Caracol – A visit to Belize’s largest Maya ruin

Occupied as early as 1200 BC, Caracol has revealed an extensive and varied history. The true name of this ancient city, found in hieroglyphics throughout the site, has not yet been successfully deciphered. Its modern name is Spanish for “snail,” the derivation of which is not entirely clear. One translation of the emblem glyph, indicates it may have been named “Place of Three Hills,” but this is also uncertain. The comprehensive work done by archaeologists Diane and Arlen Chase, of the University of Central Florida, tells us that in 650 AD, a population exceeding 150,000 was occupying the epicenter of the site.

The ruins lie deep in the heart of the Belizean jungle, at an elevation of 1500 feet, on the Vaca Plateau in the Cayo District. As the crow flies, Caracol is only 25 miles due south of San Ignacio, but you’ll travel 50 miles of road to access the site. Although the ruins were first discovered by a logger in 1938, excavations did not begin until 1950. The most intensive work has taken place since 1985, when the Chases undertook the “Caracol Project.”

Lately, much attention has been placed on this mighty site. As part of the Ministry of Tourism’s vision for the industry, the Caracol Archaeological Reserve will be developed into an “anchor” site for Belize, to be marketed much in the way of Tikal in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras.

As a first step in this direction, the Honourable Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism, recently inaugurated the new Visitor’s Center, erected at the entrance to the site. The Center exhibits numerous photos and diagrams of the site, explanations of its features, along with a few artifacts and an altar found here. Although the full extent of future development of this site is not yet planned, a spokesperson for the Department of Archaeology (DoA) states that equal focus will be placed on preserving the fragile structures, and expanding the area as a nature reserve, as opposed to a Tikal-style, full scale restoration/reconstruction. Numerous trails will be created and marked with signs, identifying the significance of particular plants, and noting wildlife viewing areas.
Situated within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, the area surrounding Caracol is rich in flora and fauna. During our visit, the air was filled with wild calls of exotic birds, and howler monkeys roared in the distance. One of the highlights of a visit here, is standing at the base of a ceiba tree that is over 500 years old. It towers over the site, with its leaves in the clouds and its huge, wrinkled roots spreading out like the foot of a dinosaur.

The central core of the site is what most visitors will see today. It consists of three plaza groups, surrounding a central acropolis, dozens of structures, two ball courts, and reservoirs. The largest structure of Caracol is the Caana pyramid, which reaches a height of almost 140 feet, and remains one of the tallest man-made buildings in Belize. Over 200 burials have been excavated here. One ball court marker gives an account of two separate battles with Tikal. It has often been said that Caracol once conquered Tikal, but this has not actually been verified.

We are pleased to report that, since our first visit to the site in 1995, the access road has been improved dramatically. Extensive grading and drainage work has been done, and travel time from either the Georgeville turnoff of the Western Highway, or the Cristo Rey Road from Santa Elena, has been reduced by at least 30 minutes. Originally, it was a three hour drive, one-way, from the Western Highway, for either route. Signposts have been placed at most intersections, making it easier to find your way if you self-drive. A 4-WD vehicle is not necessary in the dry season, but still a good idea if you visit during the “green season” (June – December). Visitor’s permits are no longer required, and the site is fully open to the public.

Caracol is a popular destination offered by all tour operators in the Cayo District and most resorts in the area can arrange a visit for you (about US$ 85/person). Be sure to pack a lunch of “fry chicken” or sandwiches, and enjoy the shade of the picnic area at the site’s entrance.

You can finish off your Caracol excursion with a stop-over at the Rio On pools on your return trip. (You’ll see the turn-off sign post on your way in.) This succession of clear ponds formed in the enormous rocks along the river provide cool refreshment after a hot and dusty day. There are numerous “Jungle Trails,” cave sites, gift shops, and other tourism-oriented attractions that have sprung up along the road through the Mountain Pine Ridge area, with hand-painted signs begging your attention. These present a good opportunity to meet some local folk, and maybe find a special handicraft or two.