THE WINDING ROAD TO CARACOL: Belize’s Largest Ancient Maya City

by Caribbean Lifestyle Editorial Team

Located 500 meters above sea level on the Vaca Plateau in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, the Caracol Maya Site is one of the highest points in Belize. From its center rises a towering pyramid known as Caana or Sky Palace—to this day, it is the tallest structure in Belize.

Not only is Caracol the largest Maya site in Belize at approximately 200 square kilometers, but this ancient citadel is one of the largest and most influential of the known Maya cities. At the height of its power during the late classic period, Caracol was home to over 100,000 inhabitants, nearly twice that of the neighboring city of Tikal in Guatemala. When asked about the importance of Caracol, Belizean researcher Dr. Jaime Awe of Northern Arizona University said, “Caracol was definitely a force to contend with in the Mundo Maya. In its heyday, its political sway was felt well beyond the modern borders of Belize—as far away as in Copan in Honduras; in Campeche, Mexico; and at Tikal in Guatemala.”


LiDAR image courtesy of A. and D. Chase

In 2009, a laser imaging technology known as LiDAR scanned the jungles of Caracol from an airplane. The LiDAR imaging revealed hundreds of structures in the area, plus a system of stone causeways that lead into the city center. Besides its immense size, LiDAR revealed the scale of agricultural terracing at the site, which likely made Caracol self-sufficient. As for ancient relics already discovered, Caracol boasts more than 50 carved stone monuments, over 250 burials, and 200 caches.


One significant discovery made at Caracol is that of Altar 21, a giant altar located at the center of the site’s primary ballcourt. Its inscriptions tell the story of how Caracol famously defeated the neighboring site of Tikal in Guatemala, in what is known by researchers as a Star War.

The inscriptions reveal that Lord Double Bird of Tikal attacked Caracol in 556 AD. Later in 562 AD, Lord Water of Caracol enacted the first known Star War, a major political war of the ancient Maya which coincided with the cycle of Venus – The Great Star, and defeated Tikal. This led to a 120-year hiatus for Tikal in which they declined in population, while Caracol on the other hand grew considerably in size and population.

Images courtesy of A. and D. Chase, Caracol Archaeological Project.

Caracol - Caana (6)- by BTB


Its entrance road winds through Mountain Pine Ridge, just south of San Ignacio in Belize’s Cayo District, and until recently, was off the beaten path—that is, until December 2019 when roadworks began. When asked about the impact of the new road, Dr. Arlen Chase, one of the leading archaeologists studying Caracol, stated “The paved road to Caracol will be a major boon, not only to us [the researchers] but to tourism in Belize, by making the site more accessible.”

Belize Archaeologist Dr. Melissa Badillo, of The National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) noted that the paved road will allow for decreased travel time to the site, and will also improve the response time for any emergency situations.

The name Caracol comes from Spanish, meaning shell, or spiral-shaped, which may allude to the winding nature of these ancient roads which spiral out from its center.


Driving into Mountain Pine Ridge. Image via Hidden Valley Inn

It is highly recommended that travelers plan to visit Caracol with a tour guide. Due to Covid-19, The Belize Tourism Board has enacted a Gold Standard Certification program to enhance the safety of travelers. This includes protocols to improve sanitation practices, social interactions, and standard operating procedures.

Travelers visiting Caracol (with or without a guide) should plan to enter the site 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.


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.


Rio Frio Cave (9) belize-mountain-pine-ridge-BTB

Rio Frio Cave, Mountain Pine Ridge. Image courtesy Belize Tourism Board

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.

Written by G. Michael Bowen for the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book.
Header image of Caracol © Duarte Dellarole. Article found on page 52 of the 2021/2022 Belize Gold Book. Read more articles from the #BelizeGoldBook below:

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