Mysteries & Monkeys: A Visit to Xunantunich

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The massive El Castillo pyramid. With Hannah for scale. 

In Belize, where the average building is one or two stories, the rolling hills and tall trees of the rainforest typically dominate the skyline. But deep in the jungle of Cayo district, the ruins of Xunantunich rises far above the canopy. At a towering 40 meters (~131 feet!), Xunantunich is the second tallest man-made structure in all of Belize. The absolute tallest building?- another Mayan pyramid called Altun Ha at the ruins of Caracol. The sheer scale of these ruins truly make you wonder what could have caused the mysterious downfall of the Mayan empire over a thousand years ago.

There is a still a significant and diverse Mayan population in Belize. The name Xunantunich means Stone Woman in Yucatec, one of the remaining Mayan languages. The name comes from a local legend as mysterious as the fall of the empire. It is said that a woman appears to men who have wandered the grounds of the ruins alone. She is always dressed in a traditional white “huipil” and has fire-y red eyes- always staring at the men before disappearing through the stone walls of the largest pyramid, El Castillo. Thus, the modern name “Stone Woman”, or Xunantunich, was given to this archaeological site. The original ancient name for the city is unknown.

Maybe it’s the mystery that keeps bringing me back, or the crisp, cool wind at the top of El Castillo. Regardless of the reason, this was my 3rd trip to Xunantunich, and each time has been a unique experience. I have visited the ruins with two different Northeastern Alternative Spring Break volunteer teams and independently. I have traveled there by car, horseback, pseudo-hitchhiking (thanks Global Convoy), and chicken bus.

 

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January 2017: 3rd visit with another Barzakh Falah volunteer, Hannah. 

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An active archaeological dig area

Even the ruins themselves are changing. Xunantunich is an active archaeological dig, with more of the pyramids and surrounding structure being uncovered each year. It’s not unusual to see areas roped off by caution tape or entire hills covered in tarps. Much of the ruins are still underground and every visible bump in the landscape is likely to have a structure beneath it. Even the largest pyramid, El Castillo, is suspected to be even larger- the bottom layers are just buried under years of sediment accumulation.

dsc_0645Despite the absolutely amazing views, the history, and the legends, the highlight of my third Xunantunich trip actually had nothing to do with the ruins themselves. For the first time, I got to get up close with the monkeys. Sure I’ve seen monkeys in Belize at a distance bouncing along the treetops, but this was entirely different. Just on the edge of the jungle, a young spider monkey came to check us out while eating fruits from the lowest branches on the tree. This little guy was a spider monkey- one of two kinds of monkeys that are found in Belize. We watched him swing between the branches and dodged the leftover fruit pieces falling to the ground around us for a while before moving on.

It’s worth mentioning that the other type of monkey found in Belize is much rarer to see. Black howler monkeys are always heard before they are seen. These guys are aptly named for their deafening calls that echo through the rainforest. Don’t be mistaken, these Jurassic Park like noises are not dinosaurs- they really are just the howler monkeys. To listen, check out the video below.

I love the magic of Xunantunich. I love the smell of the allspice trees that are interspersed across the tree line. I love that orange Fanta tastes the best after hiking to the top of El Castillo. I even love the silly hand-crank ferry that shuttles tourists and their vehicles across the Mopan river- which is the only way to access the ruins. In all likelihood, I will return to Xunantunich again before I leave Belize to do it all over again.

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