One of my favorite day trips from San Ignacio was to the Mayan ruins of Caracol, an archaeological site located in the Cayo District of Belize.
Caracol means “snail shell,” which represents the access road to the area. Yes, it was exactly what it sounds like – nearly 3 hours of unpaved (save for the last 10 miles), twisty roads in a bus that was big enough for all 18 of us.
Dramamine was voted MVP.
The great thing about Caracol is not only the size of the city or the immensity of the monuments, but the fact that you can still climb them and explore the area yourself! It’s pretty mind-blowing to me that I climbed the tallest structure in Caracol (called Caana, which means Sky Palace). It’s one of the many places where Mayans lived and participated in daily life! Side note: Caana actually remains one of the tallest man-made structures in Belize.
Most of the time, great tourist sites like these are open to viewing, but certainly not for walking or climbing. This is generally due to the – what’s a nice word for stupidity? – of tourists and a distinct lack of respect for history (or the lack of awareness for safety procedures). For example, you can’t climb the ruins at Chichen Itza in Mexico, and you haven’t been able to since at least 2005 when we were there.
Anyway, Caracol was spectacular and we climbed several of the stone monuments (we’re talking hundreds of steps per monument), went into dark rooms where possible burial rituals occurred, and hiked around the site where large, grassy hills are hiding even more monuments still undiscovered.
Here’s a brief rundown of the history of Caracol. Some of this I remembered from our tour, and some of it is Internet research.
The site was rediscovered in 1937 by a logger who was actually searching for mahogany hardwood trees. Once reported to the government, explorations and excavations began in which tons of stone monuments were found and documented. Since 1985, the Caracol Archaeological Project has been directed by the University of Central Florida (yeah, Florida!) and every year, new batches of students and professors make their way to the ruins for assessments and research.
One of the largest ancient Maya cities, Caraol was home to more than 100,000 Mayans, with nearly 267 structures per square kilometer, covering about 200 square kilometers. It was occupied as early as 1200 BC, and lasted 2,200 more years. As with any city that begins to overpopulate, problems arise including a shortage of food, water, and other important resources, and the Mayan population eventually began to fade. The last structure abandoned at Caracol was in AD 1050, marking the end of the city.
The tour was spectacular, with really knowledgeable guides and a great driver to the site. Yes, this is important because of a certain situation that arose as we were leaving Caracol. Apparently, when it rains here, the rivers flood. As in the water rises over the concrete bridge structures and essentially strand any small car until the rivers calm down again. Not with our group! We were driving a bus, first of all, and since the current of the river going over the bridge wasn’t terrible (our guide got out and walked across to make sure he didn’t get swept away first), we decided to go for it.
We did make it across safely, only to be followed by about an hour of fishtailing down the mountain, but it was certainly an adventure!