Before arriving to Belize, there was no doubt about it, I had to visit Caracol. Caracol is the name given to an ancient Maya City located in the middle of the jungle within the limits of the Cayo District. Caracol is a Spanish word that means snail. There is no agreement on why the city was given that name. Some say it is because the many snails encountered in the area. Others believe the name was adopted because of the winding road that leads to the place.
Since I read about this place, I have been fascinated by it. Why? Because this is not an ordinary place. Let’s see why.
- This is the larger Mayan city located in Belize.
- In fact, it is way larger than the current capital of the country, Belize City.
- During its glory days, it supported more than twice the current population in Belize City.
- It holds the tallest structure in all the country. This means that a pyramid built by the Mayas is taller than any other structure built by the modern man.
That is not all. Going to this place is an adventure in itself. Even though the city is located 20 miles (about 40 kilometers) from the Cayo District’s main town (San Ignacio), it feels like a remote site forgotten by time. Most of the road leading to the ruins is unpaved. This makes the 20 miles trip last about 1.5 hours. Those 1.5 hours feel like an eternity when you are bumping and jumping all over.
The drive takes you first thru the Pine Ridge Reserve. As the name implies, the reserve is covered predominantly by pines. It is an area filled with sinkholes, caves and waterfalls. An ideal place to have a great adventure. At one point, the vegetation starts to change and becomes very dense. You realize that you have entered the jungle. Your final destination is closer.
Once you arrive to the entrance of the site (by the way, heavily guarded by the military), a walk thru the jungle and ruins starts.
The walk was different to what I have done before. First, your feet stepped over an old Mayan road leading to the city. Second, the fauna sightings were great. I saw toucans, monkeys, butterflies and all kind of insects. Third, well, this is really a wild place. Our guide told us not to get out of the trail for safety reasons. What can be dangerous in here (humans, remember those soldiers at the entrance)? The place is inhabited by different types of dangerous snakes. The guide told us a riddle (!) in order to persuade us from disobeying his instructions. “If a snake bites you”, he said, “you have 8 minutes to get an antidote to counteract the poison. Now, how long it took us to get here?”
The flora was also interesting. We saw multiple ceibas which were sacred trees for the Mayas. We also saw a tree known as the gringo tree. Its trunk has a flaky surface and reddish tone. Locals say it makes them think about those pale tourists who bake in the sun and then are suffering when their skin starts to peel off.
There is another plant whose leaves are used to make soap and paper. Many locals penetrate the jungle (with all its dangers) to search for this plant. Buyers can pay up to a dollar per leaf.
After walking around admiring nature, the first ruins began to appear. Some were small structures but the guide explained the role of each in supporting the big amount of people who used to live in this place.
Some of the small structures were seats (like bleachers) flanking a ball court. Mayas used to play a ball game which is believed to be similar to soccer. Some scholars say the game losers were sacrificed to the gods. Others say the game winners were the ones sacrificed because they played to have the honor of offering their lives. Two very interesting theories.
Bigger structures started to appear. We were overjoyed at that moment. The guide told us the best was still ahead.
Finally, we arrived at the main attraction. We were standing across from Caana, the tallest structure in the ancient city and in present day Belize. Take a look at the picture below. In my opinion, the picture doesn’t give you a good idea of the massiveness of this pyramid. For example, the temples of Tikal are tall and slender. When you take a look at their pictures, they do look tall. Caana is different. It is tall and thick (huge base). Therefore, in photos, the thickness tends to fool you impression of the tallness.
The climb to the top is kind of hard (too many steps). At one moment, you think you have made it. The reality is that there is still more to climb over the big base (like another pyramid over the main base).