๐ŸŽ Horseback Riding to Xunantunich: An Honest Review

A woman jumping in front of a big Maya ruin made of stone with stairs.

Xunantunich is one of Belize’s most famous Maya ruins and the country’s second-tallest structure.

Climbing to the top of this 130-foot-tall structure offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area, including a glimpse of the neighboring Guatemala border.

I visited Xunantunich on a horseback riding tour, and here, I share practical tips and my honest review of the experience. This post covers:

  • โญ๏ธ Overview of Xunantunich
  • ๐Ÿš— How to get there
  • ๐Ÿ‘• What to wear and how to prepare
  • ๐Ÿ€ My honest review of the experience
  • ๐Ÿง  Alternative Maya ruins

Planning a trip? Here’s what to know about Belize.

Disclosure: Lists By Lukiih is readers-supported. If you buy through an affiliate link on this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks!

Xunantunich at a Glance

Before getting into what it’s like to horseback ride to the ruin, here is some general information about Xunantunich to help you plan your trip.

โ˜€๏ธ What Is Xunantunich Known For?

Xunantunich is an ancient Maya archaeological site considered a national treasure. The name translates to “Stone Woman” or “Maiden of the Rock” in the Mayan language because local legend said a ghostly maiden would appear near the main pyramid at night.

Xunantunich is known for the El Castillo pyramid, the site’s primary and tallest structure. It’s also known for the intricate carved decorations and stucco friezes on several structures.

A blue sky with a partial view of ancient ruin with carvings on it.
Xunantunich’s stucco frieze.

Xunantunich is pronounced “zoo-naan-tu-nich.” My tour guide joked that if you struggle with the pronunciation, you can say “tuna sandwich” quickly.

๐Ÿ“ Where Is Xunantunich Located?

Xunantunich is located in western Belize, about seven miles southwest (a 30-minute drive) from the popular San Ignacio town. The site is next to the village of San Jose Succotz in the Cayo district and is 0.6 miles east of Guatemala’s border.

The Xunantunich ruins is near the banks of the Mopan River, which you need to cross to visit.

Most tourists visiting Xunantunich stay in San Ignacio, but some visit through tours that leave from Belize City, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.

See great things to do in San Ignacio, Belize.

A map showing the 6.7 mile distance between San Ignacio and Xunantunich Maya Ruins.
Xunantunich is near San Ignacio.

๐ŸŽ How To Get To Xunantunich from San Ignacio

There are generally five ways to get to Xunantunich from San Ignacio.

๐Ÿš— Option 1: Drive a Rental Car

If you have a rental car, you can drive to Xunantunich on your own and without a guide. A mile before reaching the Maya ruins, you’ll need to cross the Mopan River by a classical hand-cranked ferry, which takes about five minutes. There’s a parking lot at the entrance of Xunantunich where your car will be safe.

You don’t need to pay the ferry operator since the Belize government pays them, but you can leave a small tip, as tipping is welcomed.

A woman author holding her horse's reins while standing on a wooden floor.
On the hand-cranked ferry to Xunantunich.

๐Ÿš• Option 2: Call a Taxi

If you don’t have a rental car, another option is to call 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 USD per person).

๐ŸšŒ Option 3: Book an Organized Tour

Tour operators provide transportation to Xunantunich from San Ignacio. You can book these tours in advance or at the entrance of the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve.

You can also hire a guide at the last minute by the entrance, before the ferry crossing. Those professional local guides usually charge at least $30 USD.

๐ŸŽ Option 4: Go on a Horseback Riding Tour

For a unique, off-the-beaten-path way to get to Xunantunich, you can ride a horse. That’s how I got to the Maya ruins, and I booked my horse riding tour with MayaWalk.

You don’t need previous horseback riding experience for these types of tours. Note that there is a weight limit of 250 lbs.

A woman riding a brown horse that's standing in between trees.
Near the entrance of Xunantunich.

๐Ÿ‘Ÿ Option 5: Take the Local Bus and Walk

A local bus runs to Xunantunich on an hourly basis. The bus doesn’t cross the ferry, so you’ll have to walk a mile on a well-maintained trail to the Maya ruins.

Taking the bus is the most affordable option, as the bus ride only costs $1 USD.

โ˜€๏ธ Best Time To Visit Xunantunich

The best and most popular time to visit the Xunantunich is during Belizeโ€™s dry season, which runs from December to May.

You can visit Xunantunich year-round, even when it rains. It’s located in an elevated area, so it rarely floods. However, the steps can become wet, and there are no railings at the top of El Castillo.

Learn what itโ€™s like to visit Belize during the rainy season.

โณ How Long To Spend at Xunantunich?

You can expect to spend approximately two hours on a typical trip to Xunantunich, but the tour duration is usually longer.

  • If you’re driving or taking a taxi, budget an additional hour for round-trip transportation.
  • If you visit by horseback, expect a five- to six-hour tour that starts between 7:30 am and 8 am.
  • Most standard Xunantunich tours like this highly-rated one will take four hours, including transportation.

๐Ÿ’ฐ How Much Does Xunantunich Cost?

Xunantunich has an entrance fee of $5 USD for tourists. A typical guided tour costs around $75, and a horseback riding tour typically costs $90 to $115 USD.

Belize is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Central America. I share all my travel expenses in this Belize cost breakdown.

A view from high-above looking down at a green, lush jungle with stone ruins in the open area.
View from El Castillo.

Is Xunantunich Worth Visiting?

Xunantunich is one of Belize’s most famous Maya ruins. To help you decide whether it’s worth visiting, below are the site’s highlights and lowlights.

โญ๏ธ Highlights of Xunantunich

Here are some of the best things about Xunantunich.

1. Xunantunich is one of Belize’s most well-known Maya ruins.

Xunantunich is one of the oldest Mayan ruins, revealing valuable insight into the Mayan way of life. Due to its size, excavation efforts continue today. As recent as 2016, archeologists discovered a tomb at the Maya site containing the skeletal remains of a ruler.

Xunantunich is also part of a collection of ancient sites known as the “Maya Sites of Belize,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2. El Castillo has beautiful panoramic views.

While you can’t touch many Maya ruins, you can climb El Castillo, Xunantunich’s most famous structure.

The top gives you scenic views of the lush rainforests and a peek at the Guatemalan border. Climbing El Castillo is the highlight of Xunantunich.

If you’re lucky, you might see howler monkeys, tropical birds, and other animals in the surrounding area.

A woman standing on a ruin's cliff overlooking lush trees.
View from top of El Castillo.

3. Xunantunich is very accessible from San Ignacio.

Located only 30 minutes away from the popular town of San Ignacio, Xunantunich is a perfect example of an accessible and impressive Maya ruin.

Here’s how Xunantunich compares to other well-known Mayan sites in Belize:

  • Cahal Pech is located right next to San Ignacio, so it’s even more accessible but also a very small ruin.
  • Caracol is arguably Belize’s most incredible ruin, but it’s a two-hour drive away from San Ignacio.
  • Altun Ha is smaller and less impressive, but it’s located near the coast, so it’s the most popular site if you’re traveling by cruise ship.

4. Xunantunich has a long and fascinating history.

Today, experts still don’t know what exactly led to Xunantunich’s abandonment. If you visit the ruins with a local guide, you’ll learn about its ghost stories, mysterious abandonment, carved symbols, intricate friezes, and more.

El Castillo is also tied to fascinating local lore. Since the 19th century, multiple individuals have seen the ghost of a woman climbing the stone stairs and disappearing into the stone wall.

๐Ÿ‘Ž Lowlights of Xunantunich

Here are some of the worst things about Xunantunich.

1. There is no shade.

The structures of Xunantunich are located in a large open area with hardly any shade. While this shouldn’t deter you from visiting, the heat can be unbearable for some in the summer when the temperature is above 90 ยฐF.

Xunantunich is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm, but people recommend visiting early to avoid the crowd and Belize’s afternoon sun.

2. It can feel underwhelming compared to other ruins.

Caracol is Belize’s most spectacular ruin, so if you’ve already visited it, Xunantunich can feel similar. If you’ve seen other prominent ruins, like the world-famous Machu Picchu in Peru or Tikal in Guatemala, Xunantunich pales in comparison.

3. Without a guide, Xunantunich can seem ordinary.

Without a knowledgeable guide providing the ruin’s context and interesting history, Xunantunich can seem like just several pyramid-shaped structures next to each other. You may appreciate the carvings and engineering less.

4. It can be dangerous when it rains.

Although Xunantunich is open year-round, the steps to the top of El Castillo can be dangerous for older adults or people who are not sure-footed when it rains.

There are no handrails or fences at the top of El Castillo, so be careful when visiting when it’s wet.

For a more adventurous activity, visit the ATM cave.

Visiting Xunantunich by Horseback Riding

Visiting Xunantunich by horseback is unique but has its upsides and downsides.

Here are four things to know if you’re considering visiting Xunantunich by horseback instead of vehicle.

๐ŸŒณ 1. You get to see Belize’s nature and backroads.

A Xunantunich horse-riding tour starts at a large private farm and proceeds through the jungle. You also pass through wide-open spaces surrounded by farms and nature.

The route taken by the horses offers more nature and backroads than any route taken by car, taxi, shuttle, or bus.

๐Ÿ—“๏ธ 2. It’s a full-day trip.

A Xunantunich horseback tour will take five to six hours, so you won’t have time to take any other half-day tours. All horseback tours also start in the early morning.

In comparison, a typical Xunantunich tour will only take three to four hours, allowing you to do other excursions if you like.

๐Ÿ’ฐ 3. It’s more expensive.

A Xunantunich horseback tour costs at least $90 USD (and usually over $100 USD). In comparison, a standard tour is closer to $75 USD.

If you visit without a tour guide, you’ll only need to pay the $5 USD entrance fee and transportation.

๐ŸŽ 4. It’s a safe and leisurely horse ride.

If you enjoy horseback riding tours or have never done one before, know that the experience is a safe and leisurely ride to Xunantunich.

You don’t need any prior experience with horses. Well-organized tours will match horses to visitors based on experience level.

A professional guide familiar with horses will accompany you at all times. They ensure the horses walk at a slow pace through the jungle trails.

If you’re not accustomed to horseback riding, your leg muscles might feel sore the next day, as this is a long tour.

๐Ÿ€ My Experience With Xunantunich’s Horseback Riding Tour

Overall, I’m glad I went on a Xunantunich horseback riding tour.  Although the ruin was underwhelmingโ€“especially after visiting the famous Machu Picchu a few months earlierโ€“the horseback riding aspect made it more fun, and the local guide made it more interesting.

A woman riding and petting her horse.
Matching with a horse.

What To Wear for a Xunantunich Horseback Riding Tour

Here’s a packing list for Xunantunich if you plan to get there by horseback.

  • Sunglasses. Most of the horse-riding routes will not have shade. Only one person in our tour group didn’t bring sunglasses, and she regretted it. I brought my athletic sunglasses.
  • Insect repellent. As you ride through the Belize jungle, you’ll run into mosquitos. I’m a mosquito magnet and find that this insect-repellent lotion works better than the spray alternatives.
  • Sunscreen. With the Belize sun and the lack of shade, apply ample sunscreen. Consider bringing extra to reapply since the tour is over five 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. I wore my running shoes and was fine in them.
Three people walk up the uneven and stone steps of ancient ruins.
Stairs of El Castillo.
  • Long pants (not shorts). Wear comfortable long pants for 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. Although the guide will provide some water, I recommend bringing your own. I brought my insulated, reusable water bottle, which kept my water cold for the entire ride.
  • Small daypack. You’ll need a small daypack to carry your water, sunscreen, cash, and sunglasses. I brought my mini bag, which was the perfect size and had a handle that could easily be tied to the horse’s saddle.
A woman standing in between two ancient stones and carrying a small backpack.
Small daypack for Xunantunich.
  • Rain jacket or poncho. 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 always carry a light rain jacket. 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.

Tipping is welcomed and appreciated in Belize. A 10% to 15% tip from tourists is standard.

  • Toilet paper. 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.

Xunantunich’s visitor center will have bathrooms, water, and local souvenirs for sale.

A group of five people in athletic clothing and running shoes with horses in the background.
Outfits worn on the Xunantunich horseback riding tour.

Belize Trip Planner

To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planner below and use it as a starting point. The planner has country-specific travel information, an itinerary, a packing list, and a map with key places pinned.

The trip planner is built on Notion, which I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.

Three Notion template screenshots are shown: travel information, itinerary, and map + packing list templates.
Preview of Belize trip planner.

If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.

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