So after spending the night in San Ignacio Town, Albert met me at the hotel at 7:00 a.m. for the drive to Caracol, last of the Mayan ruin sites I would be visiting. After the Caracol, we would be heading to the Chiquibul National Forest where we would be doing some hiking, wild life viewing and exploring a Mayan cave. We were going to spend the night at Las Cuevas Research Center before driving back to Table Rock Jungle Lodge where I was going to be spending the last few days …. doing absolutely nothing.
But before we left San Ignacio Town, we stopped by a little shanty for some breakfast. I had a fabulous egg and sausage burrito, but the conversation turned out to be just as good. The folks gathered were talking about politics and how much they hated their government. HAH! Could have been anywhere U.S.A. And these folks were passionate as in loud loud loud. You could have heard the “discussion” a block away. It was hilarious to watch.
Anyway, after the delicious breakfast and “entertainment”, we began the 2 ½ hour drive to Caracol (which means snail and is so named for all the snail shells at the site). Now Caracol was actually only 60 km away from San Ignacio Town, but the road is absolutely horrendous. Hence the unusual amount of time to drive a rather short distance.
The first part of the drive took us through Christo Rey village where we stopped to pick up Elroy a ranger who would be accompanying us on the hikes through the jungle at Chiquibul National Forest for safety reasons. He turned out to be a wealth of information and a really good guy.
Anyway, after Christo Re we passed the entrance to Table Rock Jungle Lodge and we continued on through San Antonio (a small village) where the pavement ended and the road became all gavel. Now Albert had warned me about he drive, and it was no exaggeration. The road was filled with potholes, crevices, and cuts in the road and at times I thought my head was going to hit the ceiling. As Albert noted, free massage!
Now not long after passing through San Antonio, we entered the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, which is home to the only pine tree forest in Belize. Sadly, the southern bark beetle devastated the region killing upwards of 70% of the pine trees. And the destruction was apparent immediately on entering the forest. Large swaths of barren land were everywhere. Fortunately, however, the weather here permits things to grow pretty quickly so there were already signs of the forest regenerating itself with little pine trees springing up to fill the areas destroyed by the beetle.
As we continued on, the road grew more narrow and the bumps more severe. Eventually, we reached the Macel River, which is the dividing line between the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and the Chiquibul National Park aka the jungle. We crossed the little bridge and entered into the Chiquibul.
Once we entered the park, it was only another 30 minutes or so and we reached the entrance to Caracol. Now Carocol is a lesser visited site due to the time it takes to reach the ruins, but there were still a dozen or so people at the site when we arrived.
Carocol, like all sites in Belize, is still being excavated, but the site contains the highest temple in Belize at 153 feet. Carocol was continuously inhabited by the Mayans from 650 B.C. to the 10th century when the Mayans began to abandon Carocol. Carocol is significant because it conquered the city of Tikal in 562 A.D. (which began its downfall) and defeated Naranjo (Guatemala) in 631 AD.
The area of Caracol is huge at approximately 200 square km and at one time had a population of over 100,000 people. The remains that have been excavated to date include Caana (meaning sky palace), the main pyramid at Caracol, which houses 4 palaces and 3 temples and remains the tallest excavated Mayan structure in Belize, with a height of approximately 141 feet (although I have seen information that states it is anywhere from 130 to 153 feet). Caana was actually a latecomer to the Mayan party having only been constructed in the mid 7th century A.D.
Along with Caana, structures that have been excavated at Caracol include two ball courts, reservoirs, causeways, an astronomic observatory, and the south Acropolis. In addition, a myriad of stelae, tombs, relics and alters have been uncovered. There is also a newly built visitors museum that houses a number of stelae and alters.
So once we parked the car, Albert and I grabbed some water and set off towards the ruins. Now everyone else at the site was using the main road to access the site. However, Albert suggested we take a side path though the jungle to reach the site. It turned out to be a great suggestion. We saw a squirrel in a tree, found a snail shell, saw two mammoth ceiba trees and … howler monkeys. Of course folks at the site probably heard the howler monkeys, but we were actually able to see the family of howlers in the trees above.
We immediately walked around trying to get a good angle to take a picture of the howlers. And of course just as I was about to take a picture, the largest howler jumped to another tree making it impossible to take a picture. But wait. Just as I as about to give up, I spotted another howler on a branch just kind of hanging out not moving. I aimed my camera and … good picture but the damn monkey decided to pee just as I was taking the picture so now I have a picture of a howler with his balls hanging out and a howler peeing. Beautiful.
We stood and watched (and listened) to the howlers for about ten minutes, before Albert and I moved on to the main part of the Caracol ruins that have been excavated: three temples, including Caana, in what was once a massive plaza.
The first temple had mask murals flanking the staircase. The center column of the masks included depictions of the underworld topped by a jaguar and then topped by a king. On the left side of the column there was a dwarf serving his master, the king. And while you have to look for a bit to pick it all out, it is most definitively there.
So after visiting the first temple we crossed what was the former plaza to reach Caana, the tallest temple in Belize. Unfortunately, this temple did not have a wooden staircase so in order to climb to the top, we were going to have to climb the stone steps, which are not evenly spaced and can result in some massive spaces between stones.
Anyway, I took the leap and started the climb. I stopped at the first terrace and looked at the next set of stairs that were much narrower and with a much deeper pitch. Ugh. But onward I went. When Albert and I reached the next terrace, we took a walk around to see the various living quarters in the palaces that were at one time occupied by the rulers of Caracol. The palace rooms were originally coated with white stucco and decorated with red paint, and some walls still had a faint red tinge. We also took a walk around the back side of the temple where the portion of Caana that has not yet been excavated was visible.
Now the most fascinating part of the walk was the mural that was built into the side of the staircase that was leading to the top of the temple. And the sad part is that all of the other tourists at the site were oblivious to this little nugget. Instead, the tourists and their guides simply hiked the multi-level stairs to the top, took some pictures, admired the view and walked back down. So sad because the mural was a match to a portion of the mask mural on the temple on the opposite side of the plaza and also included hieroglyphics. A real treasure.
So once we had checked out the palaces and the mural, we took the final hike to the top of the temple for a glorious 360 degree view of the site and the Guatemala mountains. Really spectacular. We then made our way (gingerly) down the enormous staircase, walked across the plaza, passed ball court number 1 and over to the observatory.
This area was also huge and included three separate excavated buildings. Here, I climbed yet another staircase to the interior of one of the observatory buildings. And the cool thing about this place was that it contained original wood beams dating to 700 A.D. Wowza. And one more cool thing, Albert had been part of the reconstruction team in the 90s. How cool is that?!
Anyway, we then crossed through the second ball court past one of many replica stelae on the site over to the south Acropolis. Along the way we passed a reservoir and pond where the Mayans used to collect rain water. (Like Tikal, this city’s source of water came from the heavens.)
The south Acropolis was particularly interesting because there were two open doorways that led to tombs for what was believed to be royal rulers of the site. Now there was nothing much to see, of course, and the doorway was so low I could not fit through, but it was nevertheless, an interesting variation on what I had seen to date.
So with the site behind us, Albert and I began the walk back to the entrance. And of course, the trip could not end without one more series of howls from the howler monkeys as well as a new sighting of a mother and baby howler monkey in a different set of trees. (I took a couple pictures, but the lighting was all bad.)
We also ran into Madeline, an archeologist who Albert had worked with in the 90s. Madeline was as tiny as they come and looked like she should have been retired, but damn here she was working in the heat to better understand the Mayans of Caracol. Good for her!
Anyway, once back at the entrance, Albert, Elroy and I sat down to a picnic lunch of cooked plantains, rice and barbecued chicken. There was also a banana for desert and a bag of dried plantains to munch on.
After lunch, Albert and I took a quick look in the museum, which also appeared to be bypassed by the others. Again, big mistake. The museum contained a wonderful display of original stelae and alters depicting kings, prisoners and points in history of Caracol. It was a perfect way to end the tour.
Albert and I then joined Elroy for the hour long drive to Chiquibul National Forest and our overnight stay at Las Cuevas Research Center.