The Maya ruins of Caracol are the largest in Belize, and visiting them gives insight into the lives of the people that once populated this thriving ancient city.
Where Is Caracol?
Caracol is about 25 miles south of San Ignacio in the Cayo District. In the midst of dense, tropical forest, Caracol sits at the foot of the Maya Mountains. The surrounding area is part of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.
A Large, Flourishing City
The Maya named the city Oxwitzá, meaning “water and three hills.” Archaeologists who excavated in the 1950s named it Caracol which means “snail,” because of the many snail shells they found at the site.
The original city was huge, spreading over 75 thousand acres and housing more than 200,000 people.
Brief History of Caracol Maya Ruins
People began living in Caracol around 700 BC. Historians estimate that the Maya built the first temple there, the Temple of the Wooden Lintel, in 70 AD.
In the sixth century, the city successfully fought an attack by the “super city” of Tikal in Guatemala. It continued to grow and prosper until, like many Maya cities, it fell into decline in the 10th century.
Excavations since the 1980s have uncovered more than 30,000 structures including temples, pyramids, homes, three city plazas and two ball courts.
The best-known structure in Caracol is the soaring Sky Palace or Caana Tower. At 136 feet, it is the tallest building in Belize.
An Agricultural Success Story
The people of Caracol became wealthy through their extensive farming operations. The Maya invented many of the techniques we use today for large-scale farming, including terracing, building of water reservoirs and cross-pollinating for hardier breeds. The sophisticated architecture of Caracol is testament to their advanced knowledge of engineering, transportation and city design.
After its decline, Caracol was hidden for centuries until a Belizean forager came across the ruins in 1937.
How to Visit Caracol Maya Ruins
To get to the site, drive south along the Mountain Pine Ridge Road from San Ignacio in the Cayo District. Once you’re there, stop at the onsite museum to get a sense of what you should look for during your explorations.
If you’re going to Caracol on your own, be prepared for a long, adventurous ride through the jungle to get there. The best way to see it is to make arrangements through your hotel or a tour company.
Written by Larry Waight