Yesterday in Belize we visited Xunantunich, a Maya archeological site near the Guatemala border (about three hours drive from our AirBnb in Placencia). Humans have been at this site going back at least to 3000 B.C., and the structures date to around 700 A.D. Most of the excavation at Xunantunich occurred between 1890 and 1960, but archeologists are still discovering things—including a previously untouched burial chamber that was found in 2016.
While historians have no idea what this site was called in ancient times, the modern name of Xunantunich means “Stone Woman.” It gets its name from a ghost that was first reported in 1892. A local hunter said he had encountered a woman dressed completely in white with fire-red glowing eyes at the base of a pyramid-shaped structure called “El Castillo” (The Castle). As the legend goes, she ascended the stairs and disappeared into a stone wall.
Versions of that story have been repeated many times since, most recently by a tour group from Canada that claimed to have seen her just after sundown. Some believers think that she formerly lived within the city in ancient times, while others think that she was a human sacrifice victim that re-lives her last moments time and time again.
Ghost stories aside, Xunantunich is a World Heritage site–and for good reason. There are six courtyards and more than 26 structures across about a square mile. El Castillo, at the heart of the old city, is the second tallest man-made structure in Belize at 150 feet. Adventurous visitors (including us) can climb to the top through a series of steps, with wild exposure that is not for the faint of heart. Apparently three tourists have fallen here in the past few years, “but they had nothing more than broken legs,” a local told us cheerfully (if not reassuringly).
There is great significance in how Xunantunich is laid out against the “axis mundi,” which is the intersection of the two cardinal lines of the old city. And all of the features (stairs, openings, etc.) are prime numbers. The Mayans were quite good with geometry and math, among other things.
We didn’t see any ghosts, but we still enjoyed our time walking through the courtyards and climbing the three main structures. It’s easy to see why this location was chosen by the Mayans, as there are commanding views in all directions.
I’m not sure I believe in the Stone Woman, although Souzz does sometimes have fire-red eyes and occasionally disappears—but usually just into the beer tent.