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