The ruins of Xunantunich (the “Xu” is pronounced like “shoe”) is one of Belize’s most popular Maya sites. Located about 80 miles west of Belize City in Cayo District near the town of San Ignacio and the border with Guatemala, Xunantunich is most famously known for the large temple known today as El Castillo (Spanish for “The Castle”) which is more than 130 feet tall (30 meters) making it the second-tallest building in Belize. (You will be able to walk up the temple stairs to the top)
Once a prosperous city state during the Classical Maya era, Xunantunich once was the home to 200,000 people, equivalent to two-thirds of Belize’s current population. The name Xunantunich, a Maya construct meaning “Stone Woman,” is a modern one as the original name for the city has been lost. Local Maya named the fading ruins “Stone Woman” because the site was regularly reported to be haunted by the ghost of a woman, usually depicted as being dressed entirely in white with glowing red eyes.
Abandoned by the Maya nearly 1,000 years ago for unknown reasons, Xunantunich was claimed by the jungle until archaeologists in the colonial period began conducting excavations in the mid-1890’s. Today, visitors approach the site by crossing over the Mopan River on a hand-operated ferry and then climbing up to the limestone ridge that serves as the foundation for the city.
While some areas of Xunantunich are still being excavated by archaeologists, visitors can explore the on-site museum with interactive displays and exhibits before entering the city proper, home to six plazas and more than two dozen temples, palaces and other buildings. The original architects of Xunantunich designed the city around the “El Castillo” temple which lies in the exact center. Beyond its impressive size and panorama overlooking the surrounding area, El Castillo is remarkable for a series of stucco friezes on its exterior that depict stories and events from Maya mythology.
CAVE EXPLORING / TUBING
High Adventure: TUNICHIL MUKNAL CAVE (ATM CAVE) IN CAYO DISTRICT, BELIZE
Every cave in Belize is unique–even among the variety of Mayan caves in Central America. But, some are more spectacular than others, like the cave located near San Ignacio Town bearing the quirky nickname of ATM. Actun Tunichil Muknal has everything a curious tourist could want and more: folklore, splendor, history and skeletons, Not sure if a visit to ATM is worth the journey? These 8 reasons will convince you that you must come now.
- The National Geographic Society proclaimed the ATM Cave the number one sacred cave in the world.
- High-profile broadcast documentary, internationally known archaeologists, curious travelers, Mayaphiles and tourism professionals flock here because it’s so spectacular. Discover what brings them back repeatedly.
- ATM is a living museum that has no equal, a designation given by social and physical scientists who study here because the cave’s interior and artifacts are so bountiful and unusual.
- You can see dead people. Victims of sacrificial ceremonies remain where they died to this day. Witness the full or partial skeletal remains of 14 Mayans brought to this sacred place circa 700 to 900 AD.
- ATM is a geology hobbyists’ dream. Bodies of water challenge visitors to walk deeper into the cave to see an extensive and rich heritage of the artifacts and cultural relics abandoned by Mayans centuries ago.
- If you’ve never seen stalagmites and stalactites, your time has come. They bear witness to untold numbers of ceramic vessels, stone artifacts, ritual items and skeleton parts plus the piece de resistance: a complete skeleton of a young male encased in crystalline travertine deposits that make his remains sparkle.
- Check out authentic Mayan tools. They won’t look like your wrenches and screwdrivers, but they will give you an idea of sophisticated pre-Columbian tools manufactured by Mayans to undertake agricultural work.
- Who knows how long this extraordinary place will be around? The Mayan civilization vanished without a trace. Anthropologists have still not figured out why. That could happen to the cave itself. Changing weather patterns, global warming and rising seas might someday flood ATM, perhaps the biggest reason of all to visit now!
ABOUT ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL CAVE
More than 1,000 years ago, high priests of the Maya empire descended into what is now known as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in a desperate effort to appease the gods by performing human sacrifices. After the Maya empire collapsed, ATM cave was forgotten, lying undisturbed for more than a millennia before it was accidentally rediscovered in 1989.
Following a careful survey, archaeologists discovered ceramics, stoneware, obsidian blades, ritual objects, an enormous stone sepulcher and the intact remains of several human victims, including those of young children. One skeleton in particular, originally thought to be of a young adult woman, has become infused with the minerals of the cave, known locally as the Crystal Maiden.
ATM cave is currently situated in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in Belize’s western Cayo District, about an hour’s drive from the town of San Ignacio. In order to preserve the integrity of the site, only authorized tour guides are allowed to bring visitors into the cave.
In order to enter the cave, visitors must first hike through the jungle for about an hour, occasionally fording shallow rivers. The cave’s entrance is guarded by a spring-fed pool, obligating visitors to swim in and then wade up a subterranean river for approximately one kilometer (half a mile).
After passing through a series of enormous boulders, visitors enter several large caverns, including one known as the “Cathedral” where a number of undisturbed Maya artifacts are visible, including a soaring altar carved from the native stone. One of the cave’s sobriquets is “The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” due to this magnificent piece of religious artistry. Although the original name (if any) for the cave is unknown, the current name of Actun Tunichil Muknal is a Maya term that translates to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher”.
From there, participants must make their way up a slippery ledge in order to reach the sacred labyrinths where ancient Maya priests performed their grisly rituals. Visitors can see the intact skeletons of children and young adults whose lives were sacrificed in a desperate effort to appease the gods during one of the most turbulent and difficult times in Maya history.
The youngest individual whose remains lie in the deep interior of ATM cave is estimated to be just 1 year old. Archaeologists have determined that the majority of the victims were killed by blunt force trauma, resulting in their skulls becoming crushed. Near the skeletons, visitors can see a collection of pottery, including ritual vessels containing food and other offerings for the gods. The Crystal Maiden lies at the rear of this section, and archaeologists have dated her death at just over 1,000 years ago. Other interesting artifacts include carvings of faces and animals.
Archaeologists are still working to discover exactly why these children and young adults were sacrificed and left unburied. The current theory is that their lives were offered to appease the rain god Chac or perhaps the victims were suffering from some sort of mental ailment, the Maya priests wanting their unclean spirits to be trapped in the cave.
Although the cave is protected by the Belize Institute of Culture and History, visitors can expect to encounter a few of the country’s more interesting wildlife in the cave, including several series of predatory spiders like the Amblypygi, commonly known as a “whip spider”, freshwater crabs, catfish, and tropical fish.
Archaeologists believe that caves like ATM were important ceremonial sites because the ancient Maya believed that they were a nexus between the world of humans and the underworld of the gods. Maya legends refer to caves as a gateway to a kind of hell where 12 maleficent deities with names like “Skull Staff” and “Stabbing Demon” ruled.
Visitors to the cave must be careful not to disturb the sanctity of the site, as none of the pottery, artifacts, or skeletons are roped off. Exploring the cave is usually a full-day activity, so be prepared for an early morning start in order to properly appreciate the unique atmosphere of the cave. Photography is prohibited, but visiting the site is sure to create truly special memories as the cave is one of the few Maya sites that escaped the ravages of time.
SNORKELING IN THE BARRIER RIFE
Goff’s Caye – Best Belize snorkeling spot goes to Goff’s Caye.
Actually more of a tropical island, experiencing a day trip here also provides you with ample time to enjoy the white sands and laze under a tropical palm tree or 4!
Great for kids, this place is also popular with cruise ships and is only 30 mins from Belize City.
With a huge selection of brilliant-colored fish, as well as the occasional turtle and dolphin, Goff’s Caye is definitely a good choice if you are basing yourself in or near the capital.
Known for its diversity of coral, this is probably the best Belize snorkeling site for beginners.
Indeed, the shallow depths, yet incredible diversity, of the Coral Gardens, make it the ideal location if this is your first time donning a snorkel and mask!
Located on the inner side of the reef, Coral Gardens are also sheltered, which means currents here are less strong and swimming around to see the tons of colourful fish is much easier.
Right near Caye Caulker and part of the local marine reserve there, this place is an easy half day trip is you want just a shorter snorkel excursion and is normally paired with Shark Ray Alley.
Another shallow site, Mexico Rocks is the ideal Belize snorkelling site for marine photographers, as the great visibility here, means of the colours of the coral real pop in front of the lens.
Located only a 20 minute boat ride from Ambergris Caye, Mexico Rocks showcases a delightful array of boulder coral and brain coral and is one of the top places to spot lobsters and eels.
At only 12ft deep, this snorkel site is also nicely sheltered and usually quite calm with tons of angelfish and yellowtail snapper regularly seen.