Thursday, May 30, 2013

Xunantunich! ...and a big WOW for the pics!

If I lived the life that I was expected to live I would have never seen this! Here's to marching to the beat of a different drum!

Every now and then, when I am out taking photos, I get one that takes my breath away! I am always in awe of the beauty in Belize, but WOW! I took this picture from the top of the mound that would have been the king's wonder he picked that particular place...Look at the VIEW!

We have been meaning to get to San Ignacio. There are friends of ours with an unused building there, and they are offering it to us to use as a business/residence. You will read that each area of Belize has it's own "flavor"...and I certainly agree. San Ignacio and Santa Elena are twin towns very near the Guatemala border. The towns themselves seem "older" to me. What I mean by this is...the roads are not as deliberately placed. You will find meandering twists and turns right in the town center. The towns also seems more densely built than the towns and villages here in Stann Creek. The other little villages we have visited in Cayo District were similar to the villages I frequent here near Dangriga. Teakettle, for example, has one major road (the Western Highway, I believe...but I'm terrible with names). And several small "roads" (dirt paths by northern standards) feeding from it. It is where Sean got to try his Gibnut for the first time...Teakettle. An adorable name for an adorable community. The lady with the roadside restaurant who had gibnut posted on her menu board along the road was a DOLL!  We stopped one afternoon when we left Spanish Lookout at her place. She was as welcoming as anyone we have come across. BONUS!...She didn't judge the skinny white lady who has a food fear. lol I am the world's pickiest eater. I made it through 40+ years without ever eating seafood. (Seriously, I never even tried a fish stick.) When I told the lady about my food phobias, she was amused, not angry. She put just One Little Bite of gibnut on my plate. I tried it because she was such a sweetheart! She had stewed it the same way stewed chicken is served here, and so the flavor was palatable to me. The texture was sort of a softer chicken. When I got to thinking about what a gibnut looks like, (a rat if you ask I was glad that she only put a teensy bit on my plate! I was able to eat it before I grossed myself out.

But this blog is not about the Gibnut...It's about Xunantunich. Xunantunich is a Mayan ruin very near the Guatemala border. There are several excavated mounds that one is allowed to CLIMB ON! Simply amazing!

When you drive through San Ignacio, you are kind of following the direction of traffic. You will be looking for San Jose Succotz Village. It's easy to find, even though all the driving directions I was able to find on the internet were similar to the ones I just gave you. When you come into the village of San Jose Succotz, you will see the hand cranked ferry across the Mopan River. You can't miss it. At the entrance to the ferry, there are some little stalls selling souvenirs... Lots of pretty Guatemalan weavings, worry dolls, even some preprinted t-shirts. Make sure you allow a few extra minutes to look around here. At the entrance to the ferry, you will also be offered a guide service.

Now...I know that some of the "All Knowing Expats" will say to buy a guide is akin to paying a bribe. They feel that as Expats, we are perfectly capable of reading the information provided on the plaques placed about the site. I see their point. BUT...I also see the other side. The Government of Belize has rules in place about who can call themselves a Tour Guide. They must be native born Belizean, and they are put through some type of class. When you are approached by a Tour Guide, if he's got his official identification, he has been approved by the GOB to charge a fee for his service. These guys are just trying to make a fair day's pay and support their families. The guides at Xunantunich recently formed a group and are working toward getting email set up. We chose to hire one. During our tour, he provided some information that was not on the plaques. He spoke to the other guides as we passed in the park, and I think there were a couple of them whose knowledge of Xunantunich even he, the guide, was in awe of! OUR guide had grown up locally, in a hut that he said he didn't appreciate as a child. He lived in one of the last remaining "peasant" structures that would have been used at the time of Xunantunich. It has since been torn down. As a child, he didn't understand the importance of his home. Now that he's grown, and it's gone...He could see the incredible history he lived in and took for granted. Not one to hedge my questions, I asked him what his lineage was. He said he is probably 3/4 Mayan...but that he had lost his language, and religion. He was raised in an English speaking school, and felt fortunate. was not until he grew up that he saw the value in preserving the ancient. He is currently studying his native tongue. (But like me with the Spanish, age is an obstacle in language learning. lol) I think there is a struggle in him. He was raised Christian, but now tours his Mayan sites every day. When people discuss the over 300 gods the Mayans worshiped, he pointed out that there was ONE god who reigned above all the other gods. He likened it to our Christian God of today. When preservation conflicts with teaching...He'll work it out in his head. lol

As I said, the trip to Xunantunich begins with a ferry ride across the Mopan River. There was no fee for this ride, but we slipped the guy cranking a couple bucks as a tip when we came back across. (NOT payola...he never asked us for anything! Sean is a chef...Chefs are tippers. lol) Passengers are asked to exit the vehicle for the ferry ride and ride outside the car. I happily obliged as the drive onto the ferry was perilous! You drive down a VERY steep riverbank and onto the ferry. Driving in  Belize is not for the faint of heart, and this particular maneuver would NEVER happen in the states. Once aboard, the guy just cranks you and your car across the river. I guess when Prince Harry was here, HE cranked the ferry himself...Didn't look like much fun to me...but to each their own. The ferry WAS fun!
After driving off the ferry, there is about one mile before you get to the visitor's center to Xunantunich. You are welcome to leave you vehicle and just bring yourself across the ferry. I am glad that we brought the car across because the one mile was COMPLETELY up hill! I'd have been weak in the knees before I ever arrived at the site. Our guide was built like a short Sean...and I think even he was glad we drove it. lol Once at the visitor's center, there is ample parking and a couple of little shops. Make sure to buy water if you didn't bring one, you're in for some exercise at Xunantunich and you will be thankful for that water in a hour or so. Admission to the site was $10BZE ($5USD) and they didn't charge us for our guide. The guide reached into the toll booth and produced some tools that had been excavated from the site. Neat! We got to hold and touch the bloodletting tools of the ancient Maya.
The first structure you will pass as you walk through the site is a building that was used to collect taxes. Aincient Maya did not use currency like we know it. A peasant paid taxes by giving goods, crops or livestock, or by giving service to the king in some type of slavery. The closest think they had to currency, was Cacao beans. They were only ever enjoyed by the king! (A life without chocolate is no life at all, in my opinion. I might as well have been a slave if I couldn't eat the cacao. lol)

Once you pass the tax collection structure, there is a little visitor's center with displays showing the site during excavation. Take a minute to read the plaques posted next to the photos. Very interesting stuff...Our guide also noted that the first archaeologist to work at the Xunantunich site was inexperienced and used dynamite to blast out some of the ruins. The structures he excavated are deteriorating much more quickly than those that were excavated later, by more gentle means. Once you leave this visitor area, you finish the walk up the hill and are welcomed by the King's plaza! AWESOME! It was my first trip to a Mayan ruin. and I was suitably dumbfounded.

As you continue through the site, you are welcome to climb on the ruins! There are a few places that they have roped off...mostly staircases in danger of being destroyed by all of our feet. The places where you are asked to stay off the stairs, they have added a set of stairs made similarly to the original ones and so you still get the "feel" of the site. It's no secret that the Mayans who ruled and ran this country practiced sacrifice. Although there was no evidence found at Xunantunich of HUMAN sacrifice, there was evidence of animal sacrifice, and of human bloodletting. It was performed in this structure here....

Just beyond this structure, opens another large area. Towering above this plaza is the UBER IMPRESSIVE XUNANTUNICH! Standing about 130 feet tall it was the most important building in this grouping. The Mayans believed in 13 levels of Heaven and 9 levels of Hell. If you count, you will note that there are currently 12 entrance gates on this structure. There is a place where a 13th "gate" would have been, but it has been destroyed by thousands of years. My photos are not adequate for you to see then entrances or count them...but trust that they were there. About 1/3 of the way up...after the first set of stairs, there are 13 breaks in the walls. On that first staircase, there is a god carved into the stone. Interesting to note, it's eyes are crossed.

Once you have climbed to the first level of this structure, you pass through one of the 13 gates, and there is a sort of "landing". Here you can see the trough used by the ancient Mayans to gather the rain water. This is also one of the areas where a staircase has been built for us to use. You follow the stairs to the side of he structure, and are greeted by this view....

It is important to note, that while the carvings are just what the Mayans left there, what you see is not the actual carving. These are fiberglass replicas placed there by archaeologists. The actual carving remains buried in about 3 feet of stone. If it were left to the elements, it would deteriorate too quickly. Every effort has been made to ensure you are looking at it the way it was carved, and discovered. The carvings you see here are the East carvings. There are gods holding up the sky on either end...neat. Also...note the height! This is about 1/3 of the way to the top! When you have had an eyeful of this area, you can proceed to the rear of the structure and continue your climb...

At about the halfway point, there are 3 rooms facing south. This is the last place I felt safe. lol Continuing through the room, you are able to climb to the very tippy top of the structure. I am a big sissy...but I also know a once in a lifetime opportunity when I see one. I went to the very top and took one picture to prove I made it. THEN...I gave Sean the camera and backed down slowly. Safely on the ground with grass beneath my feet, I waited for Sean and our guide to be done up there and was suitably impressed with the photos Sean took for me.
 MY pic from the top...note the stone wall on the left. I never let go of the
 Sean on the other hand...HE looks down!
 And he looks out over the vista...

 And towering over trees and GIANT structures doesn't scare him...

 Look MA! No Rails!
 Brave souls just chilling at the top! ...Not MY feet...mine were in the grass by this time!
 Who does this?!? Photos from the edge!

 Thank you Sean for pics I'd have NEVER gotten!

After Sean and the guide came back down to earth, we moved to the west side of the structure. Here again, you can see the fiberglass reproduction of the original carving. the north and south faces would have been carved as well, but they were destroyed before excavation and so there are no carvings on those sides. While we were on the west side, we saw a fox climbing the structure! Our guide said he had never seen this...I tried to get a pic of his brave self...

 THERE'S the fox!

Moving past the main structure, we entered a wooded area and saw a ball court. This ball game was no joke! Often, the captain of the losing team became a sacrifice. And sometimes...the winning team's captain would offer himself as a sacrifice to the gods. He would have considered this a great honor. Me? I wouldn't even want to play!

This particular ball court is tiny by Mayan standards...recently, some larger courts have been found by satellites! Still...I'm not playing. Call me a spoil sport.

Once we passed the ball court, we went into what would have been the king's residence. Both the large structure and the king's home face directly north, the structure between the two is off by like 8 faces Venus? I believe. The king's home would have had thatched roofs on the corners and an open area in the middle. When we climbed to the top of his home, I was struck by his view. In the next pictures, I tried to show some perspective...the stones at the bottom of the pics are what I am standing on...the king's home...then it shows what he would have looked out over....

While we were standing on the king's palace, the clouds rolled in and treated us to a small shower. THIS allowed me to get the pic at the top of this blog post. One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my entire life! Once in a lifetime shot! The piece de resistance! My pride of the day!

Although nothing can compare to that first pic...I'm going to post now a bunch of the pics I took at Xunantunich. I know that some of you are living this adventure along with me, and you will enjoy the pics that are NOT the best....

 Sean and I...hanging out on a Mayan ruin....

 The king's residence...Interesting to note...The large structure has 13 gates...representing the 13 levels of Heaven. The king's gates number just 9...the levels of Hell.

 That's a good one...That's the big structure behind us....

 The clouds started to roll in....I had to remind myself that I'm no longer a "Fair Maiden"...too old for the Mayan spirits to be looking for me! lol

 That last pic is my pride and joy! I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! And...don't let anyone put a limit on your life. If I listened to the expats spouting crime rates, or the people back home who said I should be glad to have my job in the schools, and my life of drudgery...I would have missed the rainfall. I would have never seen this! I would have not taken the photo to share with you! March to your own drum. Find your adventure and LIVE it! You will not regret it.


  1. Having a guide is absolutely the way to go! I have been to Xunantunich at least 5 times (a favourite place to take guests) and each time we got a guide. I feel that the guide can tell you so much more than you could read in a guidebook, plus each one has their own style. I learn something new every time! But the most important thing is that these guys are making a living this way and it is important to stimulate the local economy. We get a guide at many sites we visit. (but not Cockscomb--I've been on just about every trail there except Victoria Peak)

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