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Belize is somewhat of an adventure smorgasbord cradled in a Caribbean climate. There is a lot to see and do, and I found a day trip that will be worth the journey. If you are looking to escape activities of the ho hum variety, taking a tour of the Mayan Ruins and cave tubing through some Ancient Caves might be exactly what your beating heart was looking for. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins.

Visiting Mayan Ruins in Belize

One of the best things to do while in Belize is visit Mayan Ruins. These landmark attractions can also be found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and throughout Central America. There are several different sites throughout Belize to see Mayan Ruins, and one of the most popular is Xunantunich. Xunantunich is the modern name of this ‘Lost City,’ located in the Cayo District of Belize about a half mile from the border of Guatemala. Altun Ha is another well known Mayan site, and its main temple is often seen in photographs.

Cave tubing in Xunantunich
Floating through the Caves of Xunantunich, a space held sacred to the Mayans

What to Expect When Visiting Xunantunich

Our morning began at 5:00am; the air already warm and humid. The owner of the tour group picked us up to take us to downtown San Pedro. By 6:00am, we already had coffee, ate some fry jacks (a delicious traditional Belizean breakfast food), and were ready to commence our archaeological adventure & cave exploration!

However, we still needed to take a water taxi. The first leg of this journey was to get from the island of Ambergris Caye back to the mainland of Belize City. This voyage is 90 minutes long. Therefore, be prepared for a nice little ocean voyage. The owner of the tour company actually had us take the ferry that the locals use and I found it to be relatively comfortable and it went by fast. You can also opt to sit on the deck above, if you’re looking to catch some rays.

When we arrived in Belize City, we were met by our awesome guide. Destination? San Ignacio. The three of us began our two and a half hour drive through the winding back country roads in Belize. Surrounded by lush, green, tropical countryside, we saw many custom built familial homes.

Two and a half hours later, finally, we arrived in Xunantunich!

Welcome Sign to Xunantunich        Visiting the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
Welcome to Xunantunich

The Mayan Ruins in Xunantunich

Visiting the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
The Draw Bridge to cross the river and enter the Xunantunich Ruins

An interesting aspect of visiting the ‘Lost City’ is that it is surrounded by a wide river. It can only be accessed by crossing a draw bridge, which is a hand cranked ferry! In addition, passengers are not permitted inside the vehicle while it is being transported via the ferry, with the only exception being the driver. So don’t be offended if your driver suddenly asks you to exit the vehicle and hoof it down to the ferry platform. They will re-join you with the vehicle, once you’re safely standing in the pedestrian area.

One very cool thing about this site is we were able to traverse to the top of several of the ruins with autonomy. Surrounded by several wild Howler and Spider Monkeys playing in the trees and ginormous Iguanas.

Howler & Spider Monkeys in Xunantunich. Visiting the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
Wild Spider Monkeys in Xunantunich

In fact, you can really explore Xunantunich by your own leisure and pace. Your guide can provide as much, or as little historical context as you’d like. If you are really of the free-spirited super adventurer sort, you can rent a car and visit the site completely on your own. I personally recommend having a guide, as we did see a couple who did just that and they seemed a little lost the entire time.

Mayan Ruins of Xunantunich – El Castillo “the Castle”

Is Xunantunich Haunted?

Like many of you, love a good ghost story. I have a deep fascination with haunted spaces. The original name of this ‘Lost City’ has somehow been just that: lost over time. The city these ancient structures sit in was once a thriving and bustling city. For years now, the City has been called Xunantunich, which means “Stone Lady” or “Maiden of the Rock.” Why is that you ask? Apparently there have been countless reports of an apparition, a ghostly woman in white with fiery red eyes, over the last 100 years. As the story goes, she likes to climb the stairs of El Castillo (“the castle”), which is pictured. Above all, if you visit, let me know if you spot her!

Exploring the ‘haunted’ ruins of Xunantunich

From the Ancient Mayan Ruins to Cave Tubing

From the Ruins, you’ll drive a short distance to the entrance of the jungle near Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This will lead you to the Ancient Mayan Caves. When you arrive at the entrance, just past Nohoch Che’en, there will be a small bazaar of vendors selling various souvenirs, trinkets and useful items for your excursion. There are also changing rooms and restrooms at the entrance.

Entering the Jungle in Xunantunich to go Cave Tubing

What to Expect When Cave Tubing in Xunantunich

We purchased water shoes for $20USD and a waterproof cell phone holder. Both of which have proven useful on other adventures we would go on after the fact. It is highly recommended to wear water shoes in the jungle and in the caves. If you have them, pack them. If you don’t have them, I’d recommend buying some whether it is beforehand or on site. Whenever you go somewhere else tropical, like St. Lucia, you will be able to use them again, too.

You’ll be walking on quite a bit of rocky terrain, up and down stairs, through shallow streams of water and more . Therefore, you definitely will not want to be in flip flops or even tennis shoes. Many have ventured in sandals (against the advisement of the guides) that ended up breaking, and then they had to brave the terrain… barefoot. Yikes.

An example of why you will want to wear water shoes! We had to walk through shallow streams

Off and Away we Go!

Our guide for this site offered us a wealth of knowledge about the area. Afterwards, he pointed out different fruits & nuts that grew naturally throughout the jungle, and specifically made sure to point out the poisonous fruits and nuts to not ever touch. For instance, did you know that Cashews are extremely poisonous until properly processed? Frankly, I’ll likely not look at a Cashew the same now.

Similar to the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, you can discover this area with autonomy if you wish, but I do not recommend it. Cave tubing within the Cave system does require a guide.

After a 90 minute boat ride, 2.5 hour car ride and about a 30 minute footslog deep into the jungle, we started climbing onto platforms into the rock caves. Our guide lit the way as we maneuvered through the caves to reach the riverbank.

Platform to enter the Caves to access the river to Cave Tube
Into the dark cave system we go – venturing through to get to the river to begin Cave Tubing

Here we go!

We reached the river and strapped on our lifejackets and helmets with head lights. This is when our Indiana-Jones-obsessed-inner-child took over and we became filled with excitement. Below is a picture of the entrance to the cave system. Through many of the caves, the water is shallow, however at various portions of our journey, the water can reach depths from 18 – 100 ft. All of our tubes were tied to each other for safety and for ease of staying together.

This was great, as one of my questions was, “What happens if I float away!?” I’ve got admit. Being separated from the group and floating aimlessly in a pitch dark ancient cave system, that bats call home is pretty high on the list of things I do not want to happen me. In other words, thank goodness we are all tied together.

We walked into the water pictured below, plopped into our tubes and floated into the dark cavern. It was as if we were entering into a different realm, as the river disappeared into the darkness of the cave.

The entrance to the Ancient Cave System – we Cave tubed through here. Would you?!

Floating in Darkness

Once we got deep enough into the first cavern, it started to get dark.

Our guide informed us that we were entering what the Mayans referred to as “The Underworld.” As we proceeded to float deeper into the cave system, you can see as referenced in this photo, even with our headlights we could only see a shadow of our guide. At a certain point, we floated along and it went pitch black.

Floating


Never fear. We had our trusty helmet lights. Our guide indicated to turn them on.

But those moments in the pitch dark cave inspired visceral feelings.

Afterwards, our guide said that we would see bats in this cave system. We actually spotted a real live bat cave within the cave. Luckily, it was daytime, so all our bat friends were likely sleeping. I had inquired if there would be any aggressive bats, and our guide assured me that there were only Fruit Bats and Brown Bats (Mexican Free-tailed) that lived in this cave system.

Bat Cave? Our Guide said this was a hole Bats live in & emerge from

Hope you don’t mind dark, wet, narrow spaces!

Our guide had hand-held flashlights as well, to highlight anything he wanted to show us throughout the caves. Although it was pitch dark in certain caves, others had exposed walls where the light and jungle peeked through. Some of the caverns were large and wide, others were very narrow with low ceilings, where you could reach and feel the wall beside you.


These cave systems were sacred spaces to the Mayans. They worshipped in these caves. Rituals were conducted in these caves. Sacred Water was consumed in this caves. They made many sacrifices in these caves. It is in these caves where ancient Mayan Priests made the occasional human sacrifice during times of hardship, famine or civil war.

The specific site we were traveling through, Jaguar Paw, is also called “Xibalba” which literally translates to “Place of Fright” in Maya Mythology. An underworld that is ruled by the Mayan Death Gods and their “helpers.”

Gulp.

We made it through the Cave System. Ready to float down this river and relax.

After maneuvering through the cave system, we exited through this tiny space pictured above. I was actually sad for it to be over, as this was one of the most interesting activities I’ve ever done; chocked full of history, culture, nature, water, escapades and thrills!

Know Before You Go

  • Wear sunscreen and lots of bug spray, bring a swimsuit, towel, change of clothes, cash & water shoes. Water shoes are sold at the entrance of the jungle, if needed.
  • There are other tour options to horseback ride, ATV or Zipline through the jungle. You can also purchase combo packages for the specific activities you’re interested in.
  • Our excursion was booked through No Worries Tours Belize. We actually met the owner Hill, by chance, cruising around the island on our golf cart after dark. Scurrying around to find a place with good eats, the island’s 10:00pm Covid curfew was approaching. We didn’t find much luck finding anything open before we had to high tail it back to our hotel. He helped us find food and is a genuinely nice guy. We had a great time on the tour. Pricing on his site is all inclusive of: breakfast, lunch, water taxi, transportation to and from Xunantunich from Belize City, entrance fees to all sites and any equipment needed.
  • If you book a Cave Tubing activity with any major tour operator in Belize, you will almost be guaranteed to do Jaguar Paw, which is the one we did. This is a more leisurely experience and one that is always a cruise ship activity option. So please note that when cruise ships are in season, this site can become extremely overcrowded. Due to Covid, our visit in March 2021 was desolate, we mostly had the place to ourselves.

Actun Tunichnil Muknal

If you are seeking a more adventurous, physically demanding and gritty excursion, you can opt to visit the Actun Tunichnil Muknal (ATM) caves. This site was featured in the 1993 National Geographic film, “Journey Through the Underworld”, and requires a 45 minute hike through dense jungle terrain. You will see skeletal remains, ancient artifacts and stalactites. You’ll crawl through tiny spaces and be shoulders deep in water at times during your trek through the jungle, in addition to the cave system.

I don’t know about you, but Actun Tunichnil Muknal sounds just like the type of adventure I’ll return to Belize for? So what do you think? Will you visit the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins while in Belize and go Cave tubing?