Xunantunich Maya Ruins
A popular day excursion
from Belize City

All Caribbean Islands

Hotel Search

Cruise Planning

Island Tours

Caribbean Recipes

Caribbean Weather

Xunantunich Maya Ruins
Place of the Stone Maiden

The maya ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced “zoo-NAN-too-NICH”) in western Belize is one of the most popular cruise excursions from Belize City and rightfully so. The archaeological site contains one of the largest structures ever built in either modern or ancient Belize, the 132-foot tall pyramid "El Castillo."

Xunantunich Maya Ruins Belize

The name Xunantunich is based on the legend of a hunter (or hunters) who at the end of the 1800s was passing the pyramid at sunrise when he was startled by the appearance of beautiful maiden wearing traditional Maya clothing.

Frightened, the hunter threw aside his gun, ran back to his village and told others, including the local priest, about his vision. By the time the hunter and his friends returned, the beautiful maiden had, of course, disappeared.

The story became a popular one, and so the to Xunantunich, usually interpreted as “the place of the Stone Maiden” in Mayan.

Yet the hunter's tale makes it clear the woman was flesh and blood female. Perhaps a more accurate though less common translation of Xunantunich is “Maiden of the Rock,” which better matches the legend.

It's fitting that the ghost of a woman was sighted here. A place that experienced so much bloodletting deserves a few ghosts. The blood was shed not by captives but by the local people because of the demand that every family must sacrifice a child on their ruler's behalf.

Additionally, whenever it was time to carry out fertility rituals, young women were sacrificed as part of these ceremonies.


Perhaps it was one of the sacrificed maidens that materialized where I stand now, at the base of the 130-foot high pyramid known as El Castillo (The Castle), the second tallest Maya structure in Belize.

El Castillo is still a place where once can climb. I follow a steep marked path up the right side that leads to a broad grass terrace beside a temple section decorated with a frieze containing stucco figures who dwarf me.

This frieze and the other like it apparently came late in the history of Xunantunich, first settled somewhere between 200A.D. and 500 A.D. It didn't become an important city until the Late Classic Period (700-900 A.D.), a time when most other Maya cities were collapsing. Yet Xunantunich suddenly grew and prospered, building this mammoth pyramid.

The friezes originally encircled El Castillo, but unfortunately only portions of the western and eastern sides still remain intact. These friezes, however, look brand new, exhibiting few signs of weathering despite the passing of centuries.

A guide standing nearby says what I see are replicas placed over the originals to preserve them. Archaeologists say the friezes depict astronomical themes related to rulership and the accession of power.

To Xunantunich Part 2

To Belize City Home

To Caribbean Cruise Tips