Caracol: Belize's Grandest Link to Its Mayan Past

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.

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