Great Mayan Ruins by San Ignacio, Belize: Xunantunich

Colin and I were sun-stroked and drenched with sweat by the time we made it to San Ignacio, Belize’s famous Mayan ruins, Xunantunich… but man was it worth it. Come cyber-join us on our journey!

The “El Castillo” structure of the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in western Belize dates from around 800 C.E. and rises over 130 feet. In other news, Colin and I have very large muscles.

It took us hours to finally reach Xunantunich from our San Ignacio hotel due to a “hilarious” misunderstanding of how time is quantified in Belize.

Several local people had told us, “Oh yes, you can walk to the ruins. It’s not far,” but in reality, that statement was so false that Colin and I ended up walking along the side of the highway (flanked by endless neon green grass and curious cows) for over an hour in the blazing noon-time sun, panting at each hill’s crest: “It’s GOT to be close! Right?!” Wrong.

We staggered between the highway and these crazy green, cow-covered fields outside San Ignacio, Belize for over an hour, thinking the Xunantunich ruins were just over each hill. They weren’t.

Two miles and four times of nearly being run over by blue-painted school buses that serve as Belize’s main public transport later, I swoon-sat by the side of the road and refused to go on. Colin heroically stood by the highway until a taxi (marked in western Belize by nothing more than a green licence plate) chugged by.

To reach the ruins of Xunantunich, cross a river on this hand-cranked wooden ferry.

We climbed into the car, panting and grinning from relief. We either smelled so bad, or were so tall and surprising that everyone packed inside the vehicle was stunned into silence.

I tried chatting in English, then had more success in Spanish, given that we were right by the Guatemalan border. The ride revealed we were still miles away from the ferry to the hill to the ruins.

How amazing is the jungle around Xunantunich? Look at the tiny people next to the towering trees!

“You saved us!” I gushed to the leathery driver in Spanish as we paid him. He cracked the first smile of the ride and puttered off.

“Hello,” said a soft spoken Belizean man with the local Jamaican-like accent. “Would you like a guide for the ruins? It will enhance your experience. It will be $20 U.S. dollars total.”

“We should probably get a guide,” reasoned Colin, “or we’ll just be dumbly looking at rocks.”

Without our excellent guide at Xunantunich, we would have just been ignorantly staring at stones.

Let me tell you: This guide was well worth $20. He knew everything, and was professional, patient, and interesting. In addition to his knowledge, he also displayed such love and reverence for Xunantunich (despite having led the tour hundreds or even thousands of times) that it inspired us.

Again and again we are impressed by the caliber of the Belizean tourist industry and its people.

We climbed all the way up to the top of El Castillo where you can sit on the edge, no guardrail!

Our guide even explained to us about the misinterpretation that had led us to hike along the highway for miles: “The people told you the ruins were close by because they wanted to make you feel better.”

“Um, that didn’t really make us feel better,” said Colin, swaying from the continued sunstroke.

Since then, we now know to multiply any time estimates here in Belize by at least three.

The sides of Xunantunich are adorned with ornate, symbolic decorations. When we visited, these girls were sliding down the grass like I used to fly down snowy hills in Boston’s winter.

Now let’s talk about Xunantunich. These celebrated Mayan ruins are around 1,212 years old, awe-inspiring, and rightly considered some of the best in Belize.

Several facts stood out to us. One, the tallest structure (“El Castillo”), which we ultimately climbed, has a secret back staircase. The Mayan ruler used to walk up the front staircase to halfway up the pyramid, then flit over to the back staircase, where he’d enter the building and do a quick costume change. He’d then emerge (seemingly by magic) at the very top of the structure, just like a god!

How often do you get to sit atop a 1,212-year old, 130-foot-tall ancient Mayan building? Unbelievable.

Another fact about Xunantunich that made me gasp centered around sports: They ancient Mayans used to play a ball game similar to soccer… and KILL the losing team! When the Mayans would play this sport, one team would usually be made up of captives from other places– unfortunate souls who had never played the ball game before. Which side do you think usually lost??

This piece of athletic history gave new weight to the Olympic events Colin and I watched that evening. There was a time when sports WERE life or death!

Does this spot look tempting to you? Then travel to the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins in San Ignacio, Belize!

When we finally made it back to our hotel that evening, we were so tired we could barely move. We sprawled on the bed, murmuring, “What an honor it was to climb 1,212-year-old Mayan ruins today!”