Caracol is an ancient Maya archaeological site – it once housed a population of about 150,000, more than twice that of Belize’s modern day capital.
History of Caracol
Caracol was at its prime between c. 500BC and 950AD – it flourished into a large, sophisticated Maya city. With no natural water source in the jungle, engineers had to dig artificial reservoirs and agricultural terraces were used to grow enough food to feed the city’s ever-growing population. Archaeologists estimate it would have stretched over 70 square miles at its height. Only a small fraction of this has been excavated today.
Tikal (75km north west) and Caracol were closely linked, both super powers in this region. Initially Tikal was more powerful, but by around 600AD, the balance of power had shifted: structures built after this period at Tikal seem to be heavily influenced by Caracol’s style. ‘Caana’ is Belize’s tallest structure at 43m tall, and is part of the section of the site open to visitors today.
Extensive stelae were recovered from Caracol, meaning we have a detailed account of parts of the city’s history. After a boom in the 7th and 8th centuries, Caracol became increasingly stratified in terms of class. Whilst it seems to have survived the initial period of Maya collapse, it seems the city was largely abandoned by 900AD, with the last structure being fully deserted in around 1050AD.
Caracol was rediscovered in 1937 by a native logger, but big excavations were only really undertaken in the 1950s.
Deep in the jungle, Caracol doesn’t have much in the way of tourist infrastructure beyond toilets, a ticket office and small shop and picnic tables. Bring anything you might want (food, drink, suncream and insect repellent) with you. Unlike sites like Tikal, camping and overnight stays are not permitted at Caracol, meaning the trip has to be done in one day. That’s not necessarily an issue, but worth bearing in mind. The site is open 8am – 4pm daily.
The visitor centre and museum house some useful information, including a scale model of the site and some of the finds made during excavations at Caracol. The surrounding jungle is also worth exploring if you get the chance: the bird-watching is phenomenal. Guides really come into their own on this side of things, so if you do hire one, make the most of their knowledge.
Getting to Caracol
Caracol is located deep in the Belize jungle, close to the western border with Guatemala. The nearest major town is San Ignacio, which most people use as a start point: it takes about 2 hours to drive to Caracol from here, and there are plenty of organised tours leaving daily. It’s possible to drive yourself, although go with at least one spare tyre and a healthy sense of adventure: the roads can be terrible. Note there are no public buses that run anywhere near Caracol.