belize Xunantunich 1600The ruins of Xunantunich are some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in Belize.  Located on a steep ridge off the Western Highway in the Cayo District, the site is composed of six plazas and twenty-six structures dating from 200 to 900 A.D. – a time when other settlements were going into decline.  The most impressive structure is El Castillo, which is the second tallest building in Belize.

Xunantunich translates to “Stone Woman,” referring to the fire-eyed ghost woman who enjoys climbing the ruins of El Castillo.  On the day my husband and I trekked to the site, she wasn’t there, but that didn’t make our time there any less unnerving "“ until we met a few helpful Belizean girls.

After two humid miles of hiking along the Mopan River, we arrived at the hand-powered ferry "“ the only way to cross the river to get to the ruins.  The burly worker silently cranked the gears to transport us and two women in a Jeep across the water.

The road from the ferry is a mile-long stretch incline and we were thankful we packed extra water.  We reached the ruins sweaty and hot, but not dehydrated.

For most of the time, we were only two of maybe ten people in the whole site. The solitude grew disconcerting when men wearing fatigues and bearing rifles began stalking the grounds.

belize Xunantunich 800Belize and Guatemala are in a constant tiff over Guatemala claiming Belize as Guatemalan territory. Belizeans don't agree and asserting their opinion has become difficult since the British, and their army, left the country once Belize gained its independence in 1981. Our lodging was close to the Guatemalan border and Belizean soldiers were nightly dinner guests after their evening patrol. But the sight of rifle-toting men roaming through a tourist attraction set our nerves on edge. We continued to explore the stone monuments all the while sensing the soldiers' presence, not knowing if they were friend or foe.

The entire mood lightened when we caught them flirting with a group of teenage girls.  Their laughter echoed through the ancient site and all nervousness dropped away.  After feeling quite brave for climbing the other structures it was time for El Castillo.

One hundred and thirty feet doesn’t sound that tall until you realize you have to ascend narrow, guardrail-free steps. I made it to the friezes halfway up before my fear of heights took over. I stood pretending to admire the view while my husband nervously trudged upward. Just as I settled into my spot one of the girls bounced along insisting, "You have to go to the top. "

She didn’t have fire for eyes, but I thought perhaps this was the ghost trying to turn me into a playmate.

"I'm fine here."

"You have to go," she urged.  "Come on, I'll help you."

So, caving into peer pressure, I let her guide me upward. Or rather, she ran up and zipped back to check on me as I crawled along hugging close to the inside of the tiny staircases. The majority of the passageways no longer have exterior walls providing a constant reminder of where your body will land if you fall.  With her encouragement I made it, clutching like a paranoid gecko to the walls that remained intact.

"Aren't you glad you're up here?" she bubbled.

"Um, not really," I said shakily, "but thanks."

She took a photo of my husband and me and climbed up higher to flirt with the soldiers.  I nauseously stared over the edge.  My newfound guide rushed back to me.

"Okay, now we go back down."

"Do you do this every day?"

"No, it's my first time here," she giggled through her lilting accent.  I groaned at her annoying bravery and scooted down the structure like a dog with worms.

The grounds have an information center with the story of the Maya, Xunantuich’s excavations and preservation, and two well-persevered stellae.

Tammie PainterTammie Painter earns money through writing to fund her travel dreams. Assisted by her attack rabbit, Lola, Tammie taps away at the keyboard in her home near Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in several magazines, websites and a handful of anthologies. To learn more about Tammie or to contact her, visit