Xuanantunich & Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins

Today was the first of many days in which I would be visiting Mayan ruins.  On the docket today was Xuanantunich and Cahal Pech.  I had a good eight hours of sleep (only waking up around 3:00 when the howler monkeys started doing their thing) so was ready to go when Odilia arrived at 8:00 a.m.

On the ferry
Hand crank ferry

The drive to Xuanantunich took us back through San Ignaciao Town and about twenty minutes down the road to a little hand cranked car ferry that would take us across the Mopan River.  And when I say little car ferry I really mean little.  It only held four cars and the trip literally took two minutes.  Nevertheless, it was pretty fun to watch the fellow propel the ferry across the river by turning a hand crank that was hooked to a wire, which allowed the boat to be moved back and forth across the river.  I should have asked the guy how many trips they make a day, but it has to be in the dozens.

Anyway, once across the river, we drove up the hill about a mile to Xuanantunich.   Now the earliest Mayan settlements at Xuanantunich date to 1000 BC, but the site did not take on cultural importance until 600 AD when it began to grow in size to a point where there were 6 plazas surrounded by 26 temples and palaces.  Access to the palace areas were restricted to the elite of Mayan society.  Eventually, the site became dominated by the second largest Mayan structure in Belize: El Castillo.  It is believed that construction of El Castillo took two thousand years (yea you read that right) with the first levels dating to 1100 BC and the final level dating to 890 AD.

Backside of a temple at Xuanantunich

Now the Mayans were an interesting culture believing in reincarnation three levels of life: the underworld consisting of 9 stages, the home of the living (earth) and the home of the Gods, which consisted of 13 stages.  So if your life was not going so well on earth, there was no fear of dying or even being sacrificed (which was part of later Mayan culture) because there was a chance a person could advance to a better stage of existence.  This explained why there were so many temples not only at Xuanantunich, but all Mayan sites.

Elite residences

Anyway, once we entered the site, we crossed the grassy plaza and took in the palace area.  At this point, it had started to rain a bit, which was not bad thing.  It had been incredibly hot and humid the day before and a little rain would most certainly help reduce the humidity.

So with a few raindrops falling, we hiked up a short flight of stairs to get a better look a the palace.  This was the only palace at the site that had been excavated and was comprised of a series of levels with rooms where the elite lived.  At one time, the palace was completely enclosed with a stone roof, but erosion and time have mostly destroyed any semblance of a roof.  We then crossed through what was at one time a doorway and crossed into another courtyard on the other side, which allowed us to have a good look back at El Castillo on the other side of the site.

Burial temple

We wandered toward a temple in which a burial tomb was discovered in 2016.  The tomb had never been opened until then and inside, the Mayan burial chamber they found the corpse of a male, two stone carvings and numerous ceramic vessels, animal bones, weapons, and stone artifacts.  Fascinating.

Ball court

We then walked down a series of steps to the “ball court”.  The Mayans played a game known as pok-ta-pok, which required the participants to put a 9 pound rubber ball into a stone hoop using everything but their hands.  Yikes!

As we wandered through through the trees surrounding the ball court, Odilia pointed out various plants and trees and talked to me about the medicinal uses for the vegetation.  At one point Odilia picked up a leaf off the ground, broke a piece off, rubbed it between her fingers and I immediately could smell all spice.  It was yummy.

El Castillo

We then turned our attention to El Castillo.  The structure was 130 feet tall and would take us up 150ish steps.  Now while the steps were fine by me, the bit of rain that had fallen made the stone climb a bit slick so we were careful to take our time on the way up.  About half way up, we stopped at the first of may terraces and then we walked around to the eastern side of the structure and … oh my … the most beautiful friezes came into view.

Collared acari
Collared acari

But before we took a look at the friezes, Odelia pointed out a bird in the trees to me.  It was a collared aracari (a form of toucan) and it was gorgeous.   Fortunately, I was close enough so the I managed to capture some really nice pictures.  At this point, it was tossup whether I was more excited to see the bird or the friezes.


After spending probably more time than Odelia cared to spend, we turned to the friezes.  In order to preserve the friezes, a plaster mold was designed to cover the friezes making it much easier to see the sculptures. The friezes apparently depict the birth of a god associated with the royal family, gods of creation, as well as the tree of life (underworld, earth and heaven).

View from the top of El Castillo
At the top of El Castillo
Howler monkeys
Howler monkeys

We then climbed up past the friezes to another terrace before walking to the back side of the structure to take in some of the many rooms and then mounting the last few steps to the top.  And the climb was entirely worth it.  The views were spectacular.  And … bonus … we could see howler monkeys in the trees on the edge of the site.  In addition, we could see a Guatemalan village, which was only about a half mile away.

Climbing down
Howler monkey
View from temple to El Castillo
Stelae with Mayan figure

After admiring the view and taking numerous pictures of the monkeys, we climbed back down to seek if we could get a closer look at the monkeys.  And while we did get close, the little buggers would not hold still long enough to get a good picture.  They were jumping from tree to tree to tree.  Eventually, I gave up and we wandered over to another temple to take a look at one last site before stopping at a building housing some original stelae that had at one time dominated the site.

After the visit, we made a quick stop at the little museum before driving back down the hill to the little hand crank ferry.  We ended up sitting for about 5 minutes as the ferry took a load of horses across the river before returning to pick us up.

Bennys Kitchen

Once on the other side, I was able to take a look in a couple of souvenir shops and …. YEP the streak continues.  Found me a Christmas ornament!  I am pretty sure the woman thought I was nuts when I did a little celebratory dance.  Anyway, with my prized possession in hand, we drove up the hill into the little town of San Jose Succotz for some lunch at Bennys Kitchen.  Best. Lunch. Ever.  I had Pibil.  Pork that had been cooked in a pit overnight and shredded.  It was served with guacamole, salsa and home made tortillas.  And oh yea, we also had soursop, an amazing fruit that had been pulverized into a juice.  Delicious.

Cahal Pech palace
Cahal Pech temple

After the incredible meal, I was ready for a nap.  However, one additional Mayan site awaited: Cahal Pech just outside San Ignacio town.  So we drove back the 20 minutes to town and up a hill to the site.  Cahal Pech is much smaller than Xuanantunich, but is considered to the oldest Mayan site in Belize dating to to 1200 BC.  The site was built above the Macal River included seven plazas and approximately 30 structures, including temples, residential buildings, ball courts, an altar, and a sweat-house (yep they had a sauna).  The tallest structure standing at approximately 80 feet high is the royal acropolis palace which was the likely residence for a ruling family.  At one time, it is believed that Cahal Pech had more than 10,000 residents.

Throne at Cahal Pech

So Odilia and I wandered around the site, climbing to the top of stone temples, climbing down stairs to see the remnants of the ball courts, poking our heads into the sweat-house and taking in the little residences, with some having roofs still standing.  And while the site was very small in comparison to Xuanantunich, it was still a really fascinating site.

Suspension bridge in San Ignacio Town

By now it was after 2:00 so we made a quick stop at the little handicraft shop on site before taking the short driving through town across the longest suspension bridge in Belize and then down the windy, bumpy road to the lodge.

It had been a glorious start to my vacation.  Tomorrow I leave the lodge for the next six days and head north.  First up tomorrow is Lamanai.  Should be fun.


Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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