A comprehensive guide to visiting Belize’s Caracol Mayan ruins

Largest, main Mayan temple on Plaza A at Caracol Mayan Ruins in Belize, Central America

One of Belize’s most hidden gems is the Caracol Mayan Ruins. This is the largest Mayan ruin site in Belize and should definitely be marked as a must-see on your Belize itinerary. I’m fascinated with archaeology, hidden gems and ancient history, so this was high on my Belize bucket list. Though there is no official guide to Caracol, I set out on my own solo expedition to see just how hard it was to reach the Mayan ruin site. 

The ruins’ ancient Mayan name was Uxwitza, which translates to Three Water Hill. They then adopted a new name in the Early Classic era which was Ux Witz Ajaw or Three Hills Lord.

The ruins now go by Caracol, which means snail in Spanish, and refers to the winding roads used to reach the ancient civilization’s ruins. 

Upward angle showing stela one of one of the three temples on the top of Canaa (Sky Palace) in Caracol, Belize's largest Mayan ruin site
One of the three temples on top of Canaa (Sky Palace) Caracol’s largest structure.

The historical significance of Caracol 

The Caracol ruins date back as early as 1200 B.C. Over the years, Caracol grew to be the largest Mayan civilization in Belize. Caracol spans more than an estimated 177 square kilometers, which is bigger than modern day Belize City. At its peak, Caracol was home to more than 140,000 Mayans, the largest group in Belize.

To this day, only 10 percent of Caracol has been excavated and mapped. Today over 5,000 structures have been noted, yet archaeologists estimate that there are more than 36,000 structures in Caracol. Excavations seem constant at Caracol, which is a regular practice. 

Like other Mayan civilizations, Caracol was a complex and elaborate unit of temples, houses, all connected by smooth, raised roads. Then was particularly difficult for Mayans in Caracol due to the dense rainforest brush that surrounded the settlement. 

Caracol has significant importance in Mayan history in Central America. In 562 A.D. Caracol even defeated the well-known Guatemalan Mayan civilization of Tikal. Defeating Tikal, which was considered one of the greatest cities in the Mayan world, brought great fortune to Caracol and the civilization flourished. After defeating Tikal, Caracol went on to triumph over Naranjo.

The artifacts at Caracol document this immense victory. Furthermore, there are several structures in Tikal imitate Caracol’s architectural elements. This suggests Caracol’s great influence upon the Mayan world and empire. 

Caracol was habited until 1050 A.D. Historians have uncovered evidence that suggests Caracol survived the initial collapse of the Mayan empire in 900 A.D. Historians attribute the fall of the Mayan empire to numerous. What the ultimate reason for its demise it not certain. Historians suspect overpopulation, insufficient resources and warfare all contributed to the empire’s downfall. 

The ruin site was forgotten until 1937 when a logger stumbled across the ruins. Archaeologists and ruin enthusiasts have been visiting the ruins since the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Belizean government finished the windy road to Caracol which concreted its status as a landmark. On average, only 10,000 visitors visit the ruin site each year

How to get there 

When reading about visiting Caracol, much of the literature was convoluted. There wasn’t a reliable consensus about whether you need to hire a tour guide to take you to the ruins or not. In typical Martha fashion, I decided to trek the journey myself and see if I would be turned away. 

I started my journey from Red Creek where I stayed in a rustic cabin in the rainforest. I woke up at 8 a.m. and got into my Kia Soul. The road from Red Creek to Georgeville was paved. In Georgeville, you turn onto a dirt road that heads south to the ruins. 

Overall, Google Maps is very accurate. Once you merge onto the Chiquibul Road, you follow it until you reach the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. 

 

Military checkpoints  

At the edge of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, is the first checkpoint. The Belizean military control and monitor these checkpoints. When you approach the guard will ask you for your driver’s license and vehicle information. I had to show proof that I was renting the vehicle by showing my rental papers. They’ll also take your name, jot down what your vehicle looks like and how many passengers are in the car. 

This is when I got my first skeptical look about being a solo female traveler. Regardless, the guard did not ask many more questions and waved me through the gate. 

You’ll continue following the road until you reach the second checkpoint. This checkpoint is where the Belizean Defence Force convoy meets to escort to Caracol. 

Why is the Belizean Defence Force involved?

Concrete bridge with tourists standing on it by their vehicles looking at the rushing river below Belizean jungle in the background with mountains covered in trees
The Belizean Defence Force convoy that takes visitors to the Caracol ruins.

The relationship between neighboring Guatemala and Belize are tense, to say the least. These tense relationships started years ago over a political dispute over land. It was rumored that Guatemala allowed Belize to claim certain areas of land in exchange if they built a road directly from Guatemala to Belize’s ports. Since Guatemala is a landlocked country, they desperately needed a direct trade route in order to export and import goods. Belizean locals claim that no such agreement occurred, hence what started the sometimes violent relations between the two countries. 

Caracol is located near the Guatemala-Belize border, some Guatemalans seek retribution and have stolen and vandalized cars traveling to the Mayan ruin site. Due to these threats and infractions, the Belizean Defence Force stepped in to ensure that tourists are safe and that Caracol can still witness the ruins’ glory. 

Belizean Defence Force Convoy 

The convoy leaves from the ranger station at 10 a.m. sharp. Tourists and visitors can reach the ruins without driving in the convoy, though it is highly suggested by not only the guards at the checkpoints but also by locals. 

Walking up to the checkpoint, I noticed that these guards were readily armed with machine guns. This was the same process as the first checkpoint. The guard took down my name and vehicle make. They advise tourists to stay with the convoy to ensure their safety. 

The convoy is also a precaution because of the roads — they are nothing short than treacherous. 

There is a return convoy that leads visitors back to the ranger station at 4 p.m. Again, the guards advise that visitors follow these precautions. 

Do you need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle? 

I’m not joking when I say there are SUV-sized craters in the road on the way to Caracol. Ensure that you have your wits about you as you start to drive to the ruin site. The roads a rusty, copper color and give out in many places. 

They wind in twists and turns through the jungle. At one point, you’ll even cross a rickety concrete bridge over a rushing river. (Yes, rickety concrete, that sentence itself is terrifying.) 

Luckily, it was dry the day that I was visiting Caracol. If the roads had been slightly wet, they would have turned to slushy mudslides. For this reason, I would highly suggest 4-wheel-drive when visiting Caracol. 

There are rumors that the Belizean government plans to pave the road to Caracol in 2019, but no new updates have been released. 

Stone Mayan ruin temple on left overlooking Belize jungle canopy with an overgrown temple below
On top of Caana (Sky Palace) looking down at Caracol’s Plaza B temple which is overgrown by jungle vegetation.

Experience as a solo female traveler 

Perhaps, the most fear-inducing part of Caracol was driving there solo. The roads with their crater-sized potholes and nearly washed out sections were enough to make my knuckles turn white. I would have preferred to have a passenger with me to subside my fears and the company.

Driving within the convoy was actually a comfort. The Defence Force did not show up in armored vehicles or tanks decked out in camouflage. In fact, they drove a new, 4×4, black Jeep Compass. The military member expertly navigated the roads and helped find the smoothest areas to ease our vehicles on toward Caracol. Without their navigation, I’m sure the KIA Soul would’ve been in ruins.

Walking up to the ticket counter, I was met with a few stares. It was the same shocked looked the Belizean Defence Force guards had given me.

When I asked for a single ticket, the man looked at me with wide eyes. He tried to persuade me to hire a local guide to take me around the ruins and come back another time, but I was persistent that I would like to view the area solo.

After a short hike up the hill, there laid the largest Belizean Mayan ruin site before me. As cliche as it sounds, I was speechless.

There are three main plazas within Caracol. Each of these plazas has robust temples and palaces. Also within the Caracol complex are barrios, where commoners or non-royal subjects would live, and acropolises where food and work took place. Interspersed among these ruins are tombs rooms that housed goods.

Ancient stone work and a Mayan ruin temple with jungle vegetation and forest in the background
The intricate stonework on Caana’s (Sky Palace’s) temple. This is the highest point in Caracol, the largest Belizean Mayan ruin site.

Plaza B

Plaza B is the most notable and is home to the tallest Belizean ruin Caana, called the Sky Palace. From the ground, visitors cannot even see the apex of the palace. The palace is comprised of four palaces and three temples. Historians say that different rulers continued to add onto the structure, hence why there are numerous palaces and temples.

Caana

At first glance, the palace looks as if it is all stairs. Yet, it appears that there are at least three different tiers to the palace.

After viewing the structures at ground level, I decided that it was time for the intimidating ascendent to the top of Caana (Sky Palace). There were three distinct levels on the palace, each served a different purpose.  At the base of the second tier, there are compartments with stone walls. These appear to be either an embarkment for warriors to protect the palace or storage for goods.

Stone compartments on the second tier of Canaa (Sky Palace) in Caracol, Belize.
Aerial view of Caana’s (Sky Palace’s) second tier in Caracol.

More steps lead up to the third and final tier. The top of the palace has three miniature sized pyramids of stone. During my exploration, it was unclear whether these palaces or temples. I assume these are temples since they are at the top of the structure and ceremoniously closest to the gods. There were also remanents of altars on the top tier nearby.

At this level, the air was thin and the clouds hovered nearby. It felt as those they were hugging you and you were a mere raindrop. The view from the apex was cosmic. It was hard not to become dizzy and be swept away by its magnitude.

Panorama of Canaa's (Sky Palace's) top tier the tallest Mayan ruin in Caracol and the country of Belize
The top tier of Caana showcasing the palace’s three temples.

I spent several hours on Caana absorbing its enormity and trying to understand how a Mayan civilization operated. All the caverns created out of the carved stone seemed like an impossible feat, but it had been done. If this wasn’t a testament to the Mayans loyalty and appreciation of the gods, I wasn’t sure what else would properly illustrate that.

Close up of black, stone stela on a temple in Caracol
Stela on the temple in Plaza B overlooking Caana (Sky Palace).

Plaza B temple

Located directly across from the palace is another temple, about a third of the size of Caana. Unlike the Sky Palace, the temple had large stelae decorating the sides. Each of these stelae tells an integral part of history in the Mayan culture.

This temple also shows the effects of time Caracol has endured. The top of this temple is now overgrown which jungle vegetation. The trees rooted at the top of the temple form their own jungle canopy, shading the temple ruins below. Moss and other vegetation grow on the temple’s steps and bricks, but the structure itself stands tall and has endured.

Dense jungle foliage and tree growing on top of Belize Mayan temple made of stone at Caracol ruin site
Looking down the steps of Caana towards the temple in Plaza B.

Other plazas

The rest of Caracol’s ruins were still impressive. Unlike Caana, these ruins didn’t have substantial, towering structures. Most of the temples and structures were smaller in structure, but not any less dramatic.

As I toured a nearby plaza, a Defence Force guard approached me. He held his machine gun formally at his waist and I couldn’t help be feel intimidated. He asked if I was OK and whether I had lost my group. I informed him that I was actually traveling alone. He gawked and asked the routine questions of why I chose to do so. After providing satisfactory answers, he acted as my guide. He escorted me to the base of yet another temple and described to me the history of the structure. He then pointed over to the ballcourt with the barrel of his gun mentioning that I should venture there next.

A slightly intimidating experience, but as usual, every Belizean that I met was always kind and welcoming.

Large stone Mayan ruin on Caracol in Belize
Another Mayan ruin structure, most likely another palace or temple, at Caracol.

Would I do it again? 

Caracol was the highlight of my Belizean vacation. Its sheer immensity and understanding what a pivotal role it played in Belizean history made the long journey worth it. 

Compared to the other Mayan ruins that I explored in Belize, Caracol was immensely more impressive. The size of the palaces and temples dwarfed anything within the Belizean borders. The other ruin sites gave you a glimpse into the Mayan culture and history, but Caracol fully quenched my curious urges. Furthermore, Caracol has inspired me to see more ancient civilization sites from around the world. 

If you have already visited Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala, I would still embark on an adventure to Caracol. Belize is a country that you shouldn’t miss and Caracol is a significant period of history in this small, yet robust country. Caracol coupled with a day trip to Xunantunich are the two Mayan ruin sites you must see on your Belizean road trip

What would I have done differently? 

When walking around the Caracol ruins, it’s more relaxed than other museum and archaeology sites. There are few signs, if any signs, that tell you the name of the structures. There aren’t any signs of plaques that denote why each structure is important or even what it is. I would definitely recommend hiring a local tour guide to take me around the ruin site. 

I tailgated a few tour groups and was able to hear bits and snippets of the tours. Each tour added to the sites overall surrealness and provided proper context. You will spend more time at the ruins with a tour guide, but you’ll leave with a better understanding of the complex Mayan civilization and how it played an integral part in the history of the Mayan world. 

Lastly, to piggyback off my last point, I would have hired a tour to take me to Caracol. I had intended to visit the 1,000 Foot Falls, also in the Mountain Pine Ridge Conservation Area. These waterfalls are the tallest in Belize and are often an included stop on Caracol tours. Exhausted from the 3+ hour drive to the ruins and climbing hundreds of steps, I bypassed the falls to find food and go to bed at a reasonable hour. 

Quirky Globetrotter

Hi! I'm Martha! The mastermind behind Quirky Globetrotter a feminist travel blog. Quirky Globetrotter is devoted to telling narratives devoted to female solo travel and hidden gems worldwide with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and how that impacts travel on a global and local level.

31 thoughts on “A comprehensive guide to visiting Belize’s Caracol Mayan ruins

  1. Mayan ruins are something that interests me hugely, me being a historical buff. I would love to visit Belize and check out all these ruins. It has been in my bucket list since forever. The location of this particular ruin is interesting with all the military checkpoints.

  2. This is an awesome guide! Belize is near the top of our list, and we are hoping to make it there really soon! I loved your tips. The ruins are so incredible! Even though I don’t travel solo, I loved reading about your experience as a solo female traveler.

  3. Visiting ruins is like traveling back in time.They give us a glimpse of the past. And I’m always amazed by ruins like the Caracol Mayan Ruins where major structures still stand. These ruins show us, that even with limited means, we can achieve something great if we set out to do it.

  4. The Caracol Mayan Ruins has been part of my bucket list for the longest time. I have always been fascinated with the Mayan civilization and this is just a wonderful learning experience to see it up close. Thank you for sharing your experience. This is so far the best guide/ blog I found to Caracol.

  5. I must admit this Mayan ruins are on top of my bucket list for sure and your post only helps me understand it better. I would love to visit Belize’s itself and to top that the hidden gems of the Caracol Mayan Ruins would be a bonus. The journey itself looks very interesting and a photographers paradise with those visuals. Quite rightly stated the proper vehicle would be a must for a road trip like this .Thanks for some great tips the visuals compliment your writing.

  6. Hiring a tourguide could have been make a difference in your trip here in Caracol Ruins, Belize. Although you ventured it solo. I can understand why some people would give a stare to someone who wants to go alone and not hiring a tour guide, tho can be necessary in some cases. I haven’t been to Maya Ruins but would definitely go if there’s a chance. This place also looks serene so being alone can also be great, why not!

  7. I have heard a lot about Mayan ruins, but I was not aware of Caracol Ruins. It’s quite enriching to know about these ruins. I am sure that you had great time exploring the ruins solo without any guide. Belize is one of the fascinating Destinations. Thanks for the post . Now it’s on my list. This is a great post for history lovers.

  8. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post and all the beautiful images. I have never been to the Mayan ruins before but it will definitely be on my bucket list from now on. If you had to choose one thing that truly stood out from your experience, what would that be?

  9. It always fascinates me to see these kind of structures that were built BC. It is kind of hard to wrap ones head around how old they really are and how many generations have passed since they were built. Your guide is very through and an interesting read. Thank you,

  10. The Mayan ruins of Caracol are famous. I wanted to visit them for a long time, especially after visiting the Mayan ruins in Mexico. They seem to be equally impressive, although not so well preserved as the one in Mexico. I don’t think I’d dare visit this place as a solo female. It seems like a very difficult drive to the ruins.

  11. I’m so glad I came across this post! Belize has always been on the top of my list and I will finally visit this summer and was actually looking for articles with interesting places/useful information about the country. This one has both. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post and keep up the great work

  12. Seeing some Mayan Ruins has been in my wishlist for very long. I’m yet to head to the American continent, so thanks for this amazing virtual tour. I guess here too, its easier to go by your own car. Is it easier to reach by public transport? Does it exist? Thanks for all the tips about 4-wheel drive, taking up the convoy etc. The Mayan pyramids here look absolutely fascinating….

  13. I have visited 90% of the Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala but never managed to visit Caracol. I wish I had I am impressed with the site. I have only visited Caye Caulker in Belize but this area is definitely worth a return visit. The road in seems a little hairy to say the least. Well done for doing this on your own.

  14. Visiting the ruins in Belize is near the top of my bucket list! We have plans to do this within the next year. Caracol sounds like a lovely place! Mayan history is so fascinating. I am keeping this place in mind!

  15. I’ve been to Belize twice but never stopped at Caracol. Those roads are pretty bad, so you’re a brave driver! The Defense Force guards can be pretty intimidating but I also found them curious, just as you did. Adding to my next visit list!

  16. I am definitely impressed by your persistence and courage in travelling solo in what sounds like unstable political terriltory. Besides that, the Mayan pyramids are fascinating as well. Admittedly I have not heard about the site in Caracol – but it now goes down in my list of sites to visit in Belize.

  17. The military checkpoints are always kind of scary/kind of fun! There are so many in Kashmir in India, I stopped counting them! Oh and that strange look as solo female traveler… Have you ever been to UAE? Some male drivers even refused to talk to me (maybe because I sat in front). Thanks for the extensive Guide, I have to explore Central America more!

  18. I’ve heard about the famous Caracol ruins but I never got the chance to visit until now. Belize has always been on the top of my list though and I’m ecstatic that I will finally visit this summer and I will definitely check out the Caracol Ruins once I get there. The military checkpoints sound kinda scary but that just makes the place even more interesting. I really enjoyed this virtual tour, thank you for sharing

  19. I absolutely love visiting ruins! It’s so awesome that so many countries have preserved these places so that we can enjoy them now. I have visited ruins in several different locations in Mexico but not Belize, though I’ve been to Belize 3 times! And good for you for traveling solo, so many wouldn’t dare make that trek!

  20. Wow this looks incredible! I was Inn belize but didn’t make it inland and regret not seeing the round. These look magnificent! It’s so impressive how the Mayans built things to last.

  21. Such a cool experience to travel Belize solo! I’ve only been there once and it was probably 10 years ago, so I’m sure lots has changed since then, but I don’t think I would’ve chosen to travel there solo based on the little bits and pieces I had seen and experienced. I love that the defense forces were so helpful along the way, even taking the time to explain the ruins to you when you were found exploring solo! I’d love to go back to Belize now and refresh my impression of the island. Thanks for inspiring solo female travelers to visit Belize!

  22. I have read a lot about Belize and it’s national treasure – Caracol Mayan Ruins. I have always wanted to see it since I was in highschool. I hope that I can travel solo or with my bestfriend here. I really love its structure and rich history! I hope there will be a guide too in my visit.

  23. I love offbeat historical places and the Caracol Ruins of Belize fit the bill just perfectly. Visiting the Mayan ruins of Mexico a couple of years back. So this brought back really fond memories. Looks like the Mayans used the name Caracol quite often in naming their monuments. I am so glad to read through all the historical details that you have provided. The sheer size of the site (more than 36,000 structures!!!) and the strategic importance of Caracol in the Mayan history of Belize make me want to go there even more. I am not really a fan of defence-manned monuments but I would do this any day.

  24. I wonder if the Mayan named it Uxwitza because there were springs on the hill. Or, Ux Witz Ajaw because they built three temples for three different gods. Anyways, the Canaa is very impressive! It’s good to see that they could excavate big part of the three temples on the top tier. If they have an archaeology tour where part of it is helping the excavation, I think it will be great!

  25. I have never been to Belize but hopefully I can visit soon! It is good to know it’s safe for solo female travellers, since I usually tarvel alone. I do not know If I would have a courgae to drive by myself, but you definitely gave me some motivation. Too bad you were too tired to visiti the falls. I would love to see the photo, I usually go for the nature wonders first, before historical sites. Hopefully you can manage to see the falls next time!

  26. Belize has always been on the top of my list and I will finally visit this summer. I’ve always been fascinated by Mayan ruins but still didn’t visit any (yet). This one sounds particularly impressive. 5,000 structures and only 10% of the site has been excavated! I would love to see what hides in the other 90% 🙂 Thank you for sharing this, it’s one place I’ll definitely consider visiting for my upcoming trip.

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