Xunantunich – Exploring a Mayan Masterpiece

Have you ever wondered about civilizations long ago lost to the modern world? Wondered what it would be like to walk where they once walked, to explore how they might have lived, how they might have seen their world? That curiosity is exactly what brought our family to explore a Belizean Mayan ruin named Xunantunich.

What is Xunantunich?

Xunantunich is an ancient Mayan civic ceremonial center located in western Belize, near the Guatemala border. Occupied until approximately 900 AD, at it’s peak, Xunantunich served nearly 200,000 Mayans living in the region.

The archeological site is dominated by El Castillo, standing at 130 feet tall, surrounded by six plazas, more than 26 temples and palaces and a Mayan ball court. At one point of history, Xunantunich was the ritual center for Mayan rulers and elite. Now, it’s open to the public to explore how an ancient civilization once lived.

Ready to Experience Xunantunich?

Intrigued? Perhaps exploring a Mayan ruin is just what you need to do on your next vacation. Got kids – bring them too! They will thrill with the experience, and who knows? They might just learn something while having all this fun. Open up a child’s eyes to a civilization from long ago for an experience they aren’t soon to forget.

Not yet convinced? Read on for our family’s reasons why you too might want to consider Xunantunich your Belizean destination.

Crossing the Mopan River

This wasn’t just any ordinary river crossing! No bridge meant both us and our van had to be ferried across the river. Our ferry? An old hand-crank boat. Seriously – our boat, complete with passengers and van, was manually pulled across the river. The boys were enthralled with the whole experience. It also set the stage for our entry into a civilization time has left behind.

You could feel the modern world slipping behind you as you floated across the river to the entry of Xunantunich, just a short mile up the road.

The Visitor’s Center

Before entering into the world of Xunantunich, take time to explore the small visitor’s center. Get a feel for the grandeur this place used to be. Soak in the evolution of the Mayan civilization, the three-dimensional displays of past and present, before trekking into the ruins themselves. Imagine yourself transported back in time to the beginnings of Xunantunich. Prepare yourself for what awaits beyond the visitor’s center.


Ready? Now step through the portal and into a time long ago forgotten.

Soak In The Expansive Views

Oh the breathtaking 360 degree views that await the brave explorer who takes on that last narrow staircase to the top of El Castillo. Did I mention steep, too? ‘Cause these stairs are so narrow, so steep, stairs so small your foot might not completely fit on them! Not to mention no handrails to support yourself. Yes, that last set of stairs to the top of El Castillo isn’t for the faint of heart, but well worth the end results.

Honestly, I’m not sure I would have braved those last steps if not for my adventurous son. In the briefest of moments, he shot up those stairs with the grace of a charging bull. Yep, my heart did stop briefly – then I raced into action behind him, all the way to the top! On that note, I’m not sure I’d recommend the littlest ones climbing that last staircase.

And there they climb! So you might ask – how is it my youngest was “allowed” up those last stairs? Call it a classic moment when mom turned her back and child kept going. My heart still races thinking about him tearing up those steps.

Deutsch: Aussicht von El Castillo ( A6)

Worth the climb? You be the judge! On a clear day, you can see Guatemala in the distance. Feel like an ancient Mayan ruler, gazing upon his people down below. Stand atop El Castillo and witness views that an ancient Mayan also saw over 1000 years ago.

Decipher an Ancient Mayan Frieze

If climbing to the very top of El Castillo isn’t for you, at least brave the climb to the middle level. That’s where my more cautious eldest son stayed. The views here are still spectacular and a bit less daunting to reach. Best of all, you will be up close and personal to restored portions of the original stucco friezes. So close you’ll want to reach out and touch it. But please don’t! Remember – this is very very old stuff!

Imagine yourself 1000 years ago, standing in this same spot, understanding the meaning of the frieze, and what it meant to the Mayan people. Then see if you can find the mask with larger ears – thoughts are that it represents the Mayan sun god.

Walk A Mayan Ball-Court

Walk along an ancient ball-court and imagine the crowds cheering you on as you played this ancient game. Some Mayan ball-games were ritual events and included human sacrifices. Yikes! Better hope you don’t lose the game! Just kidding – though little brother did challenge big brother to a game after he heard that.

Don’t worry! Nobody was sacrificed on our watch. Not all ballgames included sacrifices. The ball court was an integral part of Mayan recreation too.

Be One With Mayan Royalty

Stand in the center of one of the plazas. Soak in your surroundings. Explore a Mayan palace ruin up close and personal. Imagine how a Mayan might have felt walking through this vast ceremonial site. See life as an ancient Mayan Royal might have. Imagine yourself in your stone “bedroom” in one of the palace ruins.


Which bedroom would you pick? The one with the view? The one on the left? In the words of my youngest – Hmmm, I think I’ll keep my own room! These rooms don’t look very comfortable and not enough room for my toys! See, he’s learned to appreciate stuff!

Getting to Xunantunich:

There are several options to getting here. You can hire a guide, who typically provides transportation to and from the ruins. If you have a car, you can drive yourself – it’s not a difficult drive. Or, you could take a bus or taxi to the ferry, and walk the remainder of the way. Entrance tickets are typically purchased onsite.

Many visitors stay in the San Ignacio area, though you can also stay as far away as the beaches and still do a day trip to Xunantunich. We were camped out at a beachfront lodge outside Hopkins, so for us, it was a long day trip, but worth it. Our guide alone made this a most spectacular experience.

Arriving to Belize on a cruise ship? Most offer day excursions to Xunantunich.

Go It Alone or With a Guide?

You can explore Xunantunich on your own. Hiring the right guide, though, can provide you with local history and an experience you might not get otherwise. We booked a guided day tour through our lodge, and it was well worth the price. Our guide not only was versed in the local history, he knew where to have lunch and which touristy spot was worth a stop. And, which to avoid.

Who knows – maybe your guide will tease a tarantula out of it’s underground home beneath the plaza courtyard like ours did! A big hit with our boys. No harm was imparted upon the tarantula. It was released and quickly scrambled back into it’s lair.

Our guide also provided us with a road-side refreshment stop – a local grapefruit orchard where we picked grapefruit right off the tree! Wouldn’t have done that without our guide.

So yes, the right guide can be well worth the extra you pay. Just be sure to check around, find someone who is knowledgeable about your destination, as we did.

Xunantunich Planning Resources

English: Xunantunich SignReady to plan your own Xunantunich adventure? Want to learn more about this incredible moment in time? Here are several websites to get you on your way to learning more and planning your own Mayan adventure. Don’t forget to bring the kids! They’ll love it too!


The Belize Report
Moon Travel Guides
Belize Cruise Excursions

Have you explored Xunantunich or other Mayan ruins? Tell us about your experience in the Comments section below.

Images from madmack66 via Flickr, C.Biederman, and Wikipedia via Zemanta.


  1. says

    Informative indeed Carol!

    Loved all that you shared, more so because I love the fact that you travel with your kids and family and have fun, alongside take these awesome snaps and share them here – they sure transport us to the very same location. :)

    Never heard of Xunantunich, so learning everything one needs to know about this place was great. I am sure your kids would have loved that ride in the river – such experiences always stay with them for years to come.

    Thanks for sharing, I too have been involved in revamping my blog so haven’t been able to visit your blog, though am glad we are back in touch. :)
    Harleena Singh recently posted..Will You Stop OvereatingMy Profile

    • carolbiederman says

      Hi Harleena! Thanks for the kind words – I do love to travel, and I love to see the world as my kids have seen it. It’s amazing how opening a child’s eyes to a world beyond their own changes how they themselves see the world. We started taking the boys on “less traditional” trips when my oldest became healthy enough to travel, and it’s worked out well. Xunantunich was one of these “less typical” places to take your kids – and we all agree we want to go back there.

      Love your new blog look – I don’t have the same reason for not visiting as much the past two months – other than holidays and such. And as you said, glad we have reconnected – I always find such inspirational reads at your blog.

  2. Ann Cabezas says

    Hi Carol, What a great article and nice photos! The Mayan Civilization has always intrigued me. I visited Tikal a few years ago and am planning to return to Antigua, Guatemala in March.
    The Mayans did not make it as far south as Costa Rica—we have a small indigenous population, but they are not as sophisticated as the Mayans.

    • carolbiederman says

      Hi Ann, thanks for stopping by and for such wonderful comments. I too have been intrigued since I was a child with the Mayans, Incans and Aztecs, and I was so excited to finally be able to visit such an historical site. Next up – Peru and Machu Picchu, but that’s looking to be next year. I’ve also been to Costa Rica – will blog about that soon – and loved our visit there as well, especially the Osa Peninsula. Both Belize and Costa Rica are destinations my whole family would love to visit again.

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