By Carla Hunt
Reed Travel Features
BELIZE CITY, Belize -- Many travel industry members who attended
the BETEX '97 meeting in Belize City last month took excursions to
the Mountain Pine Ridge region, gateway to Caracol, the largest
known ancient Mayan site in Belize.
Discovered in 1936, Caracol dates to the Maya Classic Period and
was at the height of its power in the sixth century. In 1985, Drs.
Diane and Arlen Chase from the University of Central Florida
launched full-scale excavations. What they uncovered was an urban
center made up of a central ceremonial area in which visitors find
the Caana, or Sky Palace, at 139 feet tall, the tallest Mayan
building in the country.
Around this same "Group B" plaza are three temples and several
pyramids, most easily viewed from atop the Caana.
In another part of the forest, clients will find such structures
as an observatory (from Early Classic times), and in the South
Acropolis is a ball court where the ancients watched a lot of
pok-ta-pok, or Mayan ball games.
The site's special features include causeways linking different
parts of the site and stretching beyond to other ceremonial cities
of the Maya Empire.
Other spectaculars are myriad tombs. To date, more than 120 have
been discovered, including royal chambers that held a king and his
wife, and a royal family of four, dating to around 480 A.D.
As the Chases and their excavation team continue to peel away at
the rain forest, they are discovering a place of staggering size,
one where more than 36,000 structures are spread across 176 square
miles. Such dimensions make Caracol grander than neighboring Tikal
(25 square miles), across the border in Guatemala.
The site, located deep in the Chiquibul rain forest, is a
two-hour drive from San Ignacio over a rough road, although the
road has been greatly improved in the past five years. Access can
be particularly difficult, but no longer impossible, during the
rainy season; a four-wheel-drive vehicle is advisable.
Many hotels in the Mountain Pine Ridge area offer their guests
excursions to Caracol. There now is a modest visitor center at the
site, and tours of the ruins that have been excavated are available
from on-site guides at a charge of $7.50. The entrance fee is $5,
and the site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The team is in residence from mid-February through May, the best
time to visit Caracol and to watch archaeologists at work
uncovering a city once inhabited by some 150,000 people.
Researchers expect that this extraordinary site will become
Belize's premier inland destination.