Belize was once part of the Maya world, along with the south of modern-day Mexico, plus Guatemala, northern Honduras, and El Salvador. The Maya civilisation dominated the northern part of Central America from 2000 BC until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. They had the only complete written language anywhere in the pre-colonial Americas, and were famous for their maths and astronomy, not to mention their bloody sacrifices and their doomsday-prophesising calendar.
Nowadays, one of the Maya civilisation’s most famous and enduring legacies is its architecture – their cities, the ruins of which are found all over the aforementioned countries. Belize has over twenty ancient Maya sites – that’s less than the Maya heartlands of Mexico or Guatemala, but more than Honduras or El Salvador. The six that I’ve visited here are Altun Ha, Caracol, Cerros, Lamanai, Lubaantun, and Xunantunich.
My two favourites are Caracol and Lamanai – they’re the largest, most impressive and interesting sites, plus they’re the most enjoyable to get to, due to their location.
Caracol is in the west of Belize, less than ten kilometres from the border with Guatemala. It’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle, and at the end of a long, lonely dirt road. You either need your own vehicle (and I’d recommend one with good suspension [if it’s dry weather] and four-wheel drive [if it’s been raining]), or you can join a tour from the nearest town, the low-key but bustling tourist centre of San Ignacio. And when I say ‘nearest’, it’s still about fifty kilometres and two hours’ drive away.
Taking a tour means you can relax and enjoy the scenery and the spinal vibrations, as your van driver negotiates the potholes and bumps along the road, a brown ribbon of dirt and dust (or mud and water, depending on the season) that unravels its way through the western foothills of the Maya Mountains. It also means you have a guide to elaborate on the history of the site, and to show you the most interesting parts and explain them to you.
Several years ago, the area around Caracol was a haven for illegal loggers, animal-stealing poachers, murderous bandidos, and all kinds of law-avoiding miscreants. After several ‘incidents’, travellers to Caracol had to go in convoy, escorted by armed police or the military. Nowadays, things seem to have calmed down, and when I visited last year we made the trip unescorted and (thankfully) unmolested. But the site’s isolated and remote location makes it vulnerable to looters, and the BDF (Belize Defence Force, the national armed forces) regularly patrol the area (they used to do this with help from the British Army, when we were stationed here, although I’m not sure how much use we were – on my visit we drove past a lone British soldier, dressed in camouflage and running along the side of the road, desperately thumbing a lift!).
The further back in history you go, the more populated Belize becomes – currently the country has a population of about 330,000, but at the height of the Maya civilisation around 1,500 years ago, there were over a million people living here. Caracol was one of the largest and most powerful cities of the Maya world, it covered an area several times that of present-day Belize City, and supported more than twice the modern city’s population.
There are over forty excavated and restored structures to see and climb, including temples, palaces, an observatory, and the biggest Maya pyramid in the country (it’s called the Sky Palace and, at 43m high, it’s still the tallest building in the country!). There are also several stelae (carved stone tablets) that illustrate the history of the site, including the various rulers (who have wonderful names like Lord Double-Bird) and their wars against other Maya cities (including the most famous one of all, Tikal, across the border in Guatemala).
A hot, sweaty climb up to the three temples at the top of the Sky Palace gives you a view of endless verdant jungle, from western Belize into eastern Guatemala. And the proximity to our neighbour is obvious telephonically as well as visually – as soon as I got to the top, my mobile phone received a text message from América Móvil welcoming me to Guatemala!
The landscaped jungle around and in between the ruins is full of tropical flora and fauna, from giant ceiba trees, their canopies as high as the temples and their roots as large as the flying buttresses in a gothic cathedral, to the woven hanging nests of the Montezuma Oropendola bird.
The other attraction about the trip to Caracol is the journey there and back – the road (if you can call the teeth-rattling experience a road) passes through Mountain Pine Ridge, a landscape of pine forests and rolling hills. On the way there we stopped at the photogenic Rio Frio cave (caves being a common part of the limestone topography of Belize). And on the return journey we cooled down after our pyramid-climbing exertions with a dip in the Rio On pools (a series of stepped granite boulders covered in cascading water, small waterfalls and clear pools), and a swim at Big Rock Falls (a 50-metre waterfall).