On the Western Highway, around 12km west of San Ignacio, the quiet village of San José Succotz is home to the ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced Shun-an-tun-ich), “the Stone Maiden” (daily 8am–5pm; Bz$10). This impressive Maya site is also one of the most accessible in Belize; any bus heading west from San Ignacio can drop you at the old cable-winched ferry that crosses the river (daily 8am–5pm; free). From the other side, a steep road leads through the forest for about two kilometres to the site. Note that the river occasionally floods in the rainy season so check in advance that the site is open before making a trip.
Your first stop should be the visitors’ centre, with a scale model of the ruins. The site itself, on an artificially flattened hilltop, includes five plazas, although the surviving structures are grouped around just three. Recent investigations have found evidence of Xunantunich’s role in the power politics of the Classic period, during which it probably joined Caracol and Calakmul in an alliance against Tikal. By the Terminal Classic period, Xunantunich was already in decline, though still apparently inhabited until around 1000 AD.
The track from the entrance brings you out into Plaza A-2, with large structures on three sides. Plaza A-1, to the left, is dominated by El Castillo, at 40m the city’s tallest structure. The climb up can be daunting, but the views from the top are superb, with the forest stretching out all around and the rest of the ancient city beneath you.