A visit to Belize takes you from jungle adventure to pristine white sand beaches along the bright Caribbean blue sea where explorers of all ages can play and learn. Nature in all its tropical glory is largely unspoiled on the mainland and smaller outer islands, such as Caye (pronounced ‘kē’) Caulker which is a prime location for diving and snorkeling along the Belize Barrier Reef system, the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere.
Tucked between the Caribbean Sea and the rainforest on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize is the home of a small and diverse nation. Formerly known as British Honduras, was the United Kingdom’s last colony on the North American mainland and still maintains strong ties with Britain. Thus, the official language of Belize is English, which helps to make your trip even more stress-free.
Coming from California, I took a red-eye flight and arrived a day before my sister, which gave me a day to relax before heading out to the rainforest area of Western Belize where we were to stay three nights in San Ignacio. At the top of our list was a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Caracol, followed by ziplining through the jungle canopy and cave exploration aka spelunking. All things considered – even the three-hour each way, bone-rattling drive on a washed-out dirt road – Caracol was still the highlight of the trip.
Tip: Tourism is a major source of income for the people of Belize and all hotels are able to book tours for you. With their knowledge of local guides, I recommend making tour arrangements through your hotel. We stayed at the modest Midas Belize, made our reservation for a Caracol tour the night before, and felt like we totally lucked out in getting Selwyn, a Yucatan Mayan raised in the jungle and calls himself a naturalist; we can not disagree, he was extremely knowledgeable about plant life, history of the Mayans, and Belize as a developing nation.
Caracol is huge. In fact, it is the largest Mayan site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Mayan world. The core area alone is 15 square miles and once supported a population of more than 120,000 people. The ruins are still being excavated and much of the area remains uncleared. Unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum, the better known Mayan ruins of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula where climbing is banned, climbing is permitted at Caracol.
Caracol’s central core consists of three plaza groups surrounding a central acropolis and two ball courts, along with a number of smaller structures. The complex covers 30-square miles of thick, high-canopy jungle, and includes five plazas, an astronomic observatory and over 35,000 buildings which have been identified.
The Caracol Archaeological Project of archaeological excavations and restorations started in 1985 and is ongoing; students from UNLV are currently living on site.
The main pyramid at Caracol is called Caana or “Sky Palace.” At 136 feet high it is the tallest Mayan building in Belize and the tallest man-made structure in the country. Caana contains four palaces and three temples.
More than 100 tombs have also been found, as well as a rich array of hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Detail of carvings signifying jaguar teeth.
Caracol is noted not only for its size during the Maya Classic era (A.D. 250-950), but also for its prowess in war; this includes an AD 562 defeat of Tikal (Guatemala) and a subsequent conquest of Naranjo (Guatemala) in AD 631. (Source: Caracol Archaeological Project)
Many hieroglyphic texts have been found on stelae, altars, ball-court-markers, capstones and wall facades. The discovery of an elaborately carved ball-court-marker dating back to the end of the early Classic Period has been interpreted as Caracol claiming a military victory over Tikal, located more then 60 miles away in Guatemala.
We spent a good two hours exploring the ruins and listening to all that our guide had to tell us about the Mayan culture and discoveries excavated from this former grand empire.
Windows to the heavens.
Selwyn pointed out reservoir systems, roads, altar carvings that indicated warriors and gods, and much more. I highly recommend hiring a guide even though there is a Visitors Center, opened in 1998, exhibiting a number of photographs and diagrams of the site, along with artifacts, including a recovered ceremonial altar.
I was fascinated by the root system of the sacred Mayan Ceiba tree – one of the most important elements of ancient Maya sacred flora and medicinal plants. The branches of these majestic trees reach to the heavens and the roots are believed to stretch into the underworld.
Ancient Mayan reservoir still collecting water.
After several hours, we returned to the Visitors Center area where there are restrooms and covered picnic areas. Our most excellent guide, Selwyn, wins again by bringing a traditional lunch (included in the tour) prepared by a local Belizian widow. And, rum punch, which we soon discovered is the refreshment that comes with every all-day outing.
Our tour of Caracol ended with a visit to Rio Frio Cave in the Mountain Pine Ridge area and a stop at the Río-On Pools for a refreshing dip in cool waters cascading down among huge boulders.
Well-maintained steps and stepping stones lead visitors into the impressive entrance to the large chamber with huge stalactites hanging from the cathedral-like vaulted ceiling and a pool of water surrounded by fine white sand. With 70 ft. high arches on two sides beckoning you to venture within, this is an easy cave to access for first-time cave explorers, seniors, kids, and those less athletically inclined.
I hope you’ll circle back to see the breathtaking beauty of Caye Caulker, ziplining in the jungle and a reggae snorkel cruise to the Belize Barrier Reef.
If Belize is on your bucket list, pin this image to remember that a visit to the incredible Caracol Mayan ruins is a must-see!