Trip Start Feb 28, 2009
Trip End Mar 10, 2009

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Flag of Belize  ,
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

To get to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich (Prn. Zhoo-NAN-too-nitch), we first had to cross the Mopan river. To do this we boarded something that made the eco-powder-monkey [1] in me proud: A human-powered car-ferry:
The Ferry  The Ferry  

...which is winched across the river along a cable by Pedro [2] here:
The Ferry  

Here he is in action:
Ferry crossing

For safety reasons (yes, I know, "safe" is that last word to enter your head when looking at this contraption, but it was actually very solidly built) we were asked to get out of the car - no problems with us as there were many photo opportunities to be exploited, including the lazy iguana who has made his home here, and who we shall see more of later.

From the river, we get back into the car for a short drive up the hill to the site that Mayan people chose to inhabit as much as 2400 years ago.
There's a small car park with a couple of shops and toilets, then we trudge up the hill a little further. On the way, JP dives off into the trees and comes back with a pair of nuts stuck together: "Horse-balls" he says, for that is what they are colloquially known as. He then shows us why they are useful: He splits the two apart, leaving a wound from which a white liquid not unlike PVA glue seeps. He instructs Margaret to put a little on her finger, blow on it, then place her thumb onto her finger. It sticks. It really IS PVA glue! Or rather, the natural equivalent. And it smells nicer.

This habit of diving into the trees and coming back saying "Look at this..." was a frequent one, and a major contributory factor in what made Javier the excellent guide he was.

A brief stop at the "visitor centre" - a hut with posters, photos and a model (which refused to be photographed due to reflections off its glass case) - and a little further uphill, around a corner and our lead explorer spots the first structure:
Look Dad!

We were also reassured to spot these fellas, who guard against occasional (albeit rare) Guatemalan raiders, after artefacts from either the buildings or the tourists. They mount a constant guard, as both are very valuable to Belize!

Most of the structures still standing (ish) today date from around 600CE, replacing the original, far older buildings.

**Now, a brief disclaimer: JP gave us so much information (and I've had so much from other places since), that I'm not 100% certain of my facts. I've checked existing online material for some bits I couldn't remember, but don't take this as a reliable source!**

The first of the structures we are to explore is the palace. We ascend some stairs and pass through a gap into a grassy courtyard with a larger building at one end - the palace itself. JP explains that there would have been no grass here - that was originally a concrete floor (yep, they'd figured out how to make concrete by then, which is how these things have stood for so long. As for how they extracted quicklime safely... well, they didn't. That's why the Common caste built the structures for the Elite caste to use...)

There were also buildings surrounding all four sides. (Those mounds are unexcavated buildings. And there's a lot of mounds around the site still.) All of the buildings would have been painted in bright colours - these were very significant to the Maya: reds on the East where the sun rises and life begins; blue in the West were the sunsets - and where the dead go; white in the North, symbolising energy; powerful yellow to the south.
None of this colour can be seen now - it's all been eroded away by nature. But excavations at other sites have proved more fruitful, especially where newer buildings have been peeled off to reveal older, better preserved ones.

There is evidence of earthquake damage on several buildings around the site. However, it wasn't damage to the buildings that lead to the site being abandoned by its people, but damage to the reputation of the ruling class: they held sway over the common people by withholding knowledge (especially astronomical) and passing it off as ability to commune with the Gods. Having your big temple and palace damaged by the Gods was obviously a sign that the rulers weren't so favoured by the Gods after all, so the people started to lose faith in them. It is thought that many families simply drifted away to make it on their own, but some remained and staged an uprising, possibly culminating in sacrifice of a captured ruler.

Now we turn around and face South:
Altar and El Castillo from Palace
There's another, smaller building on the other side of "Plaza A-II" - a ritual altar - but by far the most imposing structure is the one towering behind it - El Castillo.

But we're not going to go straight to it. No, no. First, Javier takes us a little way into the jungle, as he has a couple of things to show us (besides, he's just seen a huge tourist party going towards it and would rather we had it to ourselves).

From here we can see (past an as-yet-unexcavated building) to the top of El Castillo, where we can just make out the tiny stick-man tourist group that was ahead of us, standing at the top. (You'll need to click on this and enlarge it to see 'em.)

JP had already pointed out palm nuts to us on the walk up here, so Xander knew what to look for when asked. While X was foraging, JP picked a random leaf off a tree and presented it to me with the instruction to "nibble a bit off the end".  I did so [3]. It didn't taste of anything. He just smiled at me and passed it on to the rest of the family to try.
And then I noticed that I couldn't feel the end of my tongue any more. That little bit of leaf was a remarkably effective anaesthetic, and apparently is one that the Mayans used to use - and still do in places - during dental treatment, both for extractions and for cosmetic work: the ruling classes liked to embed gems into their teeth. la Ugly Betty. Sort of.

By now, Xander has found a selection of nuts. JP takes the best looking one, places it on a rock and takes a lump of stone (first checking that it wasn't a piece of temple) and whacks it. Hard.
After a few thumps it's cracked and the oil is oozing out - Palm Oil, which Margaret was invited to use as a moisturiser. This, says JP, is the secret to Mayan's youthful looks.

And so to the Main Attraction.
Approach to El Castillo

We set off at the start of the 130-foot climb...
Up we go!

About a third of the way up, there's a platform where we can rest and admire one of the most interesting features of the site: The West Frieze.
This was preserved by dint of having been covered by a further building; the Maya liked to improve their temples by building bigger ones on top of existing ones; this one started out about 600CE but was extended up to around 900CE. It originally went right around the building, but now only this and a similar fragment on the opposite side remain. What is visible on the building is in fact a fibreglass replica; the original remains about a metre behind the replica.

On the lower half of this, an ancestral deity is represented between the sun god (L) and rain god (R). Above the sun god is the lower half of a bloke on a throne, probably a ruler. What's interesting here though is the picture next to it:

 Doesn't that pose look rather Egyptian, don'tchafink? Coincidence? Must be - the two civilisations were thousands of miles (and a couple of millennia) apart.

Striking resemblance though.

Onwards we go, up the (rather narrow) inner stairs:
Up the stairs (Helen)  Up the stairs (Eric)

...until we get to the top.

Oh my.
View from the top

That's Guatemala just over there. Somewhere in that dense jungle is a thick, straight line marking the border. I know cuz I seen it on Google Maps.
I did a nifty panoramic video sweep from up here. I think my camera must have got vertigo, because there's no sign of it on the camera's memory card. We'll just have to go back...

Back down, then, stopping for a family snap at the East Frieze, before heading back down the hill to the ferry again.

And there's our Iguana, gone for a swim to get to the guava on the opposite bank.

...pursued, unfortunately, by not-very-Eco-Tourists in kayaks.
Iguana - pursued Iguana - Intercepted!
The poor thing nearly made it to his favourite fruit, but got intercepted and turned back, with a trio of pillocks in its wake.

At least they went away after that, leaving enough peace for a Mangrove Swallow to pose for me.

Thence homewards, but not before stopping for a meal of chicken and rice... and one of the hottest chilli sauces known to mankind, manufactured locally. Naturally I had to bring some home with me :)
What with the leaf-o-caine (which was still making the tip of my tongue tingle) and the sauce, I could barely speak.
Helen took the opportunity to continue her search for the perfect Margarita.

Sanny's Grill: 7/10
(click for map)

I'd been looking forward to this trip for weeks, and was worried that it wouldn't live up to my own hype for it.
It delivered in spades. Being aboard the ferry that I'd seen in so many photos online, then climbing this massive, ancient structure was a truly amazing experience.
And Javier Perez (from belizecruiseexcursions.com) was absolutely brilliant.

[1] Well, I can hardly call myself a "warrior", but I make some effort.
[2] No, not that Pedro
[3] Seriously. I actually ate a bit of leaf. I blame the heat.
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