It may not surprise you to learn that Belize is located on the Yucatan Peninsula of Central America, and was once home to the ancient Mayan civilisation. Scholars estimate that there are more ancient buildings lying hidden in the jungles of the Yucatan than there are currently buildings in Belize!
While much of the ancient Mayan world remains covered by jungle, there are a few ancient cities that have been discovered and excavated in recent years, one of which is the absolutely breathtaking ancient city of Caracol.
While many of the ancient Mayan cities are famous and notoriously busy with tourists and cruise tours (Riviera Maya), Caracol is buried so deep in the Belizean jungle that only the most dedicated tourists tend to visit. As a result, it’s an absolutely breathtaking and unique experience that promises to take you back in time, thousands of years to the ancient Mayans.
Caracol today vs ancient Caracol
While there is still much to learn and uncover about Caracol, there is much that archaeologists and historians have discovered here about the ancient Mayan culture and civilisation.
Caracol is currently so remote, that it takes around 2 hours of off road driving through dense forest to reach it. It’s absolutely mind blowing to imagine there is an ancient city out there, and even more impressive that it was ever found at all.
Supposedly Caracol was discovered by loggers in 1937, but excavation didn’t begin until around 1950. To uncover the ancient temples, it took over 300 years of man hours, and there is still much more to uncover!
But how Caracol appears today is not necessarily how it would have appeared hundreds of years ago. In fact, scholars believe that Caracol was once a sprawling city, completely cleared of trees for miles. What we see today is what is left after the Mayan civilisation collapsed and the jungle retook the city. In its heyday, it’s believed that the city had a radius of about 10km, was home to over 100,000 people and had a network of more than 20 miles of roads!
While not as large as the world renowned ancient Mayan city of Tikal, apparently Caracol went to war with them and won a famous battle against them, leading to the city rapidly expanding in subsequent years.
The city of Caracol was thought to have existed from around 1200BC, all the way, possibly, to around 950AD, when the Mayan civilisation began to collapse from famine, warfare and drought. But for more than a thousand years, this ancient culture existed, thrived and built monuments that we can still enjoy today.
Exploring Caracol as a tourist
What exists at Caracol today, and what is possible for tourists to view is a sprawling jungle campus, full of ancient buildings and artefacts to enjoy. What’s visible today is a number of different temples and structures, including the Caana (sky Place), Belize’s tallest manmade structure (at over 140ft), as well as two ancient football pitches (used as a game/punishment for captured prisoners).
Incredibly, when the Mayans left Caracol, much of it was buried or hidden. The quality of the excavation is absolutely breathtaking, and Caracol still remains a very important archaeological site for archaeologists to visit and hone their skills while contributing to its slow unveiling.
Climbing the sky place (Caana)
With our guide, we explored many of the key temples and buildings, and we were even allowed to climb the enormous Caana that towers above the jungle.
Can you imagine how this place would have looked a thousand years ago? Apparently the temples were painted with bright colours, so the Caana may have even been bright red!
From atop the highest temple, it’s possible to see a complete 360 view of the surrounding area, as well as into neighbouring Guatemala, which lies just a few kilometers away.
One thing you’ll notice is that the steps up the Caana are absolutely enormous. There are various theories about why the steps are so large, but our guide suggested that the steps were so large in order to force visitors to climb using their hands. It was a sacred place, and crawling up the temple showed respect and reverence to the gods.
Climbing to the top of the temple in the hot sun is challenging but absolutely worth it! Along the way, you’ll see the various places that family members and priests would have lived, and you’ll learn all about the history of this sacred place.
While we were at the top, we heard something terrifying roaring in the distance, only to be told that we could hear the howler monkeys that live here!
There’s far too much history to get into in this post, but suffice it to say that the Mayan history and culture at Caracol is absolutely fascinating. If ancient civilisations and cultures interest you, then this will absolutely appeal to you.
Flora and Fauna at Caracol
Caracol is absolutely teeming with life, and our knowledgeable guide was fantastic at pointing out anything notable as we explored.
Among other things, we saw a long, long trail of soldier ants, howler monkeys, agoutis and plenty of birds; if you’re lucky, your guide will spot a Montezuma oropendola bird. He told us how the male has to make the female a nest, over and over again, until she’s satisfied. If she doesn’t like the one he’s built, she’ll trash it and make him start again!
Our guide also pointed out a rare plant that is used to create the blue dye used in the US dollar bank notes. Apparently this plant is a source of tension between Guatemala and Belize, and one of the reasons Caracol has armed guards!
Apparently Guatemala has largely deforested their entire supply of this plant, so bandits will occasionally sneak across the border to Belize to steal it.
Apparently in the past, Guatemalan bandits were a bit of a problem, but there is now a significant military presence at Caracol and there have been no issues since 2006.
Caracol is a protected site and a UNESCO world heritage site, so the absolute best way to visit is with a guide. The guide can show you all the best spots as well as fill you in on the history of the area and steer you clear of any delicate structures, flora or fauna.
To get to Caracol, you’ll need to drive around 2 hours (each way) from the San Ignacio region – if memory serves, it was about 45 miles, but thanks to the quality of the road, it’s a slow journey!
The road is a mixture of dirt and paved, but you’ll really need a 4×4 to access it. At certain times of the year, the roads are known to wash out or get submerged and only the most rugged of vehicles can make it. Again, take a guide and let them drive you!
There are currently no public transport options to get to Caracol, and it’s generally not possible to get a guide once you arrive, so these are your two options for visiting:
- Book a tour ($$$), where you will be driven and have a guide/lunch
- Self drive/guide ($), where you will have to make your own way, bring your own lunch and do your own research on Caracol
Why we recommend using a guide to visit Caracol
You will not believe how remote this place is, so it really pays to have someone who knows the area with you, pay the correct tolls and generally make the journey calm, relaxing and enjoyable. Most guides (definitely in our case) are also licenced tour guides and historians. We used Yute expeditions and I can’t recommend them enough!
Our guide, Elias, told us about his rigorous testing process that he had to pass to be considered good enough to run tours at Caracol.
His stories and knowledge of the area made our trip infinitely better, and I feel like having a passionate local teaching us was by far the best way to learn. I should also mentioned that there is very little signage (if at all), once you’re there, so without a guide, you really won’t be getting any history.
Obviously Caracol is visually spectacular, but I’d feel robbed if I’d gone all that way and didn’t have a chance to learn about all this lost civilisation.
The down side, of course, is that tours are fairly expensive, but honestly, if you’ve come this far and it’s in the budget, it is absolutely worth the money to have a guide.
There is also no food out there, so if you’re on a guided excursion, you’re likely to have a delicious packed lunch prepared for you (bbq chicken, beans and rice for us). If you self guide, you won’t!
Tips if you do plan to self guide/drive to Caracol
- Rent a 4×4. You will not make the journey without one
- Make sure you sign in/out at the military check point along the drive. This is for your own safety. If you don’t sign in and you get lost or break down etc, NOBODY will come looking for you!
- Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you set off
- Do not attempt the drive when it’s raining or immediately after rain
- If you do decide to self guide, make sure you bring plenty of water because the sun is extremely unforgiving here and I didn’t see anywhere to buy a bottle.
Currently, expansion of the road to Caracol is underway, but this may take many years to complete, and honestly may detract from the experience if it’s easier for big tours to reach. I recommend visiting now for a bit more of an adventure!
How much does a tour to Caracol cost?
We went with Yute Expeditions and it costs $100USD per person (minimum 2 people). The tour takes all day (7am-5pm), but generally stops at Rio On Pools or Big Rock waterfall on the way back for a swim (make sure you bring your swim suit).
I highly, highly recommend Yute, and Elias in particular (and his trusty 4×4, Whitey)
What to pack for Caracol
Here’s a short list of everything you might want to pack for Caracol:
- bug spray
- sun hat/sunglasses
- cash for tips/entrance fees
- sturdy/grippy shoes & perhaps water shoes as well for swimming
Enjoying Caracol responsibly
Please remember that it’s a privilege to be able to explore Caracol so liberally and that this city is one of Belize’s most precious treasures. It goes without saying that it’s important to tread carefully and abide by leave no trace principles.
Things to do near Caracol
Most tours to Caracol also include a stop at one of two beautiful water holes, so if you do a guided tour, you will most likely stop at either Rio On pools or Big Rock waterfall, or both!
Both are amazing places to stop after a hot and sweaty experience at Caracol. Rio On Pools are an amazing place to chill out. they have nice shallow pools you can lounge in for hours. Surprisingly there were no bugs when we visited, so. the experience was really enjoyable.
Big Rock Falls are actually right next to the Blancaneaux eco resort, so they’re just a short trip there after a sweaty day out in the sun. The walk down is quite steep, so it’s not super accessible, but it’s well worth the effort. There is amazing cliff jumping and a huge waterfall to swim up to.
Where to stay when visiting Caracol
As Caracol is between 3 and 4 hours from Belize City, and even further from the beachy areas on the northern coast, you may want to consider relocating to the San Ignacio area for a couple of nights to really explore properly.If you’re looking for a decent itinerary for a trip that spans a couple of areas, you could follow our 7 day Belize itinerary for some ideas.
Blancaneaux Lodge near Caracol
While we were in the San Ignacio area, exploring the area, we stayed in the absolutely exquisite Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. It is exactly what you might picture when you think of a luxury rainforest eco-retreat, and it is absolutely the closest possible place to stay when visiting Caracol.
Overall thoughts on Caracol
I may be biased, because I’ve always wanted to visit the Yucatan and see some Mayan temples (It is preferred to call them Mayan temples not Maya ruins!), but Caracol absolutely delivered the most spectacular experience. Yes, it was hot and humid, but it was absolutely worth the trip.
I was expecting a somewhat stale, hands off typical history tour, but this was the complete antithesis. Adventure from start to finish, a teeny bit of danger and a bucket load of the most fascinating history. I loved every second of it and would happily go back again.