Caracol, Mayan city

(continuer en français) – Last updated: December 20, 2022

Only rediscovered in 1937, the Mayan city of Caracol remains isolated in a vast uninhabited forest in Belize. The site was occupied for more than two millennia, often in rivalry with Tikal only 45 miles, 70 kilometres, away. The brief period of regional supremacy made it a major city of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The site is accessible from San Ignacio, by a winding 25-mile, 40-kilometre, road only a quarter of which is paved. It is reached by a convoy of cars under army supervision for security reasons, as the Guatemalan border is porous to smugglers and is nearby. Only four-wheel drive vehicles can cross the most rugged section.

This tortuous route is said to be the origin of the site’s modern name, caracol meaning snail in Spanish. The Mayan name was Uxwitza, less convenient to remember.

Close to the meeting point, it is possible to visit a cave crossed by the Rio Frio, so it is recommended to leave early enough to have enough time. On the way to the archaeological site, the convoy usually stops at the bridge crossing the Macal River where crocodiles can be seen.

On arrival at the site, a basic visitor centre displays some of the artefacts found in the archaeological excavations, as well as a model of the central part of the city with the main temples and palaces. Preliminary surveys in the forest have identified an integrated area of about 77 square miles, 200 square kilometres, spanned by numerous sacbeob, stone paths, possibly elevated in wetlands.

The visit to Caracol passes mainly through three complexes of different periods, Group B, Group A and the South Acropolis.

Group B

This is the most impressive complex in Caracol, the one that served as the centre of power during the heyday. The Caana temple dominates the entire site, considered the highest Mayan structure left in Belize at 141 feet, 43 metres.

Its upper terrace seemed to serve as the living quarters of the rulers, with a compound of 71 rooms. Three smaller pyramids enclose the terrace.

Opposite the Caana temple, on the other side of the esplanade, a more modest temple still has a sculpted decoration at its foot. It is necessary to imagine the whole of the surfaces thus decorated to represent what these temples could have looked like in their heyday.

Nearby is the traditional ballgame as found throughout the Maya world. Some parasitic trees have been left on the court, reminding us of the invasion of vegetation during long centuries of neglect.

Group A

This group includes older constructions combining temples and royal residence. This part was reoccupied and probably restructured in the last period of Caracol’s occupation. Its external aspect looks like a fortress with a high stone wall.

This leads to an elevated square surrounded by temples, including a pyramid temple barely free of its vegetal cover, which dominates this complex.

A ballgame attached to this group was also identified and cleared.

More than twenty stelae and as many sculpted altars have been discovered throughout the site. Although their appearance remains austere for the majority of people, their deciphering allows specialists to learn more about a civilisation of which little is still known. The consecration of these monuments coincided with an important event for the community, such as the advent of a new ruler or the celebration of a military victory. Their overturning and eventual reuse can say just as much.

South Acropolis

Smaller in size and probably of earlier initial design, these buildings nevertheless remained in use at a time when other parts of the city served as the main centre. Typically they are arranged around a square and composed of narrow rooms due to the limitations of the corbelled vaults. The stone benches served as a bed, a seat or a table, designating a domestic space.

An army squad is permanently stationed at the site, this presence is necessary due to the illegal incursions of looters from neighbouring Guatemala.

Every year new excavation campaigns are undertaken. Because of the distance from the nearest town, archaeologists would live in huts that look like those of the Maya of the past

On the way back, a stop is often made at Rio On. A small reservoir preceding a waterfall even allows for a swim. It is a moment appreciated to refresh after the exploration of the site in the tropical forest.

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Caracol, Mayan city

Only rediscovered in 1937, the Mayan city of Caracol remains isolated in a vast uninhabited forest in Belize. The site was occupied for more than two millennia, often in rivalry with Tikal only 45 miles, 70 kilometres, away.

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    • It is certainly a completely different experience, everyone can go at their own pace and according to their interest without being disturbed by the presence of other visitors. Lost in this vast forest, the site is likely to attract bad people, the presence of the army is certainly a necessary deterrent.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I was planning on visiting Belize last year towards the end of April, but we had to postpone our trip due to the pandemic. The ancient ruins are quite impressive. I can’t believe that new excavation campaigns are undertaken every year. Makes you wonder what is still left to be discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Incredible post, Lookoom. It pains me to know I was in San Ignacio in 2009 but didn’t get to Caracol. (We visited Tikal.) What an excursion with the supervision, armed guards and refreshing swim at the end of the day! In one of your photos it looks like a hole in the stone floor or is it water? Amazing post. Thanks for taking us there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hole in the ground was at the top of the pyramid to show that there were several levels of chambers. If I had to choose between Tikal and Caracol, I think that what remains of Tikal is much more impressive even if it lacks the charm of the relative newness of Caracol.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We are very lucky to be able to visit this kind of place, as a connection to the past, even if we have to use our imagination to complete the picture. Thanks for reading.


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