To get to the Caracol archaeological site in Belize, the largest Mayan archaeological site in the country, you have to drive through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve over a mostly decent dirt road. Then you keep driving–out of the reserve and into Chiquibul National Park (tours depart from and return to San Ignacio or the lodges in the Mountain Pine Ridge area).
But not before picking up a military escort. Because the Caracol archaeological site is so close to the border with Guatemala the area has seen some illegal border crossings with Guatemalans sneaking into Belize to find work or to harvest things from the still-pristine jungle in the parkland on the Belize side of the border–including a palm frond called xate that’s used by international floral companies.
Guatemalans and Belizean officials have had violent clashes in this border area, so now all tourists who want to visit Caracol are required to arrive at a nearby military check point by 9 am and then convoy up into a line of vehicles lead by a military escort to the site itself. It’s dramatic and sort of a pain in the neck, but once at the Caracol site you are free to explore on your own. After touring the site, a few of us left in our own un-escorted convoy for the return trip.
Caracol has been dated to the Maya Classic period and at it’s peak it was one of the largest Mayan cities with more than 140,000 inhabitants. The site is currently being excavated and studied by Dr. Arlen Chase and Dr. Diane Chase.
Caracol is not a huge site, but what’s excavated is spectacular. The main temple, Caana (which means sky place) is 141 feet high making it the tallest building in Belize even today.
If you’re interested in doing more than just gawking at the Caana temple, keep tabs on the progress of a new tour being put together by Ka’ana Resort & Spa in San Ignacio. When the details are all worked out, they hope to helicopter the well-heeled from their resort to Caracol where guests will get a guided tour of Caracol, then enjoy a gourmet dinner at the site followed by an overnight on top of the Caana temple in a real bed. After a gourmet breakfast, a helicopter takes guests back to the resort. It won’t be cheap, but it will be spectacular.
Check out the panoramic view of the jungle around the Caracol archaeological site in this video we shot from the top of the Caana temple.
On our way out of Caracol we made a short detour to check out the Rio Frio Cave. More of a tunnel or a tube, this petite and peaceful formation requires little more than a stroll from the parking area through the cave (along a path that does not require wading through the stream that runs through the cave) and back again. There were a few rudimentary camping areas near the mouth of the cave too.