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Xunantunich, pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch, is one of the most accessible Mayan sites in Belize, located on a hilltop site above the Mopan River west of San Ignacio. You take a hand-pulled ferry across the river (it carries pedestrians and a car or two), near the village of San José Succotz. As you hike or drive through the profusion of maidenhair ferns to the ruins, you may encounter numerous butterflies flitting through the air. A magnificent avenue of cohune palms announces your arrival at an important ceremonial center from the Maya Classic Period. Xunantunich means "stone maiden." The structures here, in six plazas with more than two dozen buildings, date from 200 to 900 A.D. El Castillo, the massive 120-foot-high main pyramid, still the second-tallest structure in Belize after Caana at Caracol, was built on a leveled hilltop. The pyramid has a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Mopan River valley into Guatemala. On the eastern wall is a reproduction of one of the finest Mayan sculptures in Belize, a frieze decorated with jaguar heads, human faces, and abstract geometric patterns telling the story of the Moon's affair with Morning Light. Drinks and snacks are available at a visitor center and museum (opened in 2013) that explains the history of the site.
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