On the fourth day of our Ultimate Belize Nature Safari, my group and I were taken to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. Located just over a mile and a half from the town of San Jose Succotz, this place is like a forgotten kingdom, hidden in the lush trees across the river from the bustle of street vendors and people living their everyday lives. Considering its vast height, it seems impossible to miss a landmark such as this one. We spotted the site first on our short charter flight, where our pilot took a slight detour so we could fly directly over the temples and see it from a bird’s’ eye view. Seeing it from the sky was nearly incomparable to being there on the ground, surrounded by the structures.
After a short ferry ride across the Mopan river and an even shorter walk, we found ourselves standing on an unnaturally flat span of incredibly green grass. It was not unlike a soccer field if you took away the white lines and added in a few massive, ancient temples around the edges. Smaller structures surrounded the plaza area, places where members of a long-gone Mayan society lived many years ago. In front of us stood El Castillo, towering 130 feet in the air, encrusted with intricate carvings that represented astronomical elements, such as the sun god, the moon and Venus.
Most members of my group, including myself, decided to climb up the steep steps on the front of the pyramid, while a few opted to go around the back where there is a slightly less challenging staircase. If I hadn’t already been out of breath when we reached the midway point, I surely would have been as soon as a traveler pointed out the small, black creature darting through the trees. We thought it was a bird at first, but it turned out to be a howler monkey, followed closely by another, and then another. There was a whole family of them, swinging through the canopy right at eye level. There were three small juveniles among the family, chasing and playing with each other. One baby was so tiny, he was clinging to his mother’s back like he was glued to her. They moved so expertly through the trees, not seeming to notice us watching them from so close.
We left the howlers to settle down in the trees and set off to climb the final steps to the very top of the temple. These ones were significantly more steep and narrow than the first, with only a bare rock face to guide us. We passed through a few small enclosed areas inside the structure, where I was startled by some tiny sac-winged bats hiding in the dark corners. The view that awaited me at the top of the temple was incredible. From there, we could see the entirety of the site, as well as across the Guatemalan border, which was barely half a mile away from where we were standing. As the sun fell lower in the sky, the howler monkeys were greeted by another family moving into their territory, and they began screeching at each other from below. They sounded prehistoric, adding another element of disbelief to my experience. That incredible view combined with the wild sounds of the Belizean forest created a surreal moment that I will never forget.
By Malia Kiser, Reservations Coordinator at Natural Habitat Adventures. All photos © Malia Kiser.