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Caracol, Belize’s ancient jungle metropolis, is worth the effort 

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore one of Central America’s largest ancient cities, the spectacular Caracol.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Ceremonial temples atop the Sky Palace or Caana pyramid in Caracol, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Caracol is a large ancient Mayan city located in Belize’s Cayo District and just a few kilometers from the Guatemalan border. Covering roughly 200 square kilometers, Caracol is not only the largest archaeological site in all of Belize, but it actually covers an area twice as large as Belize’s largest city, Belize City. 

The jungle surrounding Caracol is truly beautiful and teeming with countless species of birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Conservative population estimates calculate that Caracol had a population of approximately 100,000  — which would also make it larger than Belize City in terms of population. Some researchers have suggested that Caracol may have in reality supported a population as large as 200,000. But these sorts of claims should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, as calculating population size based on construction density and the volume of discovered pottery fragments is far from an exact science.

Large multi-purpose complex in Caracol which was likely the home to several of the cities highest-ranking families. Photo: Carlos Rosado vander Gracht

Caracol was first documented by archaeologist A.H. Anderson in 1937, but large-scale excavations did not begin until the 1950s. During excavations directed by Paul Healy of Trent University the true size of Caracol’s size and scope began to come into focus. During the first decade of the 21st century, Caracol was surveyed using LiDAR technology and finally settled the question of Caracol’s immense size. During this time excavations began in the Northeast Acropolis and the Culebras residential complex.

Though much of Caracol has been restored, it is still possible to observe many large plazas and structures covered in vegetation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient name by which Caracol was known in antiquity has widely been reported to be Oxhuitzá. However, a closer examination of this word’s etymology does not seem to make too much sense, as there is no good evidence the Itzá people ever occupied the ancient metropolis. The city’s contemporary name comes from the Spanish word for snail or shell, but can also mean spiral — apparently in reference to the spiraling path that leads to the site. Most of what is known about Caracol comes from information extracted from the sites many stelae.

Stelae in Caracol are extremely abundant and several can be found sitting below tents on-site where they are studied and protected from the elements. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The foundation of the settlement which would eventually become the great city of Caracol dates back to the 7th century BCE. But recent evidence suggests that Maya peoples may have inhabited the areas since roughly 1200 BCE. By the 2nd century CE, Caracol had become one of the largest centers in Mesoamerica and boasted extensive roads to connect it with its most important trading partners. 

The year 331 CE saw the establishment of Caracol’s longest dynasty, the Te’ K’ab Chaak, which lasted well into the 9th century. Records of 15 kings from this dynasty survive to this day, with 11 being identified by name. 

Te’ K’ab Chaak Lord is represented on a carved stone altar in Caracol. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the 5th century CE, Caracol joined Calakmul in its first war against its former ally, the immensely powerful city of Tikal. However, despite coming out on top during the first couple wars of this centuries-long conflict, Tikal would eventually emerge victorious and reemerge as the most powerful player in the region. During this tremendous conflict, Caracol would also become embroiled in a prolonged proxy war against its sometimes ally, Naranajo. Lord Kan II eventually took Naranjo in 628 CE and captured its king whom he is said to have personally sacrificed.

The last couple centuries of the classical period were a time of great prosperity in Caracol and saw an immense boom in construction. But by the 9th century Caracol, and the entire region, were in clear decline. The last recorded date found in Caracol is 859 CE, found on Stele 10, making reference to the last of the Te’ K’ab Chaak lords.

Once a thriving city, Caracol is home base to a handful of archaeologists and caretakers, as well as the jungles diverse wildlife — including the magnificent Psarocolius Montezuma. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from several large pyramids and monumental structures, Caracol also has an extremely high concentration of tightly packed residential complexes — hinting at the ancient city’s large population. 

The largest and most impressive structure found at Caracol is the great Sky-Palace or Caana pyramid. This impressive pyramidal complex sits on the north side of Caracol’s largest ceremonial center and rises above a massive base, reaching a height of 43.5 meters or 140 feet. Standing proud for over a millennia and a half, the Caana pyramid is still to this day the tallest manmade structure in Belize, easily surpassing its nearest contemporary rival, the 94-foot Renaissance Tower in Belize City. 

The imposing Sky-Palace or Caana pyramid in Caracol, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At the top of the pyramid are three large temples set up in a triadic fashion, with the middle temple facing the plaza below.

View of the ceremonial center across from the Caana pyramid in Caracol, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This central temple known as Structure 19 features a broad central stairway adorned with two shrines on either side.

Within the temple is a tomb, suspected to belong to a royal Lady, likely Queen Lady Batz’ Ek. During excavations archaeologists found large amounts of jade objects including earrings and other pieces of jewelry, as well as ceramic vessels. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Facing Caana is another large pyramid, known as Structure B5. Though the base of the pyramid has been restored to a great degree, its upper sections have not received the same treatment. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Flanking Structure B5’s wide staircase it is possible to observe three massive stucco decorative masks.

 

Ornate stucco masks on Caracol’s Structure B5 hint at the stunning beauty of Caracol’s temples at its height. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At the center of Caracol’s largest ballcourt is a marker displaying the likely date of its completion, December 10, 799 CE or 9.18.9.5.9. of the Maya long count calendar.

The most recent iteration of a ceremonial complex built and rebuilt several times over the millennia. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Another of the site’s largest architectural complexes includes the Northeast, Northwest and Southern Acropolis. Large burial sites have been found within all three of these major areas, most of which were found complete with ritual objects.

View of structure in Caracol’s Southern Acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The E complex is made up of two large structures, A2 to the west and A6 running south. Structure A2 has a total of three stairways running up to its summit.

Structure A2 and A6 are arranged in a way similar to that of structures in Uaxactún. This configuration allows viewers on the western temple to observe the sunrise over the central temple structure during the equinox. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

IF YOU GO

There is no way really around it: getting to Caracol is complicated. Even if you have a 4×4 vehicle, driving to the site is highly discouraged as the terrain is extremely tough and crosses several creeks and even a few rivers of considerable size. Needless to say, the crossing is virtually impossible after heavy rains.

A map shows the location of Caracol in Central America. Image: Google Maps

There is no cellphone signal in the area, so if your vehicle were to stall, you would truly be in trouble. The surrounding jungle is gorgeous, but you certainly don’t want to be stuck in it. 

River and waterfalls on route to Caracol, Belize. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are no settlements in the area other than the archaeologists and maintenance workers camp and a British military base, keeping an eye on potential encroachments by Guatemala — with which Belize has a longstanding border dispute. 

Virtually everyone visiting Caracol begins their trip in the city of San Ignacio. There are a handful of tour companies offering to shuttle visitors back and forth to Caracol. These tours almost always run in caravans for safety. However, be advised that even if you have already paid for your trip in full, you may still not be able to leave on the scheduled date as weather conditions often get in the way. Make sure to discuss the terms of reimbursements and such before buying your package. 

Quiet early morning scene in San Ignacio Belize. Photo: Carlos rosado van der Gracht

The total distance from San Igancio to Caracol is only about 90 kilometers, but this trip takes several hours to complete. 

Interesting ramp, leading to the summit of a ceremonial platform in Caracol. I doubt I have ever seen anything quite like it and can only speculate regarding its reason for being.Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site does have bathrooms, but during my visit, they were not exactly in tip-top shape, if you catch my meaning. The entrance fee to the archaeological sites is 7.50 USD, which is really quite a great deal. But keep in mind that your total expenses, including the transportation, will likely come to around 200 USD. Still, easily worth the money.

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