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Exploring Xunantunich

This story is part of a series from our recent travels to Belize. Click here to start at the beginning.

Before we left, I kept telling people we were going “to the beach”. I have no idea why. Belize is so much more than the beach. It is jungle and mountains and barrier reef and caves and mangroves and rivers — and yes, the beach. But we had no intention of sitting on the beach for a week — there’s far too much adventure to be had in Belize.

Early in our trip planning we put the ruins on our must-do list. Belize is covered up in Mayan ruins big and small, and though I’m sure they’re all beautiful, Xunantunich spoke to us.

Xunantunich. Shoo-NAN-too-nitch. It means “Stone Woman”. And she was our mission for the day.

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It was an early start as we met at the dock at 5:45. (Fun Fact! Belize doesn’t participate in Daylight Savings Time so it was still 6:45 body time – a little better.) But ya gotta start at 5:45 when your plans include a boat ride from the resort to the air strip in San Pedro, a short hopper flight over to the mainland at Belize City, then a drive nearly the length of Belize’s Western Highway between Belize City and San Ignacio.

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We stopped for a quick breakfast of Belizean Johnny Cakes before we left the island. They are similar to an English muffin and you can order egg, cheese, ham/bacon/sausage — any combination you want. We got it to-go and finished eating as we waited for our flight at the San Pedro air strip. Off to the mainland.

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Photo cred: Nicholas + Nicholas’s fingers.

We settled in for the cross-country drive and our guides gave us the full audio tour. We saw a bit of Belize City, then miles and miles of countryside before we reached the outskirts of the capital city of Belmopan. I lost count of the different varieties of palm trees, and the number of fruit stands selling fresh pineapple and mango. The houses were painted bright colors and the landscape was dotted with citrus groves, teak tree farms, and clusters of mountains in the distance. As we approached the village of San Jose Succotz we were only miles from the Guatemala border, and the only thing standing between us and Xunantunich, was a hand-crank ferry across the Mopan River.

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We got out of the van, but stepped onto the ferry right beside it. It only seemed appropriate you can’t just drive up to a place so magical and frozen in time.

Xunantunich is one of the largest archaeological sites in Belize and was used by the Mayans as a ceremonial center between 250 and 900 A.D. The site itself was hidden in the trees as we arrived at a small visitors center and museum.

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After an introduction to the history and significance of the site, we hiked up the hill to take a look. The first thing you see is a large clearing, surrounded by structures. Our guide, Flacco, told us stories about each one, about their significance to the Mayans and the history and controversy of some of the excavation.

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There were students conducting excavation that day, and they were sweet to the kids (and a curious Dr. Hood) — answering questions and showing us the work they were doing.

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And just when you think you’re impressed by this courtyard of ancient history, you look up to realize you haven’t even seen the main event.

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The largest structure in Xunantunich is called El Castillo and at 130 feet it is one of the tallest buildings in all of Belize. And it is truly amazing. I’ve found that something comes over me when I’m in the presence of majestic, impressive monuments like this. I can’t stop staring and shaking my head — and taking photos. Every possible angle. It happens to me at the Statue of Liberty, nearly everywhere you look in Washington D.C. and certainly, certainly at Xunantunich. It was mesmerizing.

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And THEN. We got to climb it. 13 stories of painstakingly handcrafted steps. As we climbed around, it would not be the last time during our trip I would find myself thinking, “I can’t believe they let people do this.”

We climbed it in sections. The base is all steps. Then we curled around to the side of the structure and took a different staircase.

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The large frieze above our heads features a sun god, a moon sign, gods of creation and the tree of life.

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And then — the top.

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As we climbed, Flacco urged us to be careful and reminded us that it would probably only take one visitor getting hurt for the archaeological powers-that-be to shut it down and keep visitors from climbing to the top. Clinging to my hand as the wind whipped around us at the top, Colt whispered to me, “I don’t wanna fall, Mommy. I don’t wanna be the one who ruins it for everyone.”

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We were so close to the border, it wasn’t hard to see Guatemala from the top of the structure. And lush, green forest as far as the eye could see.

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As we headed back to the van, we reminded Colt some of our favorite views of the world have been from places that were really hard to get to. Somehow the harder you work for it, the sweeter it is.

And our day wasn’t over. We stopped in town at Benny’s Kitchen for a traditional Belizean meal of stewed chicken and red beans and rice — and we’re still talking about it. I’m no foodie, but oh my goodness. The red beans and rice was incredible. We had that same meal twice more that week and could’ve eaten it again. Delicious.

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And then back east to Blue Hole National Park near Belmopan. Now now, this isn’t THE Blue Hole. It’s A Blue Hole. Inland.

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The water was refreshing after our sweaty morning of hiking around at Xunantunich, and it felt like a private little swimming hole in the jungle. A shockingly blue swimming hole. We stripped down to swimsuits and indulged.

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This blue hole extends hundreds of feet into underwater caves we’ll leave to the most experienced of divers. We were content to cool off near the surface, and explore a nearby (and safely above water) cave.

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It was a perfect stop on our way back across the countryside, retracing our path on the Western Highway. Most of us napped on and off on the ride back, and with a short flight back to San Pedro and the boat ride back to the resort — we were back “home” for the night.

And! — now over 48 hours into our trip — we were reunited with our luggage! It was waiting for us in the room and we changed into fresh clothes, just because we could. I’ve never been so happy to see my own toothbrush.

My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.
– Diane Arbus

This story is part of a series from our recent travels to Belize. Click here for the next chapter.


We booked our excursion itinerary through Tuff E Nuff Dive Shop and Tours in Ambergris Caye, Belize. They “office” out of Coco Beach Resort, where we stayed, but they conduct tours across the area and into the mainland. They are AMAZING. We had to reschedule and rearrange after lost luggage, we were a sizeable party of six (including two kids), and they were incredible to work with. Jeff and I have hired guides many times in many places — and we know a professional, reliable group when we meet them. I would recommend the guys at Tuff E Nuff to anyone headed to Belize. Tell Rico Sarah sent you.

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2 Responses to Exploring Xunantunich

  1. Dad July 27, 2017 at 12:10 am #

    👍😀

  2. Marie Hirning July 27, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    Too cool. What a great experience! So glad that Colt got to go, too. :)

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