The Xunantunich Ruins
The ancient ruins of Xunantunich were once a Maya civic ceremonial center, and are now an archaeological site. The name means Stone Woman, and according to local legend a traditionally dressed Maya woman haunts the area. The ruins are located about 30 minutes outside of San Ignacio, and are the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in Belize.
The fee to enter the ruins is $5BZD ($2.50 USD). There is very little shade at the ruins, so you may want to time your visit for early in the morning, or later in the afternoon, to avoid most of the sun’s glare. Though you can tour the ruins without a guide, it is highly recommended to hire a guide at the gate who will teach you about the history of the differnt ruins. There are more than 26 palaces and temples to be viewed over the one square mile, dating from as early as 600AD.
The most important monument is El Castillo, the second highest structure in Belize. Standing at 130 feet, the pyramid features intricate religious carvings. Look for the carved figure of a woman, who some believe is the ghost who appears periodically to locals. You can climb to the top of the structure for a 360 degree view of the surroundings.
Canoeing the Macal River
The Macal River runs through the Cayo District of Belize, between San Ignacio and Santa Elena, towards the Belize River. Exploring the river by canoe is a relaxing and memorable journey, and you’ll be able to get up close to a lush shoreline with wildlife such as monkeys, giant iguanas, and exotic birds. You may even see a crocodile!
The trip down the lower river is not difficult, and if you encounter any rapids, they will be easily navigated by a beginner. Choose to tour on your own, or hire a guide to point out the animals so you don’t miss them. Most tours begin at the Macal River visitor’s center, and last about 2 hours.
Caracol Maya Ruins
Another popular destination near San Ignacio is the site of the Caracol Maya Ruins, located within Belize’s Chiquibul National Forest Reserve. These ancient ruins are a little further out, approximately 2.5 hours’ drive (40km south) of Xunantunich. Be prepared for a rough journey out to the ruins, as the road is not well maintained. The destination is worth the journey however as Caracol are some of the best maintained Maya sites in Belize.
The site was, during the Classic Period, one of the most important regional political centers for the Maya civilization. The monuments date back to 400AD, and include Caana (“sky palace”) the tallest manmade structure in Belize. Many of these temples can be climbed to allow for viewing.
As with many of the other jungle ruins of the area, you will find howler monkeys at the site, which provide an eerie background noise as you explore. While a guide is not required, it is recommended so that you get the full historical significance of the area and don’t miss any of the most important monuments.