As I approached the horse stable, the first thing that came to my attention was the majestic Mayan ruins of Xunantunich as they overlooked me from above. “Be prepared for the journey of a lifetime”, my British guide said. Little I knew back then that the road less traveled is often the most dangerous one.
The Mayan ruins of Xunantunich are the highlight of the Cayo region of Belize and are easily reachable from the town of San Ignacio (or as a vary long day trip from Belize’s Caribbean side). Once you’re at San Ignacio, you can either take a taxi or a horse to the ferry crossing before reaching the Mayan ruins.
I guess you can already guess which option I chose.
Xunantunich Horseback riding
Horseback tour to Xunantunich
You can either book your horse ride via your hotel/hostel or do so directly at the stables found a few minutes away from San Ignacio. The price is almost the same (70 USD) but you can use your bargaining skills to get a killer deal during low season. Tours often start early in the morning and during mid-day.
It takes about one hour to go up and one to go down the way to the ruins, leaving you with two good hours to explore the ruins themselves. This is extremely handy since, even though the ruins are small, sometimes a heavy rain can loom over Xunantunich so it is good to have some extra time to wait for the perfect weather to arrive.
Me and Justice ready to climb all the way to the ruins! (They are the grey small building to the left of my head)
You don’t really need any previous horse riding experience to this tour since the hill up to the ruins is not that steep since it got renovated due to the visit of Queen Elizabeth II a few decades ago. You will be surprised to learn that instead of crossing the river by horse, you are forced to use the official one minute ferry ride in order to prevent any accidents.
Yes, you heard that right: A one minute ferry ride! I cannot help but feel sorry for the mental stability of the workers involved! It takes them about 10 minutes to arrange the cars and the horses and only one minute for the actual crossing.
Shortest ferry crossing ever!
Exploring the Xunantunich archaeological site
A few more minutes after the ferry ride (and a small detour that my horse took in order to find something to eat), we finally reached Xunantunich in a very beautiful morning. That is, until it started to rain. No, not rain…pour. Not being prepared for the possibility of rain, I hid in the visitor’s center.
20 minutes later, the sun started to appear again. It seemed that Chaac, the Mayan God of Rain was being a very naughty boy today but I guess I must thank him for the amazing green color of the vegetation once the rain was over. I’ve already seen my fair share of Mayan Pyramids but trust me, Xunantunich’s main pyramid will surely leave you speechless.
The main temple at Xunantunich
Fortunately, the carvings found on the western and eastern side of the Pyramid are just replicas of the originals. And yes, I said fortunately because that means that you can climb this Pyramid and have a panoramic view of the complete archeological complex and yes, you can even see Guatemala from here!
But wait, the best is yet to come. Are you hearing those strange sounds coming from the trees located east of the main Pyramid? Yes, you guessed it. Those are the legendary howler monkeys of Central America! Don’t worry, they’re harmless to humans…unless you stand directly beneath them since they’ll start to throw stuff at you. Yes, THAT kind of stuff. Beware, my friends!
Did you know Spielberg used the sound of these monkeys for the T-Rex?
Be extremely careful when climbing the top since there are no railings and the rain surely complicates things. Once you’re ready, head to the exit to meet your faithful horse and your tour guide and start the way down. And no, do not accept the guide’s offer to take the long way back near the river since there’s a big chance that it will rain again.
I was so soaking wet when I arrived back to the stable that my horse started to drink water from me. That was surely a great experience and definitely my highlight from my Belizean adventure! Sure, going by taxi or by tour van to the ruins is way easier but come on, do you want to have an easy experience or an awesome one?
The Pyramids of Xunantunich
A brief story of the Mayans in Belize
The Cayo region of Belize is so different from the Caribbean side of the country that it could be considered as a separate country by itself. The Mexican and Guatemalan heritage is really strong in the area and it seems almost impossible to find a guide that is Kriol (African).
Most of the population of the Cayo region are Mestizos (mix of Indigenous americans and Spaniards) and are very proud of their Mayan heritage. If it wasn’t for the fact that English is their first language, I could have sworn that they were Mexicans instead of Belizean.
The guardian of the Pyramids
Actually, the reason why I declined to have a tour guide for the ruins themselves is because I have already visited most of the Mayan sites in Mexico (and two days after Xunantunich I ended up visiting Tikal in Guatemala) so there is a point in your travel life when everything starts to sound the same and visiting a new Pyramid is the equivalent of visiting a new European church.
Sure, the architectural style and the specific story might be a little bit different but the overall cosmology and culture is exactly the same… and that’s good since it truly shows the influence and power of the Mayan Gods in the daily life of the Pre-Hispanic people of the Americas.
Chaac, the Mayan God of Rain
In the end, even tough there are many Mayan Pyramids to explore while in Belize, including Caracol which is quite the most popular one of the bunch, arriving to Xunantunich on horseback is just so different from everything I’ve done before in my travels and it was a true romantic experience out of a movie.
Yes, that includes the soaking road back. Have you ever visited Belize? Would you like to? Share your thoughts to let me know what you think and remember: when it comes to Belize, you got to live it to Believe it!