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Jan 28, 2003

Improvements at Xunantunich help visitors

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Every school child should be familiar with the imposing structures rising from the banks of the Mopan River. Collectively, they’re called Xunantunich, or Maiden of the Rock. And if you haven’t been there in a while, as Marion Ali discovered, it’s well worth a return visit.

Marion Ali, Reporting

The work to preserve the ancient site started several months ago under the government’s Tourism Development Project. After much research, labour, and an investment of some half a million dollars, this popular attraction is much more visitor friendly. But this majestic landmark has been drawing attention for many years.

Dr Jaime Awe, Project Coordinator, Tourism Dev. Project

“In the 1880s, in fact, probably in 1887, a gentleman from the village of San Jose Succotz, by the name of Urbano Pat, came up to hunt at the site and the legend claims that at the base of the Castillo, he saw this beautiful young maiden, who was resplendent in bright light and the rays of the sunlight. This maiden appeared to him, and he was scared by the apparition, so he dropped his gun and ran back to the village. When he got to the village, he talked with the native priest, the Chac, as they call him, and the priest decided to come up to the site with him. They came back and they found his gun, but did not see the maiden. And thereafter, several other people have claimed that this young maiden has appeared to them, but nobody has ever been able to follow her into the cave that supposedly goes into the Castillo.”

Dating back to as early as 200 B.C., Xunantunich boasts carved stone slabs called stelae containing recordings of important events of Mayan civilization. Tourism Minister, Mark Espat, says the need to preserve these important artefacts, and also accommodate those who want to see them, makes it important to invest in their preservation.

Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism

“We get almost give thousand people a month, and many of them come from cruise ships, a lot of them are also from overnight tourists that stay at the various resorts in the Cayo District. This is one of the most popular sites in Belize. The improvements here including the visitor’s centre, the new bathrooms, the new picnic areas, the new trails, and very soon, a new way to embark and disembark the main temple of El Castillo, are designed to improve and to enhance the carrying capacity, meaning we will be able to handle more people, without in any way compromising the integrity of the structures that are here.”

But while the major restoration works are completed on Xunantunich, Espat says there are plans to provide some safety measures for visitors.

Mark Espat

“Most people that come to Xunantunich, want to climb to the summit of El Castillo. We have come up with a plan that will make that climbing up and climbing down a lot easier. We’ll be exposing some more stairs, putting in some rails, and ensuring that visitors and Belizeans who come to visit the site can do so in a manner that’s safe and convenient.”

This portion of the works should begin in the next two weeks and run through to April at a cost of about forty-five thousand dollars. But is it really worth the effort, time and money we invest in these imposing ancient structures. Tourism Development Project Coordinator, Dr. Jaime Awe says there’s no doubt.

Dr. Jaime Awe

“It is also important from a totally non-economic point of view, and that is from a cultural historical perspective. These monuments, these large temples and pyramids that we excavate and conserve, represent icons and symbols of Belizean identity. We have a lot of people who are Maya, but you don’t just have to be Maya to come to these places and feel proud about being Belizean. Because it’s the first Belizeans that did all these achievements, made these achievements. So it’s also about learning about our own past, and hopefully about the successes and failures of the past Belizeans. And by learning from that we might not make the same mistakes in the future.”

But did all the tireless work unearth anything new?

Dr. Awe

“We found a very interesting burial. We now believe that it’s the first elite burial to be discovered at Xunantunich. And then we found more than fifty eccentric flints that were placed all above this area where they had buried this individual. The skeletal remains form the individual was also covered in hematite, like a red powder. And the Maya often did that, because red is the colour of the rising sun. So it is hoped that like the rising sun, the dead ruler will rise from the dead.”

One historical attribute we are not likely to see replaced anytime soon is the mechanical ferry, used for years to take people to and from the site.

Mark Espat

“We feel that the ferry provides a very unique component of the Xunantunich experience. The nearby village of San Jose Succotz, also benefits from the waiting time that people have spend there before they cross. And so no, we don’t plant to replace the ferry at all.”

Marion Ali for News 5

The Tourism Development Project includes the conservation of five major ancient Mayan sites, along with the caves at Caves Branch on the Hummingbird Highway. The project is funded through a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank and government contribution to the tune of twenty-eight million dollars. The next two sites, soon to be officially opened, include Lamanai in Orange Walk and Altun Ha in the Belize District.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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