Lost in the deep jungle of southern Belize for more than 1,000 years, Caracol is an enormous stone city built by the Maya that covers more than 30 square miles of terrain, including five large plazas, soaring pyramids, an astronomical observatory, and more than 35,000 different buildings.
Rediscovered in 1938 by accident, Caracol’s name derives from the Spanish word for snail shell due to the winding, circular shape of the road that approaches the site. Located approximately 25 miles (40 km) south of San Ignacio, Caracol is surrounded by deep jungle with a lovely view of the Maya Mountains.
Astonishingly, Caracol was once thought to be a minor urban center for the Maya, but it now known that it was one of the most important political centers in the empire. Once a bitter rival of nearby sites like Xunantunich and Tikal (just across the border in modern-day Guatemala), Caracol had a population twice the size of Belize City (the largest city in modern Belize) and still has the tallest man-made structure in the country, the Caana or Sky Palace.
This massive site located on the Vaca Plateau contains large stands of Ceiba, sapodilla, and mahogany trees. After more than a millennium of abandonment, Caracol is home to a wide diversity of wildlife, including the rare keel-billed motmot bird, endangered ocellated turkeys, black howler and spider monkeys, grey foxes, gibnuts, and coatimundis.
After extensive excavations, archeologists now believe that the original name for the site was Uxwitza which means “Three Hills Water” in the Mayan tongue. But the snail-like approach road and pictographs of snails throughout the site are why the site is most commonly referred to as Caracol. On the outskirts of Caracol, ancient terracing systems are still visible that were used to grow crops for the city’s vast population.
It is believed that Caracol was founded more than 3,000 years ago, but grew to its present size and sophisticated around 650 BC. A total of 53 carved stone monuments have been excavated along with more than 250 different burial sites. Thanks to hieroglyphics found at the site, archeologists now know that Caracol fought several wars with Tikal in the sixth century AD.
If you would like to visit and explore Caracol, Black Orchid Resort offers guided tours to the site that include an option to stop at the Rio Frio Cave and Rio on Pools swimming area in the Mountain Pine Forest Ridge national park.