MY GIRLFRIEND AND I decided to visit one more Maya site before leaving Belize and crossing over into Guatemala. She didn’t commit to the excursion at first, pleading an understandably sore ass from the Caracol adventure, but soon changed her mind when she saw what a beautiful day it was. Besides, it was only twenty minutes by bus from San Ignacio to Xunantunich. So we had a late breakfast and caught the afternoon bus, which promptly broke down on the outskirts of town. The driver smiled, got out, and walked away. The passengers looked at each other, sighed, and got off the bus as well. We followed the exodus and went into a nearby shop for a soda, then waited by the road under a shade tree, chatting and chucking rocks until another bus came along. Twenty minutes later we were dropped off at the Mopan River ferry crossing and were immediately mobbed by local peddlers of Maya kitsch. Granted, some of the wares thrust in our faces seemed to be faithful reproductions of iconic Maya glyphs and reliefs, but most were fashioned with a less discerning clientele in mind; such as the depiction of an Aztec lord in full-feathered regalia holding a supine and shapely damsel in his arms.
The river was a jade green avenue about a hundred feet across. Coming towards us was the ferry, which was little more than a large raft that was being propelled along its cable by a single man working a hand crank. When the boat met the bank we hopped aboard and the ferryman reversed direction on his crank, taking us slowly to the far shore. On the opposite side we walked about a mile uphill, sending the iguanas that had been sunning themselves on the path scurrying into the brush. At the end of the road we found another souvenir shop, but this one sold cold drinks so we went inside for refreshments. We’d gained enough experience by now to know that we needed to take it easy under this tropical sun. Once we’d cooled off and paid our entrance fee – five dollars – we walked up another short hill to the ruins.
I was expecting a minor site, and I suppose it was, but Xunantunich was such an interesting and evocative place that it was here I began to realize what a fabulous world I was encountering. This was a Classic period city that was abandoned around 900 CE (it was still abandoned over a thousand years later as we had the site to ourselves). We walked over the manicured lawn to the steps of El Castillo, the main temple, which was aptly named. The roofcomb resembles a castle battlement and winding stone staircases flank the structure, leading to the summit. It is even said to be haunted. Like an indifferent monarch this edifice sits aloofly on a high limestone ridge, seeming to disdain its location in the jungle. It would be more comfortable, one feels, along the Loire River.
We had no guide this time, so I was free to improvise.
The two of us climbed to the top of El Castillo, where I felt a touch of vertigo since there was no guard rail and I found myself staring over a precipice at the stone steps below. It was hot, so I sat in the shade of the parapet and enjoyed the view. I closed my eyes and tried to feel some ambient echoes of all that had come to pass within these grounds, but nothing came. It was the same when I was in Egypt visiting the King’s Chamber in the pyramid of Cheops, and at Machu Picchu standing in front of the Intihuatana. Others could feel ancient vibrations, I could only feel the wind. I couldn’t blame myself for being unreceptive at Machu Picchu, though. I had learned prior to my visit that the Intihuatana, a stone altar that is considered to be the most sacred spot on site, had also been the location of a photo shoot for a Peruvian beer commercial in 2000, during the filming of which a crane had inadvertently knocked a chunk off the sacred stone.
So I found it ironic when I read the following online article soon after my trip:
Intihuatana stones were the supremely sacred objects of the Inca people and were systematically searched for and destroyed by the Spaniards. When the Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence, thus the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain in their original position.
Until the purveyors of Cristal beer arrived, that is.
Such incidents tend to make it more difficult to get in touch with one’s inner hippie.
Xunantunich, with its strategic position near the Mopan River and its proximity to the larger cities of Caracol and Tikal, was no doubt a vassal state during the Maya Cold War between Tikal and Calakmul: the two superpowers of their day. As there is no record of Xunantunich having been attacked or suffering the carnage of war, it seems likely that the city aligned itself with whatever star happened to be ascendant at the time. It was a strategy that appears to have served it well until a major earthquake struck the area in the Late Classic and hastened the abandonment of the site.
My girlfriend and I called it a day after two hours at the ruins, retracing our steps to the river crossing. It was still early so we went into a bar across the street that was situated on a small ridge overlooking the Mopan. We took a couple of stools at the breezy, open-air counter and watched the trucks thundering by on the road below.
“Those Guatemalans love our roads,” came a deep voice behind us. It was the proprietor; a grizzled man with few teeth.
“Our roads are good,” he said, looking in the direction of traffic. “So they like to go fast.”
Then he turned to us and smiled.
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Ah. I’m from Chicago,” he said.
He sounded Belizean so he must have been here quite awhile, and the way he spoke of Chicago made it sound like a memory from another lifetime. He brought us a couple of beers and cursed as another truck rumbled noisily by.
“How long you been in Belize?” he asked.
“We’ve been here about two weeks,” I said. “Tomorrow we’re off to Guatemala.”
“Hmph. Roads are bad in Guatemala.”
Back in San Ignacio, my girlfriend and I sat on the balcony outside our room, smoking cigars and drinking rum. It was a tiny balcony that afforded a view of tin roofs, and the cigars and rum were cheap, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier. Part of the reason may have been because our next stop on La Ruta Maya was Tikal.