The sizable Maya site of Xunantunich (or in gringo Zoo – Nan – Toon – Itch), a.k.a Stone Lady, is one of the most visited archaeology sites in Belize. It is a favorite Belize cruise ship tour, and as a result, it can get quite busy during mid day when the buses arrive. For the best trip, consider arriving early to avoid the overhead sunlight, and having 200 people in all of your photos. Xunantunich opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m.. The cruise ships arrive around 9 a.m. and depart by lunchtime.
Easily accessible from Lower Dover, it is possible to reach Xunantunich by public transportation, like many other Maya sites in Belize. However, understand that it is a 1 mile hike from the ferry crossing to the actual park entrance. While it is occasionally possible to hitch hike a ride, the walk to the ruins is mostly up hill, so bring plenty of water. Cold drinks are available at the end of the walk near the entrance, but expect to pay tourist prices.
The Mayan artisans selling arts and crafts near the ferry are some of the best in the whole country. Many of the people selling their Maya art are descendants of the fabled Don Elijio Panti, the deceased grandfather of Mayan medicinal plant knowledge, and inspiration for the widely available book Rainforest Remedies by Rosita Arvigo. You will find the prices here are hard to beat anywhere else in San Ignacio town, the Cayo District, or especially San Pedro / Ambergris Caye.
While waiting for the ferry to cross, consider hiring a guide to better explain the Mayan culture and history of the site. Our favorite is Edgar, who is also an excellent bird watching guide. Because he is one of the best, he often is contracted to do tours of Caracol and Cahal Pech, like he has done for us in the past. If Edgar is not around, Junior (actually a grown man) can do a Xunantunich tour just as well. All prices should be negotiated before you start, but they should run around $30 Belize dollars. If you have a vehicle, consider hiring the guide to do Xunantunich first, and Cahal Pech after ($50 Belize should work).
We’ve had intermittent rain and clouds for the past week or so, and when the clouds finally broke yesterday we decided to head to Xunantunich to snap some pictures. It was hot, and there isn’t much shade on the main site, and as mentioned above bring plenty of water, and apply sun screen liberally.
Xunantunich is an impressive sight, and the main temple is the second tallest building in Belize. The “Stone Lady” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, the main temple, and ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.
The original Maya name remains unknown, and most of the archeological site was excavated by UCLA. If you’re traveling from Cruise ships, the site can be easily seen in just over an hour. However, if you have extra time, like we did, you can easily spend a few hours exploring and enjoying the surroundings.
As we were heading to climb the main temple, two spider monkeys crossed our paths, swinging from branch to branch. They were fast, and we were only able to snap a few pictures, the best of which are below.
Xunantunich has an excellent ball court, nearly fully re-constructed. To read more about the ball court, and the Maya ball game, read our story about Cahal Pech, another Archeological site only a few miles from Xunantunich.
Most major construction on Xunantunich happened during the classic period, somewhere between 200-900 A.D. The main temple, El Castillo, today stands at 130 feet, but they believe it was taller, and due to an earthquake the top was knocked off, which coincides with a decline in site activity.
Upon climbing El Castillo, we could hear Howler monkeys in the distance. The males almost sound like roaring tigers, and their calls can be heard for miles. After some searching, we spotted them in the distance hanging out in a tree.
The climb to the top of El Castillo can be made by young and old alike. With some caution and patience, almost anyone can climb to the top for some impressive views of the Belize River Valley and the neighboring Guatemala.
Wether you’re in Belize for a day on a Cruise ship, or an extended stay, Xunantunich is a site worth seeing. You’ll see Belizean jungle, excavated Maya ruins, and if you’re lucky some Belizean wildlife.