Heavenly Architecture at Belize’s Largest Maya Site
Deep in the jungle of Belize’s Chiquibul National Forest stands Caracol, Belize’s largest Maya site. Spanning over 75 square miles – approximately five times the size of modern Belize City. In its center rises Caana, meaning sky palace, which reigns as the tallest standing structure in Belize.
True to its name, Caana reaches into the sky, placing the rulers of ancient Caracol at the top of their known world. It is said that the ancient builders stretched their monuments to the sky with the intention of communing with the gods.
The surrounding villages were connected to the center by stone roads or causeways. Speculations were that a dedicated manufacturing guild lived at each village, trading goods at the center. Thus, through trade, these outer branches of the great city supported the center.
Mayas have a unique style when it comes to their architectural designs. The way to the top one must pass through a series of gates, which divide this man-made mountain into tiers. Two primary gates can be seen from the ground level, each defined by a series of doors. The first set contains thirteen doors and the second contains seven. However, these numbers were not chosen by accident. Thirteen and seven were seen as highly sacred numbers to the ancient Maya and were paramount to their cosmology.
At Caana’s summit is a grassy courtyard where three smaller pyramids rise into the sky.
One can only imagine how magnificent it would have been to stand there, at the heart of the city, at the height of Caracol’s civilization. In the daylight the rulers could see for miles, watching over the motions of their people as they traveled to and from the branching villages at the city’s edges. At nightfall, they gazed at the Milky Way, as it moved through the heavens dancing with the planets and stars.
The ancient Maya have long since gone from Caracol, but their memories live on. Their stories are often told, and travelers come from around the world to scale the steps of the great Caana.
Getting to Caracol
Travelers going to Caracol should go with a military escort, which leaves each day at 9:00 am from the Douglas D’Silva Forest Station. This station is located at the village formerly known as Augustine in Mountain Pine Ridge. Take the road through Cristo Rey to connect to the Mountain Pine Ridge Road. Once you meet the escort, it is a 45-minute drive down a winding road to Caracol. Travelers must then return to the station via escort around 2 PM.
What to Bring: Mosquito repellent and sunscreen are a must. We recommend supportive shoes and comfortable clothing. There are no restaurants in the area, so plenty of water and a picnic will make all the difference.
On the Way Back: Be sure to leave time to stop at one of the beautiful attractions inside the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Among the most popular are 1000 Foot Falls, Rio Frio Cave, and Rio On Pools.
Caracol + The Snake Dynasty
In 2016, Belizean researcher Dr. Jaime Awe and his team made an important discovery at the nearby Maya site of Xunantunich, roughly 26 miles north of Caracol. In one of the largest Mayan tombs ever discovered in Belize, Dr. Awe found many artifacts including a number of panels believed to have been part of a staircase originally constructed at Caracol. The hieroglyphs on the panels help to unravel the story of Caracol and its alliance with what was an emerging empire of the time, known as the Snake Dynasty. Though the puzzle remains unsolved, this alliance could explain Caracol’s motives behind its famous defeat of the nearby city of Tikal in present-day Guatemala.
Written by G. Michael Bowen