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Elaborate ornaments decorate the sun god’s large ears. Pondering eternity, he sits next to the symbol of the moon on El Castillo’s frieze. Adorning the west and east sides of the 130-foot tall pyramid, the astrologically themed friezes draw the visitor closer and closer to the highlight of Xunantunich.

Xunantunich was the first Mayan site in Belize to be opened to the public. Relatively small in comparison to other Maya sites, it nevertheless contains one of the highest Mayan structures in Belize—El Castillo. From atop this limestone behemoth, breathtaking views span in every direction: the Belize River Valley, and the Cayo District. Guatemala unfolds on the horizon and the rest of Xunantunich spreads out below.

The site’s name means either “Maiden of the Rock” or “Stone Woman,” depending on who interprets the Yucatec dialect. Either name stems from an image of a woman depicted on one of the friezes.

In the late 1800s, the infamous Thomas Gann began “excavating” Xunantunich. In reality, he was digging up artefacts which are, sadly, all now lost along with his recorded history. Successive excavations were just as dodgy, with important Mayan artefacts disappearing and dynamite being used to not-so-delicately blast open the structures. In the 1990s a concerted and detailed—and vastly more careful—excavation began.

Archaeologists uncovered eight stelae (monuments) and two altars. Stelae are normally carved, but most of the ones found at Xunantunich are smooth and plain. It may be that they were once covered with painted or incised plaster that has since worn away.

Three main sections comprise the site: the ceremonial center and elite residences, the middle class residences, and the ball court complex where the Maya played a rather vicious game: losers were put to death. More than 25 palaces and temples surround Xunantunich’s six major plazas.

And, of course, there is El Castillo looming over the southern end of the complex. The partially excavated pyramid was at one point filled and at another built on top in typical Maya fashion. The friezes have been restored and covered in plaster, both to protect the original work and to clearly display it for the visitor. In addition to the carvings of gods and astrological symbols is a beheaded man, which archaeologists are at a loss to explain. Perhaps his team didn’t fare so well on the notorious Mayan ball courts.

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