San Ignacio in Belize, close to the border with Guatemala, has plenty of things to do, from exploring caves with Mayan skeletons, to tubing, swimming and eating delicious street food! One of my favourite activities in San Ignacio was horse riding to Xunantunich.
Xunantunich, also known as the Mayan ruins that no-one can pronounce, are actually closer to the Belize-Guatemala border than San Ignacio, near the town of Benque. It is easy to reach by public transport from San Ignacio, just hop on a bus to Benque and get off by the ferry that crosses the river. I was considering doing that, but then found Hanna Stables, which offers horse-riding excursions to the Maya site.
Hanna Stables offers half day horseback riding tours in Belize that include pick up from San Ignacio, the ride to Xunantunich, entry, guided tour, the ride back, and a delicious home cooked lunch, before a lift back to San Ignacio.
I was picked up from San Ignacio by an English lady from Sheffield. Shamefully I’ve forgotten her name, but we chatted about life here, and English curiosities which will stay with us no matter where we are in the world. She explained that the stables were run by Santiago Juan, the son of Rudy Juan, who founded the stables over 70 years ago. The stables are perhaps 15 minutes-drive from San Ignacio, down a long drive with fields on either side. We passed several houses belonging to Santiago’s family, and pulled up outside a barn.
My guide, William, already had my horse ready – a huge grey mare called Hannah. I used to ride a lot when I was younger, and I always had trouble getting on anything taller than my tiny 11.2 hands Dartmoor pony. Embarrassingly, this hasn’t changed over the years, and I still needed a leg-up to climb aboard!
William adjusted my stirrups, tightened the saddle, and found me various different helmets to try, foiled as usual by my abnormally large head. Well, any hope I had of romancing a handsome cowboy were long-gone at this point! We finally found a helmet that fit me, and were ready to go. I was excited to get a private ride, when another car pulled up – a couple from Texas had driven all the way from Hopkins (2.5 hours away) just to take the ride. No matter, I was in no rush, and they apologised for being late so I forgave them. I waited on Hannah while they got their horses, who were already saddled up waiting for them, and we set off together.
The horses settled into their natural order, although not without bickering about who would go second after William’s horse. There may have been some biting going on, but nothing too serious.
The ride was lovely. We could see the ruins from the stables, high on the hillside overlooking the valley. We rode through a few fields, then down to the river which we would follow until the crossing to reach Xunantunich. I love horseback riding, and the path was pretty – we passed through an area where there are usually spider monkeys, but we didn’t see any unfortunately. We did see a beautiful big woodpecker though, and a ‘Jesus’ lizard, I’m not sure of its real name but it can run across water, hence its common name. William pointed out these and other animals as we walked along, explaining about trees, flowers and termite nests as we went.
We came to the main road, and walked alongside it for a few minutes to get to the ferry crossing. The horses weren’t bothered by the traffic, seemingly oblivious to the buses and cars as they sped by. We dismounted, and walked the horses onto the hand cranked ferry which crosses the river to Xunantunich. The ferry driver waited for us all to get onboard – the horses and a few cars, and turned the wheel which works the pulley system to move the ferry across the river. On the other side, we got back on our horses and rode up the hill to the ruins. We tied the horses under some trees near the entrance and went inside.
Xunantunich is one of the largest Maya sites in the Belize River Valley, not unlike Lamanai which I had visited elsewhere in Belize, but smaller than the behemoth Tikal. It is estimated that the city stretched down to the river we had crossed, and into Guatemela, with 20-25000 inhabitants. The name means ‘Stone Woman’ after a ghostly female figure who is said to haunt the site. The likely original name for the site is Clay Mountain, which was built during the classic Maya period between 250-900 AD, and was abandoned around 1000 AD. The site was rediscovered in 1881, when a local man hunting gibnut (a rodent type animal) saw the ‘Stone Woman’ and came across the ruins.
The most striking building at Xunantunich is known as El Castillo (the Castle), and is the most completely restored temple. We climbed to the very top of this huge building, the second tallest man-made structure in Belize rising 130 feet above the main plaza below. The palaces at the top were beautifully carved with friezes, originally painted but now covered with sandstone and fibreglass to protect the original work underneath. The carvings are of 3 faces, apparently representing healing, music and fertility.
William explained the history of the site, including the first botched attempts at archaeology involving a few sticks of dynamite. Some of the temples are still being excavated, with new discoveries being made every year, including human skeletons a few months ago. A group of archaeologists from the San Antonio University in Texas come every year to continue their work, although funding is hard to come by. William shared his knowledge with us, and his passion for the site was obvious. We walked around the site with him, having plenty of time for photographs and enjoying the views.
William went to check on the horses, and we wandered back to the entrance for a drink, and a rest at the picnic benches. It was a hot day, but luckily it was cloudy so we didn’t suffer too much from the heat. After a bathroom break, we went back to our trusty steeds to prepare for the ride back to the stables. I attempted a selfie with Hannah, both of us equally photogenic I think you’ll agree. There is good reason why I don’t usually take selfies.
We rode back a slightly different way, the horses still bickering between themselves. At the stables, we were treated to a delicious lunch of chicken with rice and vegetables, and my English friend drove me back to San Igancio.
I enjoyed the ride to Xunantunich, horse riding is always enjoyable for me, although sometimes I find the plodding rides a little dull (I like a bit more excitement!) the ride was pretty, and the visit to the Maya site was fascinating. For horseback riding in Belize this trip is definitely an excellent option!
Hannah Stables also offer advanced horseback rides for intermediate and advanced riders, but as the Texan lady had never been on a horse before we took it easy. If I return to the stables I would love the chance to take one of the advanced rides, although I haven’t cantered since Ecuador over a year ago, I miss horse riding, and will aim to ride whenever I can! The horses here were well cared for, and helmets provided, unlike other places I have ridden. Overall, I was impressed with Hanna Stables.
If you would like to combine your horseback riding tour to Xunantunich with accommodation, Hanna Stables also offer private double rooms. I had a peek inside, and the rooms are clean, basic but with tended gardens and are in beautiful surroundings.
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I was a guest of Hanna Stables and enjoyed a complimentary ride, and the fact I had a great time clearly influenced my Hanna Stables review! All opinions are, as always, my own.
Last updated: July 4, 2017