Belize History: Visiting Maya Sites

During our time in San Ignacio, Belize, we wanted to learn more about the Maya people and their culture. One of the top things to do in the Cayo District is visit one of the Maya sites (not referred to as ruins, I learned). The only issue is that there are so many to choose from and not enough time to explore them all!

We opted to explore two sites that were both close to San Ignacio – Cahal Pech and Xunantunich.

Planning note: These sites were quite different from one another and I really enjoyed visiting both of them. However, if I were to do it again, I might choose Caracol instead of Xunantunich, primarily because we learned it is a less visited site. I didn’t realize many of the cruise ships visit Xunantunich – although we arrived early, there were already vans of people arriving from the ships and we had to wait to access different areas of the site until other groups moved on. Our ATM tour guide said the cruises don’t visit Caracol, which is a much larger site and a full-day versus half-day trip. If we’d had more time, that would have been my switch.

Visiting Cahal Pech

We decided to explore Cahal Pech on our own during our day in downtown San Ignacio. It was a relatively easy walk from Martha’s Guesthouse to the site, with two uphill climbs along the road. The second section of road is currently under construction and closed to through-traffic but we were able to walk it just fine. At the top of that section we found ourselves directly in front of the Cahal Pech entrance!

The visitor center/museum is definitely worth a visit – this is where we read about the site and Maya history for the first time during our trip. All of the information is posted in English, and there are also a few artifacts on display. There are nice clean restrooms available as well.

Brian’s favorite part was meeting Mishi, the loud and friendly resident cat! <3

Outside, you’re basically on your own if you don’t elect to hire a guide. There’s a boardwalk through the trees that leads to a large map of the area. While the map has the labeled sections you’ll encounter as you walk around, there’s really no information about what these sections are, how they were used, etc. We gleaned most of that general information from the visitor center.

There was an employee in the main plaza when we arrived who pointed about some HUGE rats to us, the size of a cat (ROUS, anyone?). At first we couldn’t believe they were rats and thought maybe he had said rabbits and we’d misheard. But I researched them and sure enough, they are agouti – a rodent species native to Central America and northern South America that can weigh between 5 and 13 lbs. and grow up to 30 inches in length!

I asked the employee if it was ok to simply walk around and climb on things, and he said yes but that we should be careful because the rain had made the greenery on the rocks a little slick. With that, he left us to our own devices!

Believed to be have been established during the early pre-classical period (1300-1000 B.C.), Cahal Pech is considered to be one of the earliest Maya establishments in what is now Belize. It covers 10 square miles and has 34 visible buildings among its interconnected plazas.

I was impressed with a couple of the larger multi-platform step-pyramids, both in the main plaza B where we saw the rats as well as in plaza A, where we climbed to the top of the largest one. The one in plaza B, featured below, is about 78 feet high. If you squint, you might spot Brian on the top of it!

I had read that this site has undergone less excavation than some of the others people tend to visit so I was surprised how much there was to see.

We enjoyed climbing to the top of the plaza A pyramid for 360 degree views of the area, and following along the walkways in between structures, ducking into some of the rooms to see the stone beds.

I also appreciated seeing first-hand the archways we had learned about in the visitor center. Because they were not true arches with a keystone, they were not as strong and only used for short passages between plazas and buildings. It was amazing to see some of the archways still in tact.

There were a few other visitors but I think the on-and-off rain might have deterred most people because we had the place basically to ourselves to take as much time as we liked. I’d highly recommend checking out this site – very informative, easy to get to and through, and I think it cost $10 USD total for our visit.

Visiting Xunantunich

I was glad we visited Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-NAHN-ta-nitch) as well because it was quite different from Cahal Pech. I appreciated having our tour guide, Edwin, for this site because there was a lot I would not have understood or appreciated (and features I realized I had missed in Cahal Pech).

According to Mahogany Hall where we stayed:

Xunantunich is a great introduction to the temples of the Maya and located on a natural limestone ridge approximately eight miles west of San Ignacio at San Jose Succotz Village. The adventure begins before you even get to the site as it is only accessible by crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry.

Edwin picked us up from Mahogany Hall after breakfast and drove four of us to the site, pointing out both Xunantunich and glimpses of other sites through the trees along the way. There are more than 500 known Maya sites throughout Belize!

When we arrived, we had to exit his vehicle and walk down to the aforementioned hand-crank ferry for our ride across the Mopan River. Only the drivers can stay in the vehicles – everyone else has to get out for the crossing and then load back up for the drive from the river to the visitor center and museum.

This museum is also well done with artifacts on displays and quite a few informational plaques, all in English. Edwin walked us through, pointing out key information for this particular site and answering questions we had about Maya culture in general.

Xunantunich comprises three major ceremonial plazas surrounded by numerous temples, palaces, and house mounds. The most prominent structure is “El Castillo” (The Castle), a 130-foot step-pyramid in the main plaza – the second largest Mayan pyramid in Belize.

Edwin pointed out a structure as we were entering the site that was likely used by guards or others who were giving approval for people to enter. In addition to having a couple of stone bedrooms, the structure had a room at the end with a drain built into the stone that they believe might have been a bathtub!

Inside the site, we were able to climb to the top of several of the larger structures, including El Castillo where we had amazing panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, including views into nearby Guatemala.

Unlike Cahal Pech, we couldn’t enter these structures – it was more about the scale of the structures here than the inner workings there. One of the distinguishing features at Xunantunich was the carved murals around the eastern and western sides of the top tier of El Castillo (exact reproduction facades are currently in place to protect the friezes underneath).

In addition to the main structures, Edwin pointed out areas that were used as ballcourts, some of the local flora, huge termite nests up in the trees, and iguanas!

It’s amazing how large they grow, and it was fun to try and spot the smaller ones hiding among the rocks.

I’m glad we went to a couple of different Maya sites during our time in San Ignacio – each one is distinct and the two we chose certainly had different features. I also enjoyed doing one guided visit and one self-guided visit so we could learn details but also explore at our own pace.

2 thoughts on “Belize History: Visiting Maya Sites

  1. Pingback: One Week in Belize Itinerary – Heather's Compass

  2. Pingback: Exploring San Ignacio, Belize – Heather's Compass

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