One of Belize's most impressive Maya ceremonial centers, and one of the crown jewels of the Cayo District, Xunantunich rests atop a natural limestone ridge with a grand view of the surrounding and Guatemalan countryside.

The local name for the site, Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-ta-nich), or "Stone Lady," is more common than the ancients' name for the site, Ka-at Witz, or "Supernatural Mountain," which was only recently discovered carved into a chunk of stone there.

Xunantunich is believed to have been built sometime around 400 B.C. and deserted around A.D. 1000; at its peak, some 7,000-10,000 Maya lived here.

Though certainly not the biggest of Maya structures, El Castillo, at 135 feet high, is the second-tallest pyramid in Belize. The eastern side of the structure displays an unusual stucco frieze (a reproduction); you can see three carved stelae in the plaza. Xunantunich contains three ceremonial plazas surrounded by house mounds.

Xunantunich was rediscovered in 1894, but not studied until 1938, by archaeologist Sir J. Eric Thompson. In 1950, the University of Pennsylvania (noted for its years of outstanding work across the border in Tikal) built a facility in Xunantunich for more study. In 1954, visitors were invited to explore the site after a road was opened and a small ferry built.

In 1959, archaeologist Evan Mackie made news in the Maya world when he discovered evidence that part of Xunantunich had been destroyed by an earthquake in the Late Classic Period. Some believe it was then that the people began to lose faith in their leaders. But for whatever reason, Xunantunich ceased to be a religious center long before the end of the Classic Period.

Visiting Xunantunich

Xunantunich is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Entrance costs US$10 per person. There are limited refreshments and souvenirs for sale. Guides (US$20 per group) are available and recommended, both to learn about what you're seeing and to support sustainable tourism. All guides are local and very knowledgeable.

In 2012

Xunantunich is the location of Belize's main event on December 21, 2012. There will be a festival, possibly with a concert and light show on the ruins. This will be the finishing line for a youth torch run, in which torches will be brought to the site from the four directions, culminating in a fire ceremony to usher in the next 5,125 years.

Getting to Xunantunich

Xunantunich is located eight miles west of San Ignacio. The site is accessed by crossing the Río Mopan on the Succotz Ferry (8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, free but tips appreciated), easily found on the Western Highway at the end of a line of crafts vendors. The hand-cranked ferry shuttles you (and your vehicle, if you have one) across the river.

Afterwards you'll have about a mile's hike (or drive) up the hill to the site. Don't miss the 4 p.m. return ferry with the park rangers, or you'll be swimming.