In Belize, we visited Ancient Maya ruins of Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. Here’s all the information about our day trip.
Eating local food, exploring the underwater world, and relaxing at a resort are great Belize activities, but I like to include some history and culture into my trips. I hadn’t visited any ancient ruins in the Americas, so this day trip was another must-do. We took a tour through our resort and visited Xunantunich and Cahal Pechin in western Belize near the Belize and Guatemala border, about three hours away from the coastal town of Hopkins.
Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-neech) is Yucatec Maya for “Stone Woman.” The name comes from several sightings of a mysterious, ghost-like woman on the stone steps. These Maya ruins are known for its views when you climb to the top of the highest of the structures.
Records of this Maya site date back to 250 AD. A British medical officer named Dr. Thomas Gann first explored Xunantunich in the 1890s. He later returned for excavations and unearthed many Maya treasures and artifacts. Since then, there have been several excavations, the latest in 2016 when one of the largest Maya burial chambers was found. Below you’ll see a re-built replica of what the facade would have looked like.
With six plazas and more than 25 structures, the site is expansive, but “El Castillo” (the Castle) is the focal point as it’s the largest pyramid. Climb 130 feet to the top and you’ll be able to get a 360-degree view for miles, including across the border at Guatemala. Don’t look over the edge for too long or you might get woozy!
Mayas are usually under five feet, and they walked on feet and hands up their temples and structures! We also saw their ball courts and learned about their ancient ball game that was an important part of society.
I should also mention that the road to and from Xunantunich includes a hand-crank ferry. We got out of the van, the van drove onto the ferry, we walked onto the ferry, and off we were cranked across the river.
After walking around Xunantunich and enjoying a box lunch, we made our way to Cahal Pech in San Ignacio, 30 minutes away. Knowing it was a smaller site than Xunantunich, I honestly was not expecting Cahal Pech to be grand. What it lacks in height, it made up in curiosity.
Cahal Pech is translated to “Place of Ticks,” called so because it was once pasture land. Like many ruins, it is still under excavation. What they have found at Cahal Pech, starting in 1988, is that previous temples and structures were buried so that new ones could be built on top.
The bedrooms and hallways were excavated at Cahal Pech so it felt like we were walking through tunnels and peeking into the lives of those who once lived there. We saw more steep staircases and underground escape routes. It made me want to watch a documentary to see how people lived in and moved around these structures.
Xunantunich has incredible views on tall structures while Cahal Pech has intriguing passageways. Both beg you to wonder what life was like when these ruins were full-functioning communities. The strangest thing and biggest mystery are why these sites were abandoned. Environmental disaster? Warring communities? Lack of resources or famine? We might never know but we can appreciate its current grandeur and the history.
Since they’re close to each other, you can easily visit both Xunantunich and Cahal Pech in one day. I recommend a tour to get the full history but it can be done without a guide if you want to wander by yourself. If you don’t want to do a day trip and want to stay nearby, I recommend staying in San Ignacio.
Website | Located in San Jose Succotz | Open daily 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. | $10 BZD ($5 USD) entrance fee
Website | Located in San Ignacio | Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. | $10 BZD ($5 USD) entrance fee
Looking for other Maya ruins to visit? Caracol and Altun Ha are popular choices. Some tours also include a quick hop over to Guatemala to see the Maya ruins of Tikal National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.