Mysteries & Monkeys: A Visit to Xunantunich


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.



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


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.



From Neuroscience to Existential Crisis

After a couple rotations around the sun working in various neuroscience labs, I knew I wasn’t in love. Research is demanding. It can be incredibly rewarding, but you better be ready to love every second of the process- even the days when nothing works. To be honest, I’m just not in that place yet. I think that there is a good chance that I will return to research at some point, but for now I need to find something that is personally fulfilling on a higher level than just paying the bills. (Existential crisis much?)

Boarding a plane to Belize for 6 months is certainly a big change! I’m hoping that this time will help clarify my personal goals. Through Northeastern’s Alternative Spring Break Program, I was able to travel to Belize twice to volunteer at an organization called Barzakh Falah. There I helped build sustainable earth bag structures that would eventually become a home for abandoned young children and a transitional living center for young women leaving the orphanage system. social-media-remodel-color-corrected

Now, through my self-developed co-op position, I am going to be working with Barzakh Falah for 6 months to recruit volunteer groups and increase our visibility on social media. The ultimate goal is to be able to open Barzakh Falah to at-risk youth by the end of 2017. I think it is possible- but there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

The biggest barrier in our way is that we are located in the small Central American country of Belize. When I first told my friends and family that I would be moving here, the most common question was, “Where is that?” or, “Wait is that an island?” or even better, “What part of Africa is that?”.  The entire country isn’t that visible to the average un-traveled person. So how do we go about gaining visibility for a small non-profit in an vastly unknown place? I’m hoping the power of social media comes through for us.

Luckily, YOU can help! Check out our brand new Instagram/ WordPress Blog/ Facebook pages! Please like/ share/ follow us! I’ve been updating them quite frequently and there are lots of fun photos and stories from our volunteers.  It would mean the world and you would be contributing to a lovely cause with almost no effort.











Kittens & Kitchen Floors

It feels incredible to be back here, but I keep expecting someone to wake me up and tell me that it’s time to go home. Although this is my third trip to Belize, the longest I’ve ever stayed was one week- and now I have another 6 months. Really, this is all fine, because I’m definitely not ready to leave.

Lots of things are different from when I was last here in March 2016. There are different fruits in season, the damp weather from the rainy season is still lingering, and progress at Barzakh Falah has moved along. The biggest difference is not having my usual team of 12 Northeastern alternative spring breakers around. There are two other independent volunteers here at the moment- Hannah (from England) and Max (from New Zealand). Hannah flew in on the same day as me, and we’re roommates. It’s been nice to have a buddy to go exploring with while we both adjust.

After having a day and half to relax at the house, we headed out to Barzakh Falah to check up on the progress and put in a couple days of work. Although, it is pretty difficult to get work done when there are 4 five week old kittens stumbling around. We basically spent every spare second snuggling the kittens.


The most recent project has been to get some more durable floors down in the kitchen, lounge dome, and the indoor shower dome. This involves mosaic tiling with recycled ceramic tile scraps. Doing physical work at the farm is not going to be my primary role while I’m here in Belize, but it felt really good to spend some time working hard and being in the sun after escaping the frigid weather in Boston.

Our first task was to put the finishing shine on the kitchen floors. These floors were previously packed clay and would easily develop dips and bumps whenever furniture scraped across them. Volunteers over the holidays had put down the tiles, and it was our job to scrape off any remaining grout that clouded the tiles and shine things up. I don’t think we did half bad.

On our second day at the farm, we got to work setting up the lounge dome to be tiled. This involved some tricky engineering to figure out how much cement to apply in order to make the final floor an even surface that also tilts towards the entrance. This is to ensure that water and dust can easily be swept out. Designing the floor turned out to be a pretty difficult job. With the limited resources at the farm, we had to be a little more inventive. Without a construction level and extendable measuring tape we resorted to using a string, some nails, and a thin piece of tubing as a “level” to lay out the design. It’s a good thing we have Jaime as our fearless leader, because Hannah, Max, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure this out on our own.

While Max and Hannah chugged away on the tiles, I stayed back from the farm to focus on my main purpose- to completely remodel the social media presence for Barzakh Falah. Since we are in the final stages of construction before we can host at-risk young women and children, there is an increased need for volunteers. More on this next week after we roll out a brand new Instagram, blog, and more!