the ghost that is said to haunt El Castillo – known as the Stone Woman, she appears with fiery glowing eyes and dressed completely in white, or so it’s said.

The museum/visitor centre holds some beautiful jewellery, pottery, and assorted other archaeological 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.

Getting to Xunantunich

The ruins are in west Belize, a few kilometres away from the border with Guatemala. You’ll need to head to the border town of San José Succotz (buses from Belmopan, Flores and San Ignacio can drop you here) and then get the cable ferry across the river – you normally have to crank yourself, which is fun! Once you reach the other side of the river, the ruins are about a mile uphill by foot.