Day #11,663, Part Dos (Belize): Although we’d already crossed ‘jungle canoeing’ off the ol’ anniversary list, Mr. M & I were not content to call it a one-adventure sort of day.
Having seen the great Mayan ruins of Tikal the day before, we wanted to visit a Mayan ruin on the Belizean side, too.
Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch… or “tuna sandwich” by tongue-twisted visitors) means ‘Stone Woman’ in Mayan; the name stems from reported sightings of a Ghost-Woman who haunts the ruins in all white clothing and glowing red eyes.
Even getting to the old ceremonial site of Xunantunich is something of an adventure: it involves taking a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopal River!
As massive and awe-inspiring as the ancient kingdom of Tikal had been, Mr. M & I enjoyed Xunantunich even more.
It’s impressively accessible- you’re able to appreciate the site a lot more when you can get right up close to it.
We were especially excited to be able to climb to the very top of El Castillo, the main temple within Xunantunich.
Then I saw the “stairs,” carved into the side of the monument with nary a handrail in sight.
And then I heard a group of women on the lawn below talking about their fear of heights. And considered that maybe falling off these exact stairs was how the Ghost-Woman for whom the ruins were named transitioned from woman to angry, red-eyed ghost.
I’d haunt tuna sandwich, too.
Still, I’d rather fall off a Mayan ruin and become a legendary Ghost-Woman than go home without even trying. So up I went. On my hands and knees. A group of visiting schoolchildren laughed at me. (Just wait til I turn into a terrifying ghost woman, kids. You sure y’all want to laugh?)
Even backed up against the central wall, the view of Guatemala and the Belizean countryside was incredible. It was surreal to imagine how many other feet must have stood exactly where mine were over the centuries.
Mayan priests? Slaves? Kings? And what stories must they have had to tell?
We could’ve played at the Xunantunich ruins longer, but I refused to leave Belize without paying a visit to the Iguana Conservation Project in San Ignacio.
If you’re an iguana in Belize, Kermit the Frog was talking to you: it’s not easy being green. Green Iguanas are threatened by habitat loss, non-natural predators like dogs & cats, and by human consumption.
“Bamboo Chicken,” as they’re called locally, are a delicacy in Belize; the meat and eggs of pregnant females, in particular, are considered to be an aphrodisiac, and it’s tradition to hunt them each spring.
After learning about the Iguana Project’s work, Mr. M & I were able to tour their facilities and meet some of the young charges.
It was a perfect way to spend our last full day in Belize. And even with all that adventure, I still had a bit of time to ponder whilst quietly freaking out at the top of El Castillo…
Ruins have an inescapable allure.
Maybe because they’re the legacy of civilizations long gone… the only way to “hear” the stories of all those people whose feet have been exactly where yours are now.
Sitting in the sunshine high above the Central American jungle, I couldn’t help but wonder… what would future archaeologists surmise from the schtuff we leave behind?
If someone analyzed my so-called “ruins” (presumably following a fatal slip from the top of El Castillo)… would I be content with the story I’ve left to be told?
I like to think there’s always time to edit a legacy… until there’s not, of course, which just means we shouldn’t be lazy about doing, saying, and being exactly what we want to do, say, and be. (At least not if you’re traipsing around tall, slippery structures without benefit of handrail).
Whatever “ruins” I leave behind, you can be sure I won’t be haunting them.
I’d like to think I’ll be perfectly, completely content with the story they tell.
You Can Do It, Too!
Xunantunich is just off the Western Highway and makes for an easy (really worthwhile!) stop. You’ll see signs as you pull into the one-horse town of San Jose Succotz.
You can take your car across the free ferry for no extra charge, and driving the mile or so up to the hill will help save your knees for climbing the Mayan site itself. (I’m old, I think about these things now.) Passengers will have to get out of the car and walk onto the ferry, and the English-speaking attendant will let you know when to pull on board.
An hour-long tour of the Iguana Conservation Center is both informative and a LOT of fun. (I checked with Mr. M, who has a strong fear of reptiles, and he has confirmed that yes- it is still a lot of fun for non-reptile-loving folk.) Your admission goes toward caring for the iguanas, and any surplus is given back to the community by way of educational scholarships for local kids.