Improvements at Xunantunich help visitors
Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Every school child should be familiar with the imposing structures
rising from the banks of the Mopan River. Collectively, they're called
Xunantunich, or Maiden of the Rock. And if you haven't been there in a
while, as Marion Ali discovered, it's well worth a return visit.

Marion Ali, Reporting
The work to preserve the ancient site started several months ago under
the government's Tourism Development Project. After much research,
labour, and an investment of some half a million dollars, this popular
attraction is much more visitor friendly. But this majestic landmark has
been drawing attention for many years.

Dr Jaime Awe, Project Coordinator, Tourism Dev. Project
"In the 1880s, in fact, probably in 1887, a gentleman from the village
of San Jose Succotz, by the name of Urbano Pat, came up to hunt at the
site and the legend claims that at the base of the Castillo, he saw this
beautiful young maiden, who was resplendent in bright light and the rays
of the sunlight. This maiden appeared to him, and he was scared by the
apparition, so he dropped his gun and ran back to the village. When he
got to the village, he talked with the native priest, the Chac, as they
call him, and the priest decided to come up to the site with him. They
came back and they found his gun, but did not see the maiden. And
thereafter, several other people have claimed that this young maiden has
appeared to them, but nobody has ever been able to follow her into the
cave that supposedly goes into the Castillo."

Dating back to as early as 200 B.C., Xunantunich boasts carved stone
slabs called stelae containing recordings of important events of Mayan
civilization. Tourism Minister, Mark Espat, says the need to preserve
these important artefacts, and also accommodate those who want to see
them, makes it important to invest in their preservation.

Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism
"We get almost give thousand people a month, and many of them come from
cruise ships, a lot of them are also from overnight tourists that stay
at the various resorts in the Cayo District. This is one of the most
popular sites in Belize. The improvements here including the visitor's
centre, the new bathrooms, the new picnic areas, the new trails, and
very soon, a new way to embark and disembark the main temple of El
Castillo, are designed to improve and to enhance the carrying capacity,
meaning we will be able to handle more people, without in any way
compromising the integrity of the structures that are here."

But while the major restoration works are completed on Xunantunich,
Espat says there are plans to provide some safety measures for
visitors.

Mark Espat
"Most people that come to Xunantunich, want to climb to the summit of El
Castillo. We have come up with a plan that will make that climbing up
and climbing down a lot easier. We'll be exposing some more stairs,
putting in some rails, and ensuring that visitors and Belizeans who come
to visit the site can do so in a manner that's safe and convenient."

This portion of the works should begin in the next two weeks and run
through to April at a cost of about forty-five thousand dollars. But is
it really worth the effort, time and money we invest in these imposing
ancient structures. Tourism Development Project Coordinator, Dr. Jaime
Awe says there's no doubt.

Dr. Jaime Awe
"It is also important from a totally non-economic point of view, and
that is from a cultural historical perspective. These monuments, these
large temples and pyramids that we excavate and conserve, represent
icons and symbols of Belizean identity. We have a lot of people who are
Maya, but you don't just have to be Maya to come to these places and
feel proud about being Belizean. Because it's the first Belizeans that
did all these achievements, made these achievements. So it's also about
learning about our own past, and hopefully about the successes and
failures of the past Belizeans. And by learning from that we might not
make the same mistakes in the future."

But did all the tireless work unearth anything new?

Dr. Awe
"We found a very interesting burial. We now believe that it's the first
elite burial to be discovered at Xunantunich. And then we found more
than fifty eccentric flints that were placed all above this area where
they had buried this individual. The skeletal remains form the
individual was also covered in hematite, like a red powder. And the Maya
often did that, because red is the colour of the rising sun. So it is
hoped that like the rising sun, the dead ruler will rise from the
dead."

One historical attribute we are not likely to see replaced anytime soon
is the mechanical ferry, used for years to take people to and from the
site.

Mark Espat
"We feel that the ferry provides a very unique component of the
Xunantunich experience. The nearby village of San Jose Succotz, also
benefits from the waiting time that people have spend there before they
cross. And so no, we don't plant to replace the ferry at all."

Marion Ali for News 5

The Tourism Development Project includes the conservation of five major
ancient Mayan sites, along with the caves at Caves Branch on the
Hummingbird Highway. The project is funded through a loan from the
Inter-American Development Bank and government contribution to the tune
of twenty-eight million dollars. The next two sites, soon to be
officially opened, include Lamanai in Orange Walk and Altun Ha in the
Belize District.