Xunantunich is an Ancient Maya archaeological site in western Belize, about 70 miles (110 km) west of Belize City, in the Cayo District. Xunantunich is located atop a ridge above the Mopan River, well within sight of the Guatemala border – which is a mere 0.6 miles (1 km) to the west. It served as a Maya civic ceremonial center in the Late and Terminal Classic periods to the Belize Valley region. When the region was at its peak, nearly 200,000 people lived in Belize.

Xunantunich’s name means “Maiden of the Rock” in the Maya language, and, like many names given to Maya archaeological sites, is a modern name; the ancient name is currently unknown. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.

The first modern explorations of the site were conducted by Thomas Gann in the mid-1890s. Gann moved from Britain and served as the district surgeon and district commissioner of Cayo, British Honduras, starting in 1892. He chose this area to settle in because he had an interest in Mayan archaeology, and he wished to be able to explore the (at the time) unknown wonders of the indigenous people. Gann’s successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, implemented a more methodical approach, and was able to establish the region’s first ceramic chronology. The main recent archaeological teams to work at Xunantunich and the surrounding region are the Xunantunich Archaeological Project (XAP) and the Xunantunich Settlement Survey (XSS).

In 1959–60, the Cambridge Expedition to British Honduras arrived in the colony and its archaeologist member, Euan MacKie, carried out several months of excavation at Xunantunich. He excavated the upper building on Structure A-11 in Group B and a newly discovered residential structure, A-15, just outside the main complex. Using the European method of detailed recording of the stratigraphy of the superficial deposits (the masonry structures themselves were not extensively cut into) he was able to infer that both buildings had been shattered by a sudden disaster which marked the end of the Classic period occupation. An earthquake was tentatively proposed as the cause; it is inferred purely on the basis of the excavated evidence, and also on the very damaged state of the top building of Structure A-6 (‘El Castillo’). He was also able to confirm the later part of the pottery sequence constructed by Thompson.

Farmers that fed the people living in Xunantunich typically lived in small villages, divided into kin-based residential groups. The farms were spread out widely over the landscape, though the center of Xunantunich itself is rather small in comparison. These villages were economically self-sufficient, which may be the reason why Xunantunich lasted as long as they did; they were not dependent on the city to provide for them. Settlement density was relative to soil quality, proximity to rivers, and localized political histories. Since the farmers were long established on their plots of land, they would not want to be involved with a polity that was under constant upheaval due to invading forces and more. Other nearby Maya archaeological sites include Cahal Pech, Buenavista del Cayo, and Naranjo.

Cahal Pech is located on an imposing hill that overlooks the twin towns of San Ignacio/Santa Elena. The name of the site means “Place of Ticks” in the Yucatecan Maya language. This name was coined in the 1950’s when the area around the site was used for pasture.

About Cahal Pech

Linton Satterthwaite from the University of Pennsylvania Museum visited the site in the 1950’s and conducted the first investigations. Other archaeologists to work at the site after included Gordon Willey, Peter Schmidt, Joseph Ball and Jennifer Taschek. It wasn’t until 1988 under the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance under Dr. Jaime Awe that the chronology of the site was more examined.

Archaeological investigations indicate that Cahal Pech was first settled sometime around  1200 B.C. and abandoned around 800 -900 A.D. The site is particularly important for the information it has provided on the earliest Maya settlers of western Belize. Early cultural remains, for example, suggest that the site’s first inhabitants were relatively sophisticated. They built large circular plat-forms that were used for ceremonial purposes, they carved many Mesoamerican or Olmec-like symbols on their pottery, imported jade and obsidian from Guatemala, modeled many figurines in the form of female individuals, and produced decorative beads that were made from Conch shells brought from the Caribbean coast.

Cahal Pech supported a substantial population from the Middle Preclassic to the Late Classic period. It is estimated that during the Late Clas-sic between 10,000 – 15,000 people lived in the city and its’ immediate periphery. The rest of the valley was also densely populated during this time, and residents of Cahal Pech undoubtedly traded and communicated with their neighbors at the nearby cities of Xunantunich, Baking Pot, El Pilar and Buena Vista.

 

Credit NICH – National Institute of Culture and History

Altun Ha is located 31 miles north of Belize City on the Old Northern Highway. A two-mile dirt road connects the main road to the site. The area around the Altun Ha is rich in wildlife including armadillos, bats, squirrels, agouti, paca, foxes, raccoons, coati, tapir and the white-tailed deer. Two hundred species of birds have been recorded and there are large crocodiles that inhabit the Maya-made water reservoir.

Altun Ha was a wealthy ceremonial center boasting two main plazas, thirteen structures (including the Temple of Sun God or the Temple of the Masonry Altars). Altun Ha is not very far from the Caribbean Sea and it formed part of a unique cultural zone along with other coastal sites. There are also no stelae at Altun Ha but the discovery of rich tombs indicates that the ruling elite enjoyed access to substantial amounts of exotic goods.

Another interesting part of this site is the presence of a large, water reservoir called “Rockstone Pond”. The bottom of this reservoir is lined with yellow clay giving the bottom firmness capable of retaining water.

About Altun Ha

Altun Ha, named after the modern day village that was developed there (Rockstone Pond), was first recognized in 1957 by A.H. Anderson, the Archaeological Commissioner of that time. In February of that year he had followed up on a report made by the Public Works Department of some questionable mounds in the area where they were planning to push some roads. He found them to be archaeological mounds.

In 1961 W.R. Bullard, Director of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) excavations at Baking Pot and San Estevan at the time, also visited the site and examined portions.  No further attention was given to Altun Ha until 1963 when quarrying activities of the local villagers resulted in the recovery of a large and elaborately carved jade pendant. Anderson then contacted David Pendergast who had been involved in archaeological cave research in Belize. The ROM was encouraged to focus their attention on that site and employ David Pendergast, a staff member of the University of Utah, as their field director. That started out as a 4-year research turned into the first long term and full-scale archaeological project in Belize, lasting seven years from 1964-1971. During this time, many rich archaeological finds were made, including the now internationally famed jade head.

The earliest evidence of settlement at Altun Ha dates to 200 B.C., although it is likely that nomadic hunting-and-gathering tribes lived in the area long before then. The first major construction took place around A.D. 100 in the form of a temple near the principal reservoir, but by the beginning of the Classic Period (A.D. 250) the focus had shifted to the area which the visitor sees today. This was to be the central core of the site for some six centuries. The northern plaza (Plaza A) was the primary ceremonial precinct until close to the end of the Early Classic (around A.D. 550) when construction was begun on the Plaza B.

Construction at Altun Ha continued until A.D. 900, though a decline in the quality of new buildings was evident 150 years earlier. As at other Classic Maya sites, the society appears to have been severely disrupted early in the tenth century A.D. Although no single factor explains the decline of Maya civilization, there is some evidence that regional conflicts may have contributed to the downfall of the Maya at Altun Ha. The center was not completely abandoned after the decline, but appears to have been occupied for about 100 years after construction activity had ceased. It was once again reoccupied 200 years later during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Credit: NICH National Institute for Culture and History.

Belize Scuba DivingWith the breaking waves signifying the reef crest of Belize’s coastal treasure, the world’s 2nd largest barrier reef, clearly visible from its’ sandy shores it is only understandable that the thriving offshore waters of Ambergris Caye would provide some of the country’s most spectacular and acclaimed dive venues.  Indeed, dive excursions account for a significant portion of the island’s bustling tourism trade and dive operations can be found on practically ever pier, street corner, and hotel lobby in the central town of San Pedro which is only a short boat ride from any of the area’s 35 major dive sites which span the full perimeter of the 25 mile long island. 

Belize CityBelize City is undoubtedly the country’s main commercial hub with its downtown area being the central location for hundreds of local businesses including the main branches of the five leading commercial banks.  The narrow congested city streets are lined with a curious array of deteriorated old colonial structures in addition to newly constructed offices and supermarkets as well as a number of establishments that cater to the large number of travelers that disembark at the rapidly developing tourist village situated in the heart of the Fort George Tourism Zone.  Indeed, thousands of tourists traverse the half mile stretch between the tourist village and the downtown area on a daily basis making this a prime commercial venue for a diversity of tourist related ventures ranging from gift shops and tour operators to restaurants and cyber cafes.  The city is home to two of the country’s largest hotels as well as the widest range of entertainment facilities including several modern nightclubs, a popular casino, cinema, and the country’s only bowling alley.  Particular progress has been made in infrastructural development over recent years with the construction of an attractive seafront promenade on the north side of the city, a state of the art performing arts center as well numerous museums and cultural centers.

Jaguar at The Belize ZooAs the only facility of its kind within the Latin American and Caribbean region, The Belize Zoo delicately combines all the fascination and appeal of a stereotypical zoo with a well monitored conservation effort which allows native wildlife to flourish within its unique natural habitat. The zoo is located 29 miles west of Belize City, a convenient 45 minute bus ride from the Fort Street Tourism Village cruise port, the only cruise port in Belize City, rendering it accessible to stop-over visitors who wish to sample the splendor of the pristine Belizean wilderness without venturing too far from the ship.

Main Street San Ignacio Town, Cayo District, Burns AvenueCayo District is the largest and most populated district, inhabited by a variety of cultural groups, and situated amidst a backdrop of picturesque rolling hills, winding rivers and rich Mayan heritage.  The chief residential and commercial areas are located within the capital city of Belmopan and scenic twin towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio while smaller communities can be found in a large number of rural villages as well as the sleepy border town of Benque Viejo.

Belize Flat FishingFrom shallow sea-grass beds and lush mangrove clusters to rolling sea outside the protective reef crest, the diverse habitats of offshore Belize provide an affluent breeding ground for a countless variety of tropical game fish.  It is thus understandable that both sport fishing and leisurely catch and release activities are fast competing with dive and snorkel operations as a popular aquatic recreational activity.  In fact, most dive and tour operators also provide a number of fishing charters to some of the country’s most popular venues including the northern mangrove flats and the open sea to the east of the majestic barrier reef while also providing expeditions to the renowned atolls of Turneffe, Lighthouse, and Glover’s Reef.