A Mayan marvel in Belize’s jungle

The archaeological site of Xunantunich rivals some of the better-known Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala.

It’s not as famous as Mexico’s Chichen Itza. It’s not as tall as Guatemala’s Tikal.

But here in western Belize, the Xunantunich Mayan ruins will make your jaw drop.

And maybe your palms sweat.

Pronounced shoe-NAN-to-nitch (or as some tourists mangle it, Tuna Sandwich) its name means “stone maiden.” The dominant structure, El Castillo, is notable not only for its elegant friezes of hieroglyphs depicting rulers and gods, but for the fact that visitors can still climb to the top of the 130-foot temple, if they dare.

Unlike at Mexico’s Chichen Itza, which was closed to climbers in 2006 after a woman fell to her death, Xunantunich’s climb is done in bits and pieces, with plenty of flat places to stop — and even a handrail staircase for the final descent.

Still, it’s not for everyone.

“I’m afraid of heights,” one tour guide confessed as he stood in the shade on a plaza halfway up, watching the rest of his group ascend to the very top. “The view is still good from here.”

Reached independently by car or as a day-trip excursion for cruise ships docked in Belize City, Xunantunich is one of Belize’s top attractions, although many Americans have never heard of it.

The entrance near the village of San José Succotz is surrounded by small shopping kiosks selling crafts and textiles. From there, every person, vehicle and animal must cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry to enter the park.

Then it is a 1-mile uphill trudge to the visitors plaza (or a swift ride in a minibus, welcome in this humid climate where the average temperature is 88 degrees.)

From there, you walk a bit farther, past a gift shop, a new visitors center that opened in March, groves of allspice trees, then onto a grass-covered plaza and the striking sight of El Castillo.

In Xunantunich’s heyday, roughly 600 to 900 AD, “the walls would have been whitewashed plaster and almost certainly painted,” says Jason Yaeger, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor of anthropology, who has spent every summer for 23 years in and around Xunantunich. The site spreads out with 26 structures and multiple plazas, many still uncovered.

In terms of importance, “It is a middle-sized site, not as big as (Guatemala’s) Tikal certainly, but at certain times in its history, it was the capital of an autonomous kingdom,” said Yaeger.

Although many people think Mayan culture was restricted to what is now Mexico, the grand kingdoms of the first millennium spread throughout what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Xunantunich just became a tourist attraction in the early 1990s as excavations progressed and tourism infrastructure was added. Today it draws about 46,000 visitors a year.

Beautiful as the area is, the site and region do have reminders of the sometimes cruel world of the Maya. There’s a ball court, where the loser of the games faced sudden death — literally. Not far from Xunantunich is a mysterious cave that was important for Mayan ritual and human sacrifice.

For Yaeger, it is worth spending extra time in the region to see not only Xunantunich and other ruins, but also Actun Tunichil Muknal (in English, Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), thought by the ancient Maya to be an entrance to the underworld. The cave was rediscovered in 1989.

“It’s an all-day adventure tourism trip,” he says. “You hike through jungle and swim a river to get to a cave, then walk through an underground stream for a quarter-mile, then climb into a giant chamber where the Maya left offerings. Sacrificial victims, food offerings, skulls, they are still there on the altars, left where the Maya placed them.

“And you see a small niche where a woman was sacrificed 1,200 years ago, and there are (sparkling calcite) crystals all over her bones,” Yaeger said.

After that, a climb to the top of Xunantunich’s El Castillo will seem simple.


The Shrine at Xunantunich

Some of the most fabulous and mind blowing cathedrals can be found and all over the modern world. Some of the oldest are found in Europe – the old continent. Within these amazing places for the believers, an electric connection with the universe exists; electricity that their souls demand and command, and they receive it each and every time. This has been the case in time immemorial. Every ancient culture has created some type of physical space to access the powerful energy that exists in the universe. The ancient Maya were not different. They too created spaces for incredible celebrations and spiritual journeys in the form of temples.

There are a few kingdoms that went a tad more than the extra mile in the creation of such spaces. They could be large and small, such as in the case of Tikal and Xunantunich. The elite at these places created shrines other than temples to celebrate their ancestors, time and to unite their science with their spirituality. The elite or King at Xunantunich created one of these shrines at the base of an Eastern temple.

The spiritual space was small with two rooms. The room to the back that was against the temple hosted a stela in its center, splitting the small (2.5 feet wide) rooms length in half. The front half, which is separated by a wall, hosts an altar in the center, which too splits this room in half. The four smaller rooms created were more than likely the spaces of the grotesque blood letting ceremonies – perhaps not human sacrifice – but certainly blood sacrifice.

While it is great theatre to discuss the violent nature of human sacrifice, what may have happened in these small, private spaces, will turn your stomach too. As has been seen of ancient Maya art on walls and on paper, stelae and ceramic pieces, men of royal rank used a sting ray spine to pierce the foreskin of their penis and they dripped the blood on paper and then they would burn the paper in an offering to their ancestors and gods. The women were not exempt. Art has shown that women would pull a string of thorns through their tongues and drip their blood over paper then too, burn the paper and offer their blood sacrifice to the gods.

Its an incredible story but today one of the worlds most powerful religious denominations zealously reminds its followers of the blood letting their God did on behalf of all people. It is strikingly incredible what cultures have shared, independently of each other, across the globe, things with powerful and passionate intentions always on behalf of continuous life and success in crop growth, rain or warfare. The power has always been in blood.

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