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Xunantunich: A tongue-twister, an eye-popper

Xunantunich, a grand Maya ruin in the rolling countryside of western Belize´s Cayo District, had its heyday around 600 to 850 A.D. The main structure, El Castillo, is notable for its elegant friezes on three sides. Unlike many other Maya ruins, visitors can climb up a series of stairs either partway or all the way to the top of El Castillo.(Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press)
Xunantunich, a grand Maya ruin in the rolling countryside of western Belize's Cayo District, had its heyday around 600 to 850 A.D. The main structure, El Castillo, is notable for its elegant friezes on three sides. Unlike many other Maya ruins, visitors can climb up a series of stairs either partway or all the way to the top of El Castillo.(Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press)
Xunantunich, a grand Maya ruin in the rolling countryside of western Belize´s Cayo District, had its heyday around 600 to 850 A.D. The main structure, El Castillo, is notable for its elegant friezes on three sides. Unlike many other Maya ruins, visitors can climb up a series of stairs either partway or all the way to the top of El Castillo.(Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press) Gallery: Xunantunich: A tongue-twister, an eye-popper
XUNANTUNICH, Belize - It's not as famous as Mexico's Chichen Itza. It's not as tall as Guatemala's Tikal.

But here in western Belize, the Xunantunich Maya ruins will make your jaw drop.

And maybe your palms sweat.

Pronounced shoe-NAN-to-nitch (or as some tourists mangle it, Tuna Sandwich), its name means "stone maiden." The dominant structure, El Castillo, is notable not only for its elegant friezes of hieroglyphs depicting rulers and gods, but also for the fact that visitors can still climb to the top of the 130-foot temple, if they dare.

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  • Unlike at Mexico's Chichen Itza, which was closed to climbers in 2006 after a woman fell to her death, Xunantunich's climb is done in bits and pieces, with plenty of flat places to stop, and even a handrail staircase for the final descent.

    Still, it's not for everyone.

    "I'm afraid of heights," one tour guide confessed as he stood in the shade on a plaza halfway up, watching the rest of his group ascend to the very top. "The view is still good from here."

    Reachable independently by car or as a day-trip excursion for cruise ships docked in Belize City, Xunantunich is one of Belize's top attractions, although many Americans have never heard of it.

    The entrance near the village of San Jose Succotz is surrounded by small kiosks selling crafts and textiles. From there, every person, vehicle, and animal must cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry to enter the park. Then it's a 1-mile uphill trudge to the visitors plaza (or a swift ride in a mini-bus, highly recommended in this humid climate where the average temperature is 88 degrees).

    From there, you walk a bit farther, past a gift shop, a brand-new visitors center that opened March 21, and groves of allspice trees, then onto a grass-covered plaza and the humbling sight of El Castillo.

    In Xunantunich's heyday, roughly 600 to 900 A.D., "the walls would have been whitewashed plaster and almost certainly painted," says Jason Yaeger, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor of anthropology who has spent every summer for 23 years in and around Xunantunich. The site spreads out with 26 structures and multiple plazas, many still uncovered.

    In terms of importance, "It is a middle-sized site, not as big as Tikal certainly, but at certain times in its history, it was the capital of an autonomous kingdom."

    Although many people think Maya culture was restricted to what is now Mexico, the grand kingdoms of the first millennium spread throughout what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

    Xunantunich only became a tourist attraction in the early 1990s as excavations progressed and tourism infrastructure was added. Today it draws about 46,000 visitors a year.

    I found that the special beauty of Xunantunich was compounded by its setting in Belize's western Cayo District.

    This region of rolling hills and rivers looks a lot like Pennsylvania, except with monkeys. It seemed somehow familiar, relaxing. Some researchers believe Xunantunich was more of a royal ritual getaway, like a country place to escape the nasty politics back in the city. I can see that. I could live here.

    From the top of El Castillo, one can kick back and look out at gorgeous vistas for 360 degrees. Problems? What problems?

    Ellen Creager DETROIT FREE PRESS
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