Xunantunich is one of the finest Mayan ruins in Belize. Located near the Guatemala-Belizean border, this archaeological reserve has been brilliantly excavated, so you’ll get to see this ancient Maya city in all its glory. Better yet, these Mayan ruins are super easy to visit independently. Although, if you’d prefer to learn more about the site during a visit, there are also plenty of excellent guided Xunantunich tours to choose from.
In this guide, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about visiting the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in Belize. Whether it’s a solo adventure or you’re joining a group tour, we’ll detail all of the practical tips and tricks to help you plan your visit.
Read more about the Caracol Mayan ruins near San Ignacio.
Table of Contents
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins: An Overview
Also known as the Xunantunich ruins and the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, these ruins are one of the most well-known Mayan sites in Belize. The city once served as a Maya civic ceremonial centre to the Belize Valley region. Nowadays, the ruins serve as a popular tourist attraction, especially for those staying in the nearby town of San Ignacio.
Unlike the Caracol Mayan ruins, which are also located in the west of Belize, Xunantunich is super easy and simple to visit. With this in mind, we’re going to tell you exactly what you need to know to make your visit as straightforward as possible.
But first, a little Xunantunich Mayan ruins history.
The History of Xunantunich, Belize
Similar to other Mayan ruins in Central America, the history of Xunantunich remains uncertain. In the grand scheme of things, the occupation of this site by the Mayan civilisation actually transpired only a relatively small amount of time ago. Still, taking nothing away from the impressive and fascinating Maya city.
Basically, there is some evidence to suggest that the origins of the site date back to the middle pre-classic period between 600–300 B.C. Although, there is stronger evidence to suggest that the site, and its monumental structures we see today, date back to the terminal classic period around 700–900 A.D. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long after this timeframe, that the demise of the Mayan civilisation occurred.
So, who figured all of this out? Of course, we have explorers and archaeologists to thank! Let’s look more into the discovery of the Mayan ruins in the late 19th century.
The Discovery of Xunantunich
Again, the discovery of the site by Western civilisation is unclear. Apparently, a man from the nearby town of San Jose Succotz first stumbled across the site in the late 1800s when he was hunting. Although, the first official report of the site took place in the 1890s. In particular, a British medical professional, by the name of Dr. Thomas Gann, was one of the first people to write thoroughly about the site.
Since then, various archaeological groups have conducted research and projects at the site. Some of the most recent and prominent projects include the Xunantunich Archaeological Project and Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project.
All in all, excavation has revealed around six plazas and 32 other structures across Xunantunich. Although, similar to many other ancient Mayan cities found in Central America, only a small fraction of the site has been uncovered. Whilst, as you explore the site, you’re actually walking over layers and layers of plazas on plazas. So, it’s really a minefield as to how extensive the area of the site is which hasn’t been uncovered!
Of course, the most impressive structure at the site is El Castillo, which is one of the largest human-made structures in Belize. We’ll talk more about El Castillo, later in the guide.
So, exactly where are these Mayan ruins located?
Xunantunich Map: Where Is it Located?
Xunantunich is located north of the Mopan River, near San Ignacio, in the Cayo District of western Belize. As mentioned, the site lies near the Guatemala-Belize border, not so far from the famous Tikal National Park in Guatemala.
Please click on the image below to access an interactive map of the site on Google Maps.
Given its close proximity to San Ignacio – a major hub for backpackers, Xunantunich is convenient to visit. Whether you visit independently or join a group tour, visiting these ruins is one of the most popular things to do near San Ignacio. Personally, Beck and I visited the Mayan ruins independently. But, many people opt to do a Xunantunich Mayan ruins tour.
Given the Mayan ruins are relatively small, tours to the site are often combined with another activity. You’ll usually visit the Mayan ruins in the morning and then do another activity in the afternoon. The most popular tour option is the Xunantunich and Nohoch Che’en Cave (Jaguar Paw) Tubing tour. Whilst, the second most popular tour option is the Xunantunich and Horse Riding Tour. There is also a decent combined tour visiting both Xunantunich and the Blue Hole National Park (not to be confused with the Great Blue Hole).
Certainly, there are many awesome tours that involve exploring the Mayan ruins and also other nearby attractions. Although, as mentioned, Beck and I visited the site independently, which was quite easy and simple. If you’re keen on visiting independently too, then continue reading below.
Visiting Xunantunich Without a Tour
The Mayan ruins are straightforward to visit independently from San Ignacio. Indeed, most backpackers staying in San Ignacio will visit the Mayan ruins without doing a guided tour. Personally, after doing guided tours to the ATM Cave, Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Caracol, we were ready for a bit of DYI exploration. Below, we’ll look at getting to the Mayan ruins from San Ignacio.
How to Get to the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
Basically, to visit the Mayan ruins independently from San Ignacio, you’ll need to get to the Xuanantunich Hand-Cranked River Ferry located here. Let’s look at your options for getting to the river ferry crossing in the first place. In short, you’ll either get a taxi, a bus or drive there yourself if you’ve hired a car in Belize.
Crossing the Mopan River By a Hand-Cranked Ferry
From San Ignacio, the river ferry crossing is only around a 10–15 minute drive away. You can either catch a taxi or a bus from San Ignacio to the Hand-Cranked River Ferry. A taxi will cost around $5USD and a bus will cost around $2USD. Otherwise, if you’ve hired a car in Belize, you can simply drive to the river ferry crossing.
Personally, Beck and I were on a mission to be the first people through the entrance, so that we could explore the site truly independently. So, we decided to get a taxi to the river ferry crossing, which begins operation at 7:30am. Having arrived just before 7:30am, we were the first to cross the river that day, joining some locals for the fun ride. You’ll then need to walk approx. 1.7km (1 mile) along Xuanantunich Road to reach the entrance of the archaeological reserve.
Driving Directions to Xunantunich
Very simply, put Xuanantunich Hand Cranked River Ferry into Google Maps and follow the GPS-guided directions. The river ferry is located in the town of San Jose Succotz on the Western Highway.
Opening Time and Entrance Fees
The Mayan site is open from 8am to 4pm. So, by arriving at the ferry crossing for 7:30am, you’ll commence the walk around five minutes later, eventually arriving at the entrance at around 8am. Voila – you’ll be the first to arrive and enter the ancient city.
If you’ve driven, you’ll simply drive your car onto the hand-cranked ferry. Then, you’ll drive along the road to reach the entrance.
The entrance fee for the Mayan ruins is $10BZ ($5USD) for tourists and only $5BZ ($2.50USD) for residents.
Exploring the Xunantunich Site: Our Experience
Beck and I were the first to enter the site on the day we visited. This meant that we enjoyed the ancient Mayan city to ourselves for roughly half an hour. Roaming the site in isolation was definitely a cool experience.
From the entrance, you’ll walk on a trail covered by forest. You’ll then encounter a more open part of the site and this is where you’ll get your first glimpse of the incredible El Castillo (The Temple). This structure is certainly the most impressive feature of the archaeological complex. With no one else around, Beck and I made our way to the top of El Castillo, where we enjoyed marvellous sweeping views of the site.
After climbing to the top of El Castillo and scoping out the epic carvings, we then made our way through the rest of the complex. During our random wanderings, we noticed quite a few ball courts amongst other interesting structures. All in all, we spent around three hours at the Mayan ruins.
To get back to San Ignacio, we simply retraced our steps back to the hand-cranked ferry crossing. After crossing the river, we crossed the road and waited around 10 minutes for a bus back to San Ignacio.
More About the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
From our visit, we learnt a few fun facts about the Mayan ruins. We’ll quickly run through these facts about the different structures within the Mayan ruins below.
Of course, for a more thorough breakdown of the layout of the archaeological site and a more comprehensive historical overview, we highly recommend doing a guided tour. Indeed, if you want to learn more about the history of these Mayan ruins and the Mayan culture, you can’t beat a guided tour.
The Temple: El Castillo, Belize
El Castillo is the dominating feature of the Mayan ruins complex. As mentioned, it’s the star attraction of the site, commanding your attention as soon as you arrive at the centre of the complex. The pyramid is actually solid on the inside; whilst, it’s the second-highest human-made Mayan structure in Belize (behind the Caana pyramid at Caracol).
The top of El Castillo not only offers views towards Guatemala; but, back in the day, the top of the pyramid was used for stargazing and sacrificial events.
Xunantunich El Castillo Carvings
One of the most outstanding features of El Castillo are the carvings on the east and west side of the pyramid. You won’t see the original carvings made of stucco; but, the fibreglass replicas are still fascinating to see. The symbols in the carvings are related to astrology.
Ball Courts: Pok-ta-pok
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins hold quite a few ball courts where a game called ‘pok-ta-pok‘ was played. Never mind the specifics about the sport itself – what’s most interesting is that the losers of a match were sacrificed!
The Xunantunich Ghost
As the old story goes, a ghost was seen at the Mayan ruins in the 1890s. It was actually that hunter from San Jose Succotz, that we mentioned earlier, who was the first to spot this ghost. And, apparently, there have been several sightings of the ghost since then. Personally, Beck and I weren’t lucky enough to meet this ghost. Well, there’s always next time!
Xunantunich Visitor Center: Mayan Ruin Artifacts
Other than exploring the site, it’s also worth checking out the visitor centre. You’ll find a bunch of intriguing Mayan artifacts from the site on display in the visitor centre. There’s also a small gift shop if you’re interested.
Useful Things to Know Before You Go
There you have it – know you now how to visit Xunantunich, whether it’s doing a tour or visiting independently. Below, we’ll look at some other practical tips to help you plan your visit. As you now know, the Mayan ruins are popularly visited from San Ignacio. With this in mind, let’s look at some accommodation options in San Ignacio.
Best Places to Stay in San Ignacio
There are plenty of awesome accommodation options in San Ignacio. Below, we’ll review the best budget, mid-range and luxury accommodation options.
- Budget – Yellow Belly Backpackers: if you’re looking for the cheapest accommodation, head to Yellow Belly Backpackers. The hostel is certainly a favourite among backpackers.
- Mid-range – Matus Guest House: Beck and I stayed at Matus Guest House and really enjoyed it. The guest house is certainly the best value for money option in San Ignacio. A stay in a private room at this lovely guest house is a similar price to staying in a dorm room in a hostel.
- Luxury – San Ignacio Resort Hotel: the San Ignacio Resort Hotel is definitely one of the nicest places to stay in San Ignacio.
What to Bring
Let’s talk about the things you’ll need to wear and pack for your trip to the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in Belize.
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: these are my favourite hiking boots. They’re super comfortable and lightweight.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: you’ll want a waterproof jacket if you’re visiting during the rainy season.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for day trips, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a great way to cover your skin to protect yourself from the sun and ticks!
- Sunglasses, hat and insect repellant
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins: Recap
Overall, Beck and I had a wonderful time exploring the Xunantunich Mayan ruins and highly recommend visiting. Whether you join a group tour or head there independently, you’re guaranteed a memorable visit. Certainly, visiting these ruins is a must if you’re in San Ignacio. But, we’d go as far as to say that it should be high on your bucket list for trip planning of Central America, as a whole.
Other Mayan Ruins in Belize
Other than the Xunantunich ruins, Belize is home to many ancient Mayan cities and even some unexplored Mayan ruins. After all, Belize was once the centre of the lowland Mayan Empire. When it comes to other Mayan ruins in Belize, we recommend visiting Caracol, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Cerros, Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit.
Things to Do Nearby in San Ignacio
San Ignacio is a well-known area for backpackers travelling throughout Central America. Indeed, for those travelling between Belize City and Guatemala along the Gringo Trail, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up at San Ignacio, at least for a few days.
Of course, high on your San Ignacio to-do list has to be the ATM Cave and Caracol. Additionally, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is a spectacular natural space located near San Ignacio. By going to Caracol, you’ll actually drive through the forest reserve. In fact, most tours visiting Caracol will usually stop at a few natural wonders in the reserve to break up the journey. The highlights of Mountain Pine Ridge include Big Rocks Falls, Rio on Pools, Rio Frio Cave and Thousand Foot Falls.
Travel Insurance For Belize
You’ll need travel insurance if you’re travelling throughout Central America, especially if you’re getting off the beaten track in Belize!
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Beck and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
Below, we’ll answer the most frequently asked questions about the Xunantunich Mayan ruins in Belize.
What Does Xunantunich Mean?
In the Yucatec Maya language, the word ‘Xunantunich’ translates to ‘stone woman’.
When Was Xunantunich Built?
It’s unknown; but, it’s estimated that the origins of the site date back to 600–300 B.C. Although, the site as we see it today, dates back to around 700–900 A.D.
Can You Climb Xunantunich?
Yes, you’re allowed to climb El Castillo, which is the highest structure at the site.
Which Is Better – Xunantunich or Tikal?
Of course, Xunantunich isn’t better than the legendary Mayan sites such as Tikal or Chichen Itza. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference. If you’d prefer to stay away from the crowds at the tourist hotspots, perhaps you’ll think Xunantunich is better!
Bonus Tips For Visiting Xunantunich
- Get to the Hand Cranked River Ferry at 7:30am: that way, you’ll likely be the first to arrive and you can explore the site without anyone else there!
- Getting from Belize City to San Ignacio: it’s easy to catch a chicken bus from Belize City to San Ignacio. This bus usually costs around $9BZ ($4.50USD) and takes three hours. There are usually a few departures a day.
- Explore Caribbean Belize: in contrast to the forest landscape on the west side, you’ve got the awesome Caribbean coastal vibes of eastern Belize, where you can explore the stunning Belize Barrier Reef. Read more about the best snorkeling tours at the Belize Barrier Reef, including tours from Caye Caulker.
Central America Guides
- Mexico: we spent a month exploring incredible Mayan ruins and breathtaking cenotes. Read about the 13 Best Mayan Ruins and 25 Best Cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula.
- Guatemala: we also spent a month in Guatemala, exploring all of the main natural attractions. Read our 17 Best Hikes in Guatemala guide.
- El Salvador: we spent around three weeks trekking some lesser-explored volcanoes in El Salvador. For more information, read our 20 Epic El Salvador Hiking Trails Not to Miss.
- Nicaragua: we spent another three weeks exploring Nicaragua. Read about the 16 Best Hikes in Nicaragua and the 4 Best Hikes on Ometepe Island.
- Costa Rica: we explored the most popular waterfalls and volcanoes in Costa Rica. Read about La Fortuna Waterfall, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Poas Volcano and Irazu Volcano.
Please read our other Belize travel guides or read 46 AWESOME Things to Do in Belize (Best Tours and Travel Tips).