Saturday, February 15, 2014

Belize: Caracol Ruins

One of the guides we hired on this trip said that Belize was once a colony of the British Empire. The Brits drive on the left, but the Belizeans don't. They drive on what's left.

I've never seen roads in such bad shape throughout an entire country before. I know that various countries and institutions have donated large sums of money to fix the roads but apparently they don't get fixed. I asked a few locals why that was and the word corruption came up often.

Our guide, Selmo, in front of the elaborately
carved facing on one of the larger pyramids.
A group I was leading stayed in the Cayo district, in the town of San Ignacio. The most famous of all the Mayan ruins in Belize is Caracol, south of San Ignacio. It was huge, a major trading center and rival with Tikal in Guatemala. It boasts an observatory with a similar structure to the one at Palenque, and covered about 200 square kilometers in its heyday, with a population of over 100,000 people. It was larger than Belize City with a greater number of people.

Getting there is the problem. We rented a 4x4 Xterra and got a guide to go with us. It was a good thing too, because we'd have never found our way down those many dirt/mud roads without him. We had to be at a military checkpoint no later than 10:30am to be escorted by trucks with armed soldiers. The reason for the escort was two-fold. Several years ago, cars on the way to Caracol were hijacked and robbed by Guatemalans who hid out in the jungle and crossed back and forth over the border at will. No more hijackings have occurred since the military escorts were started. The other more practical reason is that the road is so horrible that it is easy for even a 4x4 to slide off the road into the jungle or down into a streambed. The much larger military vehicles carry rescue equipment and are often tasked with saving tourists from spending the night in the jungle.

One pyramid had a ramp, which was unusual.

Our guide, Selmo, had worked as a young man on many of the seasonal crews that removed trees and debris from the temple mounds. He got very interested in archeology, as the people of Caracol were his ancestors. He was a wealth of information about the site, the birds, insects and animals. He even introduced me to tasty live termites that build their giant wood pulp nests all over the jungle. They taste like sweet carrots and though look like tiny ants, they don't bite.

Caracol was inhabited as early as 1200 BC, but temples and monuments only began around 300 AD. It was abandoned entirely by 1050 AD along with most other Mayan cities in a cataclysmic series of events that included ecological collapse and the overthrow of the god-king political system.

There is a small museum, restrooms, and a little store that sells water and snacks. Nothing is documented so without a guide, we would have just been looking at buildings without a clue as to what they were. As it was, we discovered that Caracol was deeply influenced by Teotihuacan in Mexico, a ruin north of Mexico City with wide influence, yet little is known of it's founders. The cremation of three leaders was done in a style consistent with Teotihuacan and documented on stelae found at Caracol. Later on, Caracol was a subject of Tikal until it grew in power and finally defeated Tikal, reversing the power struggle.

Pools along the river in the national park.
Archeologists are still working there. They have a camp with portable showers, and a mess-tent. Protected under a roof in their camp are a dozen carved stelae with inscriptions.

Surrounding the site is the Chiquibul National Park, a forest of incredible natural biodiversity where unknown species of insects and plants are discovered every year.

In spite of the difficulty in getting there, Caracol and the surrounding park are well worth the effort. It's probably best to go with one of the companies in San Ignacio that will provide a good vehicle and guide/driver rather than try to make it in a regular car or van.

A large administrative complex only partially excavated
Felicia in front of enormous leaves
that are used to wrap tamales. They add an
interesting flavor to the tamales with the steaming process.

Wild green parrot 

Wood fungi, another source of food for Mayans
Selmo demonstrating a hollow tube with a
tobacco-like substance stuffed inside, used as a cigarette

Coral snake, one of many poisonous ones in the jungle. 

Small portion of the ceremonial center of Caracol

More pyramids. We were allowed to climb many of them.