During my recent visit to San Ignacio, I made my third visit to the Mayan ruins of Caracol (meaning Snail, but it’s original name was Three-Hills Water) but this trip was noticeably different. The military escort was no longer a strong suggestion, but an actual requirement and instead of seeing just two to three military police around the site, there were approximately that many in each area. Why the recent increase in the military presence?
In September a 20 year old Belizean police officer (Danny Conorquie) was shot by illegal Guatemalan loggers. According to our guide from Pacz Tours, Bruce, the military police had encountered the loggers a few days earlier. In their haste to retreat the loggers left behind their horses, so as the military often does they took the horses into custody. The horses were being temporarily kept at Caracol. Later when the loggers came back in retaliation, they shot the Belizean police office.
According to this article, the shooting actually took place in front of tour operators and tourists mid-day. Caracol was closed for a while, but has since reopened but under tighter restrictions. The ruins of Caracol stretch within just a few miles of the Guatemala border and therefore have always been watched more closely.
The day we visited was without incident and as usual this ruin captured my interest. Getting to Caracol is an adventure in of itself. It’s a 52 mile journey, of which only the last ten miles are paved (although I noticed it’s even starting to deteriorate). It’s always intrigued me that the first 42 miles are so poorly maintained that it frequently feels as if internal organs are being torn to pieces and then the last ten miles of road (in the middle of the jungle) are nicely paved. I learned during this trip that the government actually had the money set aside to pave the entire 52 miles in 2008, but then Belize was struck by Tropical Depression 16 which devastated the region and the funds were reallocated to repair other more necessary areas (if interested here is the initial damage assessment report…honestly I didn’t read the whole thing, but the “event summary” section is interesting…and the photos).
You might wonder why going to Caracol is on my top five things to do in Belize if it’s sometimes dangerous and the road can be quite jarring…in short it’s the beauty and history of the site.
In it’s hay-day nearly 150-180 thousand Mayans lived in the area and it’s made up of over 36 thousand structures (of which only a fraction of them have been excavated). Caracol was a formidable foe of Tikal, in Guatemala, at the height of the Mayan civilization, but in approximately 900AD Caracol had a rapid abandonment (even though there is some evidence that a small amount of people stayed around until 1100AD). As with most Mayan ruins, there is no evidence of why they rapidly disappeared…just lots of speculation*. You can actually “feel”, not just see, the history.
If the historical significance is not enough, maybe the landscape driven through on the way would be intriguing. While the journey begins and ends with tropical forests, the Mountain Pine Ridge area is traversed along the way. Yep…a pine forest wedged between two tropical forests. Why?…makes me want to study forestry to learn more about it.
Caana “Sky Palace”
Caana is by far the largest structure at Caracol and it’s said to still be the largest structure in all of Belize (including any modern buildings). While a lot of Mayan ruins restrict tourists from climbing the structures, it’s still allowed at Caracol. The view is amazing.
After visiting the same ruins three times, with three different guides, all from the same tour company, one thing I’ve learned is no one really knows the complete history of the Mayans. Here are some of my observations and why I believe there is a lot left to speculation:
- I had previously been told that when looking at the excavated ruins the stacked rows (brick looking) indicated original structure and the more randomly stacked rocks indicated restoration. This time, our guide told us that they, the Mayans, eventually decided stacked rocks was as good as stacked “bricks” and hence the difference. I’m inclined to believe the restoration story.
- I had previously been told that each time a new ruler was “crowned” they would add a new layer to the main temple. This time, our guide told us that the different layers were built every 52 years.
- Even the road to Caracol is shroud in mystery. This time I was told the story of Tropical Depression 16 (above), which sounds completely plausible. But previously I’d been told that they started on both ends and never had the funds to complete it…I guess both could be true, but the storm makes a lot more sense.
There are other subtle difference between my visits. I choose to leave most of it to mystery…I find it more intriguing that way.