Xunantunich is one of Belize’s most well-known Maya ruins. Visiting it means you get to climb up one of Belize’s tallest structures for a panoramic view and learn about its mysterious history, which includes a ghost story and the unknown disappearance of its 200,000 inhabitants in 750 AD.
Here, I share practical tips on how to get to Xunantunich, and what to expect and wear, especially if you decide to visit it by horseback.
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Xunantunich at a Glance
Here are some general information on Xunantunich:
Xunantunich is pronounced “zoo-naan-tu-nich“. My tour guide joked that you can just say “tuna sandwich” really fast if you struggle with the pronunciation.
📍Starting location: When visiting Xunantunich, most visitors come from San Ignacio, Belize’s most popular mainland stop about 30 minutes away, but some tours start in Belize City and even further-away locations.
🕜 Hours of operation: Xunantunich is open daily from 8am to 4pm.
⏳ Duration: You can expect to spend ~2 hours at Xunantunich.
- If you’re driving or taking a taxi, budget 1 additional hour round-trip for transportation.
- If you’re visiting by horseback riding, expect a 5-6 hour tour that starts early in the morning (7:30am or 8am).
- Most regular Xunantunich tours like this one will take ~4 hours, including transportation.
💰 Cost: Xunantunich has an entrance fee of $5 for tourists. A regular tour usually costs ~$75 and a horseback tour typically costs $90-$115. All of these prices are in USD.
Belize is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Central America, so expect most tours to be in the $50-$150 range. This Belize cost breakdown outlines all my trip’s expenses.
🚌 Tour operators: There are several tour operators that offer tours to Xunantunich. Here are the some of the operators that offer a horseback tour: MayaWalks (the one I did and had a good tour with), St Leonard’s Tours and Belize Family Tours.
How To Get To and Visit Xunantunich
You can visit Xunantunich on your own or with a tour group. There are several ways to get to and visit Xunantunich, including by car, taxi, tour or horseback.
- By car. If you have a rental car, you can drive to Xunantunich without a guide. Note that a mile before reaching the Maya ruins, you’ll have to cross the Mopan River by ferry, which takes ~5 minutes. There’s a parking lot at the entrance of Xunantunich.
The ferry is manually hand-cranked. You don’t need to pay the ferry operator since they’re paid by the Belize government, but you can still leave a small tip if you like.
- By taxi. If you don’t have a car, you can hire a taxi to drive you to Xunantunich. There are usually shared taxis waiting at Xunantunich to take visitors back to San Ignacio and this option is very cheap (less than $3 per person).
- Through a tour operator. When visiting Xunantunich with a tour group, you can book in advance or at the entrance. At the entrance, before the ferry crossing, you can hire a guide, usually starting at $30 (the cost increases with time and number of people in your group). If you book in advance, the tour operator will provide transportation, usually by shuttle.
- Through a horseback riding tour. For a more adventurous way to visit Xunantunich, you can take a horseback riding tour. This is what I did and here’s the horseback tour I booked.
- By bus and walking. You can ride a local bus that runs hourly to Xunantunich, but since the bus won’t go on the ferry with you, you’ll have to walk 1 mile on well-maintained roads to the Maya ruins. This is the most affordable option (the bus ride costs $1).
Is It Worth Visiting Xunantunich?
Whether you should visit Xunantunich comes down to personal preference, but here are a few reasons why the experience might be worth it to you:
- You can’t climb or touch all Maya ruins, but you can climb one of Xunantunich main structures, El Castillo, which is also the second tallest building in Belize. Climbing El Castillo will give you a panoramic view and let you see neighboring Guatemala which is 0.6 miles away.
- Being only 30 minutes away from San Ignacio, Xunantunich is the perfect combination of an accessible and impressive Maya ruin in Belize. Located right next to San Ignacio, Cahal Pech is the most accessible, but it’s also very small. Caracol is arguably Belize’s most impressive ruin, but it’s also a 2-hour drive away.
- Visiting Xunantunich with a guide will educate you on all the fascinating and mysterious history of the ruins, which will make it more interesting if staring at ruins without context isn’t your cup of tea.
For other activities in Belize, this Belize trip guide has 10 great things to do.
Is It Worth Visiting Xunantunich by Horseback?
If you’re visiting Xunantunich and are deciding whether to visit by horseback or vehicle, you should consider a few things:
- Do you want to see more of Belize’s nature and backroads? A Xunantunich horseback tour will start at a farm and take a different route that has more nature and backroads than any transportation by vehicle.
- Do you have enough time for a full-day tour? A Xunantunich horseback tour will take 5-6 hours, so you likely won’t have time to take any other half-day tours. All horseback tours also start in the early morning. In comparison, doing a regular tour or visiting the Maya ruin by yourself will only take 3-4 hours and the timing is flexible.
Xunantunich is open daily from 8am to 4pm, but people recommend visiting in the early morning to avoid the crowd and the afternoon sun in Belize.
- Are you budget conscious? A Xunantunich horseback tour costs at least $90 (and usually $100+) whereas a regular tour is closer to ~$75. Without a tour, you’ll just need to pay the $5 entrance fee and transportation.
- Do you want to ride a horse through a jungle? If you enjoy horseback riding tours or have never done one before, this is a safe environment to try it. Note that it is a long tour; expect to be on the horse for 3-4 hours, which can make your muscles feel sore the next day if you’re not accustomed to riding horses.
You don’t need any prior experience to visit Xunantunich by horseback, but most tours will make efforts to match horses to visitors based on experience level.
If you want to do something more adventurous, consider visiting the ATM cave, one of the world’s top sacred caves that requires climbing, hiking, swimming and spelunking.
What To Expect on a Horseback Tour to Xunantunich
The following is based on my experience with the horseback riding tour I booked. Other Xunantunich horseback tours will be very similar, but may not be exactly the same.
- Transportation. The tour will pick you up from your accommodation or downtown San Ignacio and take you to where the horses are located.
- Saddle up. Once you get to the horse farm, the guide will get you fitted with a helmet, ensure your bag (you might want to bring one) can clip to the horse’s saddle and pair you with a horse that matches your horseback experience.
- Ride through Belize’s backroads and jungle. For the next ~2 hours, you will ride your horse through Belize’s backroads and jungles.
At the Mopan River crossing, your horse will momentarily share the road with vehicles and your guide should instruct you on how to minimize the chances of your horse getting spooked. This is important; one of our group’s horse got spooked and its important for the rider to remain calm.
- Ride the ferry. Before getting on the hand-cranked ferry, you will dismount your horse. Both your horse and you will take the short 5-minute ferry and then you’ll remount your horse for the last 1-mile trek to the Maya ruins.
- Get a tour of Xunantunich. Near the Maya ruins, your guide will tie your horse near water and trees and give you a ~1.5 hour tour of Xunantunich. You’ll learn about Xunantunich’s fascinating history and climb up El Castillo to get a panoramic view. If you’re lucky, you may get to see some howler monkeys.
Xunantunich’s visitor center will have water for sale and bathrooms. As noted in the packing list below, make sure to bring TP as the bathrooms may run out of them.
- Ride back. In the last ~2 hours, you will go back the way you came.
What To Pack and Wear on a Horseback Tour to Xunantunich
Here’s a packing list for Xunantunich if you plan to get there by horseback.
- Sunglasses. Most of the route will not have cover, so you’ll want sunglasses if you happen to be facing the sun for over two hours during your ride. Only one person in our tour group didn’t bring sunglasses and she regretted it. I brought my Goodr sunglasses.
- Mosquito repellent. As you ride through the Belize jungle, you’ll run into mosquitos. I get bitten a lot and find that this insect repellent lotion works better than the spray alternatives.
- Sunscreen. With the Belize sun and the lack of cover, make sure to apply ample sunscreen. You might want to bring extra to reapply since the tour is over 5 hours long. I brought my sweat-resistant sunscreen and had to reapply before the ride back.
- Closed-toe shoes. You’ll want to wear closed-toe shoes as your horse can walk very close to a bush or tree trunk. These shoes should also have decent traction as you climb the uneven steps of Xunantunich. For reference, I wore my running shoes and was fine in them.
- Pants (not shorts). Ideally, wear long pants for some protection in case your horse walks near a bush or tree trunk. Most people wore leggings or loose pants.
- Athletic top. Wear something comfortable and breathable as you’ll likely sweat when riding through the humid weather with little shade.
- Water. The guide will have some water for you, but it’s recommended that you bring extra water for yourself. I brought my Hydro Flask which kept my water extra cold for the entire ride.
- A small bag. You’ll need a small bag to carry your water, sunscreen, cash and sunglasses. I brought my Fjallraven mini bag, which was both great and not so great. It was the perfect size and had a handle that could easily be tied to the horse’s saddle, but it isn’t water-resistant.
- Rain jacket. Even though Belize has a wet and dry season, it’s a tropical country so rain can fall at any time of the year. The rain can be brief, but sudden and hard, so it’s best to carry a light rain jacket at all times. I tied my light rain jacket around my waist and put it on briefly when it rained on us.
- Cash. Bring some cash to tip your tour guide at the end.
In Belize, tipping is welcomed and appreciated, but not mandatory. A 10-15% tip from tourists is fairly standard. This Belize travel guide has more general tips on visiting the country.
- Toilet paper. You might want to consider bringing some folded TP in your bag. Xunantunich is a popular attraction and when I visited it during the low season, the bathrooms ran out of TP.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below!