Caroline Lascom, published an article called the best Mayan ruins in Belize that highlights Xunantunich, Actun Tunichil Muknal, also known as the ATM Cave and two other magnificent ruins that can be found in the country. There is a wide variety of Mayan ruins in Belize spread all over the country but her article focuses on just a select few that she deems to be the most intriguing. Here is her story.
“Think of the Central American nation of Belize, and chances are that images of the hemisphere's largest ocean reef and gorgeous beaches on its offshore islands shall prevail. But inland, where the serrated peaks of the Maya Mountains rise sheer from the coastal plains, Mayan archaeological sites transfix culture-hungry visitors with their grace and monumental size. Awe-inspiring pyramids, caves and palaces remain enshrouded by pulsating jungle where boisterous howler monkeys hold court in the treetops, parrots screech and reptiles hustle to create an electrifying crescendo of color and sound. … Some 70 miles from Belize City, laid-back San Ignacio is the quintessential traveler’s hub, the launch pad for exhilarating adventures in the remote Cayo District, a wild place where ancient mysticism and incredible biodiversity coalesce to provide a sensual and cerebral adventure of epic proportions.”
What Xunantunich may lack in scale, it makes up for in its supreme location, crowning a limestone ridge that affords panoramic views of the Cayo District and the patchwork terraces of neighboring Guatemala. Some 8 miles from San Ignacio, accessed by a convenient ferry service, Xunantunich was rediscovered in the late 19th century and is comprised of 25 structures whose formidable stature belies a stately grace. Radiating from the site’s ceremonial axis -- the pyramid of El Castillo -- are a series of residences built for the city’s elite denizens, in addition to a ball court, all which date from the Classic Period, circa A.D. 200 to 900. Rising from the jungle to a vertigo-inducing 135 feet, El Castillo features restored stucco reliefs that during the city’s heyday would have adorned the perimeter of the entire pyramid. Despite being one of the most heavily touristed of Belize’s Maya ruins, in part due to its accessibility, a supernatural aura holds sway. The name, Xunantunich, translated as “Stone Woman,” dates to the late 19th century when, so myth and legend has it, a female figure dressed in white ascended the stairs of El Castillo before vanishing into the temple’s stone walls. The city reached its zenith around A.D. 750 before an earthquake, interpreted by the Maya as the wrath of God, precipitated its demise.”
“Actun Tunichil Muknal
Ranked by "National Geographic" as one of the world's most sacred caves, Actun Tunichil Muknal is not for the faint hearted. This ethereal series of grotto-like burial chambers forms one of the most memorable, and challenging, close encounters with Belize’s archaeological treasures and provides an intimacy that is lacking at other Mayan sites. Translated as “Caves of the Crystal Maiden,” a trip this far, deep into the untamed forests of the Cayo District, requires commitment and a fair bit of pluck. After a lengthy hike that involves fording three rivers, visitors must swim into the cave’s ghoulish bowels before ascending a limestone cave wall to reach the labyrinthine inner chamber. The Maya referred to this macabre underworld as Xibalba, or “place of fear.” You need to be nimble in mind and body to sidestep the scattered remains that provide visceral evidence of the Maya’s ritualistic proclivities. Beyond the jumble of crystallized bones and shards of pottery, the site culminates with the arresting vision of the eponymous Crystal Maiden, a calcified full female skeleton.”
Caroline had also described the Mayan ruins of Caracol, Lamanai and Altun Ha. Click Here to read the rest of her story. Ian Anderson's Caves Branch offers tours of the exquisite ATM cave and of Xunantunich paired with another Mayan archaeological site called Cahal Pech.