A Journey Back In Time to the Ancient Maya Site of Caracol

by Larry Waight
caracol maya site Belize

The ancient Maya city of Caracol, meaning snail in Maya, is located in the Cayo District. That puts it some 25 miles south of San Ignacio, which is a town in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Also nearby is the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, which is not very far from the border of Guatemala. The reserve is made up mostly of pine and rainforests that are undeveloped thus far. However as Maya sites go, Caracol is massive. It’s the biggest such site in Belize and supported around 120,000 people during ancient city times. The ruins of Caracol are not well-excavated or even particularly cleared, which leaves them in a somewhat wild state. Many tourists combine a visit to Caracol with other areas in the Mountain Pine Ridge zone, such as Rio On Pools

The history of Caracol

Caracol’s history starts as far back as 1200 BC. During the Maya Classic period of 600 and 900 AD, Caracol saw major construction and growth. It eventually became one of the largest cities in the Maya civilization with well over 100,000 people. The metropolis itself covered around 65 square miles with a downtown core of 15 square miles. Caracol was very densely populated and had a history of winning battles against other cities. Nearby cities of Tikal and Naranjo (both in Guatemala) were defeated by the armies of Caracol. History suggests that these wars helped the population by facilitating further development in the city.

Various archeological projects have attempted excavation over the years, but the vast majority of the site remains unrestored. There is a museum on-site, but it sees very few visitors. The main attraction at Caracol is the Sky Palace, or Canaa. It’s the largest Maya structure in Belize, and still the largest in the country. It includes four palaces and three temples. Inside the complex, you can find over 100 tombs.

Getting there and more

Mountain-Pine-Ridge ROAD BELIZE CARACOL

The unmistakable brick-colored road of Mountain Pine Ridge. Photo credit: Roeming Belize

If you’re planning to visit the ancient ruins of Caracol, then it’s important to know a few details. Admission to the site is less than $10 US dollars, and it is open daily between 8 AM to 4 PM. The Caracol complex is spread over 30 square miles of dense jungle. There are 35,000 identified buildings; that includes five plazas, an observatory, three temples and a massive pyramid that towers 140 feet over the jungle.

Also, getting to Caracol involves taking a pretty rough road. An all-wheel drive vehicle is recommended, although the roads are well-marked. All tour operators in the Cayo District offer tours to the site, and that tends to be the easier way to go versus driving there yourself. Be sure to put the ancient city of Caracol on your itinerary for your next trip to Belize! 

Changes to Tours, due to COVID-19

Caracol Belize Maya ancient city

Caracol, a large ancient Maya archaeological site in Western Belize. Photo Credit: Alamy

As Belize reopens on August 15, those embarking on adventures will note changes to Tours, Archaeological Sites & National Parks. Below, expect the following precautions to ensure the wellbeing of both Belizeans and visitors:

  • New capacity restrictions to ensure social distancing
  • Smaller tour groups to provide a more intimate tour experience
  • Sites and Parks to manage tours by appointment to limit the number of persons on site
  • Enhanced sanitization of tour equipment

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