On the Road in Belize III: The Secretary’s Travel Journal

On his final day in Belize, Secretary Clough encounters sleeping policemen and explores the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich. Read parts one and two of the Secretary’s Belize travel journal.


April 12, 2014 – hot, humid, sunny

It is after 10 when Johnny and I arrived back in Belize City on our return from Carrie Bow. We rented a car and rushed to check into our hotel so we could leave promptly for Xunantunich. We will be met there by Jorge Can, an archaeologist who will serve as our host on a tour of the site. The hotel clerk told us to count on two and a half hours for the trip, which seemed excessive given that Xunantunich is only 80 miles from Belize City on the map—a straight shot on Western Highway. We headed out at noon full of optimism that we would be at our destination well before our 2:30 appointment. What we did not count on was the ubiquitous construction we found on every street in Belize City, or the remarkable penchant for installing speed bumps on city streets and, even more surprisingly, on highways. There is nothing quite so frustrating as cruising down the road at 60 miles per hour and suddenly encountering a large concrete hump rising across the road. We were told these humps were meant to insure the safe conveyance of pedestrians across the road. We appreciate that pedestrians deserve consideration, but dozens of these pedestrian friendly road bumps were located in remote areas where it is doubtful any pedestrians have shown up for many a year.

Speed bumps are also known as frequently called “sleeping policemen” in Belize. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Speed bumps are also known as “sleeping policemen” in Belize. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)


Along our route we passed by the capital of Belize, Belmopan, and rather unexpectedly through the town of San Ignacio. Our visit to San Ignacio was caused by a suspicious detour that led us across the Mopan River into the center of a community that was revving for a colorful Saturday celebration with music, craft shows and flea markets. The cars, trucks and pedestrians that crowded the streets were in no hurry, and while the opportunity to see a little local color was nice, the considerable delay increased our apprehension about making our destination on time.

After leaving San Ignacio we found that the small communities along Western Highway were, if anything, even more enamored of speed bumps than those we had already encountered. As we passed by the small town of San Jose Succotz precisely at 2:30 we saw a large sign on Western Highway directing us to Xunantunich. Our respect rose considerably for the hotel clerk back in Belize City who had predicted our drive time so accurately. Awaiting us by the side of the road is our host, Jorge Can, who hops in the car as we descend sharply to a two-car ferry that will take us across the fast-running Mopan River to the Mayan site. The ferry is hand operated, but reliable in getting visitors from the south side of the river to the north side.

An old-fashioned, hand cranked ferry takes us across the Mopan River to Xunantunich. (Photo by John Gibbons)

An old-fashioned, hand cranked ferry takes us across the Mopan River to Xunantunich. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Its proximity to the Mopan River contributed to Xunantunich’s longevity. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Its proximity to the Mopan River contributed to Xunantunich’s longevity. (Photo by John Gibbons)


Xunantunich is located about a mile from the river on a ridge that was obviously selected for its commanding views of all points of the compass. It is easy to see nearby Guatemala looking to the west. The Mopan River was also an important element in the choice of the site for the Mayan city since control of the river traffic was essential to the delivery of goods down into Belize and in connecting to Maya cities upstream. Not far from Xunantunich, the Mopan meets the Macal River to create the Belize River which flows all the way to the Caribbean.

The Maya culture has distant roots that go back thousands of years, but scholars generally agree it began to take on its unique character around 2000 BC. This was the beginning of what is known as the Preclassic era of Maya development and lasted until 100 AD when the Maya suffered a period of decline. However, rather than disappearing as other ancient civilizations have, the Maya rebounded and flourished from 250 AD to 900 AD in what is known as the Classic period. It was during this time that great temples and cities were built at sites such as Tikal, Seibal and Tz’ibilchaltun. While Xunantunich in many ways resembles those other Mayan cities, it rose to power later; its zenith was from 780 AD to 900 AD when the others were entering a stage of decline and ultimate collapse.

In addition to the Maya there were a number of Mesoamerican civilizations of note that competed with each other, including the Olmec, who were dominant in the Preclassic until they collapsed around 400 BC. Our modern understanding of the Olmecs was informed by Smithsonian archaeologist Matthew Stirling working in the 1920s and ‘30s. One of the great Olmec heads he unearthed stands as testament to his work in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Maya learned from the Olmecs and adopted elements of their culture. In fact, there was transfer of technology and trade between many of the civilizations that existed side by side, especially between the Maya and the civilization that arose from the Teotihuacan area of Mexico. While these two civilizations from time to time warred against each other, the Maya also adopted their motifs for art and design.

Olmec head, Natural history Museum

Riggers unload a five-ton Olmec head (1000 – 800 BC) at the Mall entrance of the National Museum of Natural History in 1978. The Olmec head was discovered in 1946 by Smithsonian anthropologist Dr. Matthew W. Stirling at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz, Mexico. (Photo by Harold E. Dogherty, as featured in the Torch, April 1978)


Ultimately, the Maya were successful because the adopted ideas from other cultures while creating their own. They were experts in astronomy, art, architecture, warfare and city building. They had a sophisticated written language, recorded their history and aided and abetted technology transfer. However, near the end of the Classic period, around 900 to 1000 AD, even the great skills of the Maya were not enough to deal with a prolonged drought, overuse of forest resources and unstainable population increases. Their civilization collapsed and they retreated from their great cities over the course of a hundred years. Today it is estimated there are around 7 million people of Maya descent still living in the area of the former Mayan empire.

As noted, Xunantunich came to full power later in the Classic than other Mayan cities and had an advantage in access to the Mopan River. As a result, it survived longer before being subsumed by the general Maya decline. Eventually, it too was abandoned and was lost to the jungle. While Belize was still a British colony in the 1890s and early part of the 20 century, the site was explored and preliminary systematic archaeological excavations began. Excavations at the site continued in fits and starts over time. In the 1990s work was undertaken by UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania and the Getty Foundation that expanded our understanding of how Xunanatunich worked as a city and kingdom and provided insights that allowed appreciation of the remarkable culture that existed there at its zenith. Today, only about 25 percent of the works at Xunantunich are exposed above ground. This is typical for an archaeological site; it allows the most prominent features and buildings to be seen while protecting others from potential looters and damage by exposure to the elements until further excavations can be made.

Wayne Clough, Jorge Can, Xunantunich, Maya

Jorge Can has spent his entire adult life working on archaeological investigations of Xunantunich. (Photo by John Gibbons)


Our host, Jorge, has worked at Xunantunich since he was 16 years old. Now 37, he has spent his entire adult life working on archaeological investigations of the site, having started when many of the main buildings were still covered with jungle and soil.  We could not have had a better person for our tour since his knowledge is encyclopedic. He shows us the impressive new Visitor’s Center that provides up-to-date information about the on-going work at the site. We learn that recent discoveries have shown that the Mayan name for the site was Kat Witz, meaning “clay mountain.” The name Xunantunich was chosen by archaeologists in the 1890s and means “ghost woman,” a moniker chosen because, as the first excavations were being made, workers swore that periodically a woman with glowing red eyes dressed entirely in white appeared in the central plaza.

The Xunantunich site consists of the central plaza (no ghost woman appeared on our visit), outlying buildings and farms and small houses. The exposed area that is available to visitors consists of a total of six plazas and 26 temples and palaces. The central plaza is framed on the south by the dominant pyramid known as El Castillo and on the north by a set of elegant structures that were likely used as residences for princes of the royal family, priests or high-level advisors to the king. To the east and west of the main plaza there are other buildings that are only partially excavated or that were excavated and then covered over again. In the center of the central plaza a small pyramid was constructed around 800 AD, after El Castillo was built, that is known as “Structure A-1” in archaeological documents. It was apparently used to provide additional housing for the rulers and elite. In my opinion, it ruined the elegance of the central plaza and the clear line of the views that existed before.

Wayne Clough, Jorge Can, northern facade of El Castillo at Xuantunich, Belize

The northern façade El Castillo rises in the background as we explore the central plaza. (Photo by John Gibbons)


El Castillo rises an impressive 130 feet above its surroundings. It is built of limestone from nearby quarries—the Maya were expert in cutting the stones using natural cracks in the rock. Notably, all of the work on this monumental structure was done with no iron or steel tools and no beasts of burden. Working with rollers and planes, sheer human power allowed skilled stone craftsmen to build what we see today. For cutting and shaping the stones a hard tool made of chert was used. (Chert is a hard, crystalline mineral similar to flint that appears in limestone deposits.) As the limestone was cut, its new surface was initially soft, hardening over time. The soft rock cuttings were ground into a cement mortar that was used between the stones or to coat them, providing a stucco-like surface which it is believed was painted with bright colors. El Castillo was built over a span of two hundred years, beginning before 800 AD. Far across the Atlantic Ocean, work began on construction of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 1160 AD that was not completed till early 1300 AD. It is humbling to consider that two civilizations an ocean apart were undertaking great works at nearly the same to honor their religion and attest to their power.

Many structures, including these steps, replaced earlier versions as generations of kings added their own contributions to Xunantunich. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Many structures, including these steps, replaced earlier versions as generations of kings added their own contributions to Xunantunich. (Photo by John Gibbons)


As I climb El Castillo my muscles made it known how steep the steps were. Jorge gave us respite by stopping frequently to provide insights into the structure. He pointed out that over the course of 200 years that El Castillo was under construction, additions and changes were made by each succeeding king. In many instances, this meant previous works were covered up by later ones and rooms used by one king were walled up or filled in by another. Jorge shows us examples of modifications, including the main stairs up the pyramid, which are an overlay over an earlier and cruder set of steps.

When the pyramid was nearing completion, the Maya added a set of friezes around the top of the final stage depicting gods of nature, such as Chaak the rain god, and a tree of life. Of these, the eastern frieze survived in the most complete form, but it suffered steady deterioration due to exposure after the pyramid was excavated early in the 1900s. In the 1990s with the help of the Getty Foundation the eastern frieze was removed and a plaster copy was made, which is now what is seen on the pyramid. The actual frieze was buried so that it remains on the site, but is protected from the ravages of exposure.

El Castillo, Xunantunich, Mayan ruins

An elaborate frieze once encircled El Castillo on all sides. (Photo by John Gibbons.

Frieze on El Castillo, Xuantunich, Belize

A plaster replica shows the frieze’s detail. The original is preserved from the elements underground. (Photo by John Gibbons)

As we neared the top of the pyramid the view became ever more grand and the winds picked up to the point that I did not feel safe standing on the edges of the parapets to peer down to the ground below. Coming down we used steeply inclined steps at the rear of the pyramid.  With no handrails to guide the descent I took my time insuring that step by step I was not going somewhere unplanned.


The view is spectacular from the summit. That is Guatamala in the background. (Photo by John Gibbons)

The view is spectacular from the summit. That is Guatamala in the background. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Partway down Jorge showed us a large, gaping crack that cut right through the stones of the pyramid. Jorge explained this crack was the result of the massive earthquake of 1976 that was centered in nearby Guatemala. The crack ran through the central part of the structure and came close to cleaving off a large segment. Authorities have worked to reinforce the structure but continue to monitor it for movement.

The Mayan ball court at Xunantunich (Photo by John Gibbons)

The Mayan ball court (Photo by John Gibbons)


After we leave El Castillo, Jorge takes us to a grassy court that was used to play a Mayan ball game, the rules of which are not clearly understood. The court, about 150 long and 50 feet wide, consists of a flat central area flanked by two symmetrical sloped berms which were part of the playing field. Each team is thought to have consisted of around two to three players who wore padding on their legs and bodies so they could hit the hard ball with their arms or kick it with legs and feet. Courts of this type are found at other Mayan cities, but only at Xunantunich have two large rings been discovered that likely served as the goals through which the ball had to pass. The rings were mounted vertically on the opposing ends of the court. Standing there in this spot visions arise of games being played here 1,200 years ago to the cheers of excited spectators hoping their team would be the victor. I could not help but ask Jorge if the Maya followed the Aztec tradition which called for the losers of a game like this to be decapitated. He said no. In fact, there are few signs of human sacrifice of any kind at Xunantunich. Although cutting tools have been found at the holy sites here, they seem to have been more for animal sacrifice and bloodletting of humans as tribute.

The western side of the central plaza, Xunantunich, Belize, Maya

The western side of the central plaza. (Photo by John Gibbons)

We close our tour with a stroll through the northern side of the central plaza where elegant residences were built for princes and others who served the king. This is a fitting way to end the tour, seeing close up the remarkable architectural skills and craftsmanship of the Maya builders.

On our way out we stop by the visitor’s center with a better understanding of the artifacts shown there. We see sophisticated pottery, intricate carvings and the rings that were used for the games played in the ball courts. We leave the site with a sense of awe for the culture that was once here. There is palpable feeling of loss–how could the collapse have been so complete and so fast? This is not just a question of historical interest, but one for our times as well, since environmental degradation, crowding of cities and climate change pose serious issues for us as they did for the Maya.


Posted: 9 May 2014
About the Author:

Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Since beginning his tenure in July 2008, Secretary Clough has overseen several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum. He has initiated long-range planning for the Institution that will define the Smithsonian’s focus for the future. More about Secretary Clough...