Home / Featured Destinations / Welcome to Caracol: the largest known Mayan Ruin in Belize
View from atop Caracol
View from atop Caracol (Photo Credit: www.wikipedia.org, by Pgbk87 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Welcome to Caracol: the largest known Mayan Ruin in Belize

The visitors from countries far to the north had been driving for nearly two hours when they finally arrived at the ruins of the largest city to have ever been built within the modern boundaries of Belize; Caracol. Coming from San Ignacio, close to the Guatemalan border, their driver skillfully handled the roads that winded through the Mountain Pine Ridge area. As they twisted and turned their way through the low mountains cloaked in fragrant pine forests, their driver mentioned how these roads reminded him of the name of their destination; Caracol. He wasn’t thinking of Caracol because of the possible Mayan ruins and pyramids awaiting discovery along their route. No, he couldn’t help but think of the word “caracol” because this word meaning “snail” was what popped into mind when he looked at the speedometer that showed a velocity far too slow for his liking. Although their speed couldn’t be helped with the winding roads, at least the scenery of mountains forested with pine trees kept their spirits high along with the knowledge that soon, they would arrive at Caracol, the ruins of one of the most important cities of the Mayan civilization.

View from atop Caracol
View from atop Caracol (Photo Credit: www.wikipedia.org, by Pgbk87 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Upon arrival to Caracol, the tourists left the air-conditioned van for the warm, humid air of the Maya Mountain foothills and took in their surroundings. Tropical rain forest had replaced the pines they had driven through while the innumerable rocky structures of Caracol beckoned from clearings and the deep shade of immense trees. One tree, in particular, a Ceiba or Silk Cotton Tree, was so incredibly huge that it seemed to be the natural counterpart to the shockingly massive pyramid straight ahead. There was so much to take in at amazing Caracol that hardly anyone talked as they made their way to the pyramid. Perhaps even more inspiring than the sheer size of Caracol was the fact that it was entirely deserted except for tourists like themselves, the guides who were showing the city of their ancestors, and the archeologists who were methodically revealing Caracol bit by bit. With brushes and fine tools, they worked carefully and diligently to bring back to life the works of the artists, engineers, and builders who crafted Caracol.

Climbing the main pyramid, the visitors couldn’t help but imagine the ancient Mayans who had climbed those same steps and the thousands of people who had lived out their lives in the city of Caracol. As they reached the top, the breathtaking, memorable view of the surrounding rain forests stretching for as far as their eyes could see in all directions also showed the new denizens of Caracol. In the canopy of the rain forest, howler monkeys filled the area with their loud, guttural sounds, a toucan flipped its beak into the air as it called from the immense Ceiba tree, and parrots squawked as they zipped by on fast wings. Aside from other tourists who had made the 140-foot climb up the big, pyramid steps, the only people to frequent modern day  Caracol were other tourists wandering on the ground far below as they contemplated the various ruins and archeologists who carefully labored among those old, weathered rocks to reveal the secrets of Caracol.

Caracol Main Temple Caana
Caracol Main Temple Caana ( Credit: Jym Dyer via www.flickr.com)

Description of Caracol

Arriving by road from Georgeville, one of the first structures seen at Caracol is also the largest and most impressive; the main pyramid known as the Caana temple. Over 130 feet (40 meters) high, this building from another time is still one of the tallest human-made structures in Belize. In the northern sector of Caracol, the large steps of Caana (translated as “sky place”) can be climbed for a bird’s eye view into the canopy of the nearby rain forest. This pyramid actually has three smaller pyramids on its summit. Probably the most important building for the city and culture Caracol, excavations at the Caana temple have come up with a wealth of artifacts, including a tomb of an unknown person of high importance to Caracol who may have been a woman (the remains were too decomposed to distinguish sex). Caracol royalty may have occupied rooms at the top of the pyramid.

Mayan art on Caana
Mayan art on Caana ( Credit: Carsten ten Brink via www.flickr.com)

Near the parking area of Caracol, just west of the main plaza, is a shelter for visitors and former living quarters for archeologists. Trails that head south from this spot leads to large burial tombs, various other structures, and one of the reservoirs of Caracol. These reservoirs were of vital importance to city inhabitants and were also key to the growth of Caracol as a city. Still functional at present times, they provided a constant supply of water to a site that lacked rivers and available ground water.

Heading back towards the main plaza, there is ball court where important Mayan ball games were played Caracol. Taking their sport to the extreme, it was considered to be such a holy endeavor that losers tended to get sacrificed. Also in the area of the ball court is an important alter or marker that commemorates the defeat of Tikal that spurred growth in Caracol and its rise as a regional power. North of the ball court is more structures, some with a few of the inscribed  stelae that have told us so much about the lost city of Caracol.

Burial tombs and various chambers are found in these large structures, one of which is more than fifty feet tall. One of the chambers is partly made of wood and was used as an astronomical observatory (and thus may have played a part in the successful “star war” against Tikal).  “Alter 23” is also found among this group of structures. This structure is especially important because it has one of the best-preserved stone carvings at   Caracol. The carving commemorates the capture of two Mayan lords from cities in Guatemala and does this by showing both of them as prisoners bound hand and foot.

South of the Caana Temple, near the entrance road, is another prominent group of structures at Caracol. Climbing these can provide good views of the three pyramids at the summit of the Caana Temple. The Caana Temple is so large that these three pyramids are not visible from the ground. Southeast of these structures is the other reservoir, and east is the entrance road and restrooms.

View from Top of Caana
View from Top of Caana ( Credit: Matt Champlin via www.flickr.com)

Activities at Caracol: causeways and rain forests

In addition to exploring the main, excavated ruins of Caracol (best done with a guide), another interesting activity is walking the stone roads or causeways at the site. Caracol apparently has several kilometers of these thoroughfares that acted as roads that extended out from the central part of the city. Few have actually been uncovered compared to the extent of causeways present in the area but the ones that can be walked offer a unique perspective into Caracol life where visitors can literally stroll in the footsteps of past city dwellers. Although hikers have to watch their steps on these old roads because they aren’t as good as they used to be, they have stood up quite well to the elements considering that they were left to be taken over by the jungle for hundreds of years. In addition to imagining coming from a Mayan ceremony held at the Caana Temple, visitors can also imagine that they are walking past their Mayan neighbors that live near the causeways of Caracol. A strong imagination they will need because unlike the stone roads, nothing remains of the thatch structures that were the typical houses of Caracol’s inhabitants. The rain forest has taken over where a thriving community once lived.

Caracol Rain Forest
Caracol Rain Forest

The rain forest at Caracol is part of a larger forested area known as the Chiquibul Forest which is in turn part of the Maya Mountain forests. As much of the Maya Mountains are covered in rain forest with little disturbance, the jade green jungle of Caracol is wild and filled with animals. This not only makes for good wildlife observation but also increases the chances of getting dangerously lost for visitors who venture off the trails (another good reason to go with a guide). Some of the best birding at Caracol is done from the top of the Caana Temple. From this high vantage point, canopy-loving birds such as toucans, parrots, tanagers, orioles, and much more are easily seen as are monkeys, sloths, and Green Iguanas. Venturing into the forest along a causeway or trail at Caracol gives the visitor a better chance at seeing some of the shyer forest creatures such as Agoutis, Brocket Deer, Coatis, cat species, or even a Tapir!

History of Caracol

Ma yan peoples inhabited Caracol and nearby areas since at least 1200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. For several hundred years after people settled the area, Caracol played little importance during Mayan history and was a vassal of the largest Mayan city at that time, Tikal. Somewhat of a backwater compared to the main cities in the Yucatan Peninsula and Palenque in modern-day Chiapas,   Caracol was probably a small town with few structures before the classical period. Precisely because of the absence of a large number of structures built before this era (300 A.D to 900 A.D), little is known about the early inhabitants of Caracol because of a lack of inscriptions that detail the history of that time. Before the classical period, the population of Caracol was probably low due to the difficulty in accessing a permanent water supply. People around Caracol likely survived by hunting and gathering from the forest as well as by cultivating crops that were (and still are) important and common to the region such as beans and corn.

During the classical period, like most other Mayan sites, Caracol slowly grew into a city and rose in importance to become a rival of Tikal. Like so many similar cases throughout history, the fruits of this rivalry culminated in wars between Tikal and Caracol during the late sixth century A.D. The first major war occurred when Caracol became an ally of Calakmul, an enemy of Tikal. The infuriated leaders of Tikal must have regarded this as high treason because of the type of war they declared; “an axe war” indicating that their intent was not to subjugate Caracol and bring the city back under their authoritative rule but to actually destroy the place. Although Tikal won this war against Caracol and probably sacrificed some important Caracol folks, the aim of their “axe war” failed as the city was far from destroyed and some of its important leaders were alive, well, and ready for revenge. Six years later (562 A.D.), the Lord Kan of Caracol, along with their Calakmul allies, declared war upon Tikal. Instead of an “axe war”, though, they fought a “star war” based on astrological predictions. This apparently worked better than the “axe war” tactic as they succeeded in defeating Tikal and captured “Double Bird”, the city’s leader. Whether it was part of the “star war” pact made with the Gods or to satisfy a healthy appetite for revenge, Double Bird was sacrificed on the high altar at Caracol.

Arial View of Chiquibul Forest
Arial View of Chiquibul Forest ( Credit: beder_98 via www.flickr.com)

The sound defeat of Tikal resulted in the decline of that city, and the rise of Caracol. This golden era of Caracol lasted for around one hundred and twenty years and was the period when most of the 30,000 plus structures were built (probably funded by the tribute from conquered Tikal and elsewhere). Artifacts demonstrate further evidence that Tikal was fully conquered by   Caracol and archeological finds from the time of the “star war” more resembling the culture of Caracol than that of Tikal. The new hub of power in the eastern Peten and Maya Mountains area, Caracol quickly grew to cover a large area and may have supported a population of 150,000; more than half of the population of all of the modern day Belize. Although the full size of Caracol has yet to be determined since dense rain forest hides much of the complex, it may have had had an area of thirty-four square miles. Possibly having learned from the huge benefits gained from winning a war with a powerful, rich neighbor combined with a desire for further expansion that required more resources, the leaders of  Caracol carried out military campaigns against the nearby Mayan city state of  Naranjo. Located in modern day Guatemala, Naranjo was beat several times until Caracol was itself finally defeated in 690 A.D. This spelled the end of the golden era for Caracol although it continued to be a large, important Mayan city until the end of the classical period around 900 A.D. Like many other Mayan cities at that time, Caracol rapidly declined and was abandoned by 1200 A.D. A constant subject of discussion, argumentation, and speculation by historians and archeologists, the full reasons for the decline of the Mayan civilization are unknown. Nevertheless, the most accepted theories point to a decline in natural resources, droughts, and warfare that destabilized the structure of Mayan civilization on a large-scale basis.

Scarlet Macaws
Scarlet Macaws at Chiquibul Forest ( Credit: Adam Lewis via www.flickr.com)

From 1200 A.D. to 1937, the rain forests of the Maya Mountains slowly took over and concealed the city of Caracol. Forgotten to history, Caracol was rediscovered by Rosa Mai, a logger, and rubber-tree tapper, when he stumbled across the ruins while searching for wild rubber trees in 1937. The following year, the commissioner of archaeology for Belize gave the site its modern name of   Caracol. Although some say that Caracol was named after the resemblance of a snail’s shell to the winding road leading up to the ruins of the city, it was most likely given the name of Caracol because of a large number of land snails found at the site by the commissioner. The thousands of people that lived played, and died in  Caracol throughout its long history would never have guessed that the city they probably knew as “the place of three hills” would end up being renamed after a land mollusk known for its lack of speed.

As excavation slowly started at Caracol during the 1950s, it was at first thought to be a site of minor importance. Although interesting stelae with many inscriptions were found, it wasn’t until extensive excavations led by Arlen and Diane Chase began to reveal the true nature of Caracol. Their work at Caracol (which is ongoing and far from complete) has provided the modern world with lots of knowledge about classical Mayan culture in Belize and the   Peten, Guatemala. Almost everything known about the history of Caracol comes from their findings, especially translations of a large number of inscribed stelae at Caracol that detail important occurrences in the history of this city. Teams of archaeologists can sometimes still be seen as they excavate and uncover Caracol for the modern world.

Directions and Transportation to Caracol

Situated in the Cayo District in western Belize, Caracol is about a two-hour drive south from San Ignacio.  Caracol can only be reached by car or truck (best to have four-wheel drive) and is easy to find because of the many signs to the site. From San Ignacio, take the western highway to Georgeville and then head south on the Chiquibul or Pine Ridge Road. From there, signs will lead to Caracol.  For those without a car, there are plenty of day tours to Caracol offered from San Ignacio.

Accommodation near Caracol

No accommodation is available at Caracol. The closest lodging is at comfortable, expensive lodges in the Pine Ridge Mountain such as the Hidden Valley Inn, Blancaneaux Lodge, Pine Valley Inn, and Five Sisters Lodge.

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