Caracol, or ‘El Caracol,’ is an archaeological site located in the Cayo District of Belize. Located approximately 25 miles south of the town of San Ignacio in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, it is part of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, in western Belize, near the border with Guatemala.
Primarily an undeveloped tract of tropical rain and pine forests, Caracol is the largest Mayan site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Mayan world. The core area is 15 square miles and consists of three plaza groups surrounding a central acropolis and two ball courts, along with a number of smaller structures.
Ancient Caracol was occupied as early as 1200 BC. Its most prolific period of construction was in the Maya Classic period, between 600 and 900 AD. The town swelled into one of the largest ancient Maya cities, covering approximately 65 square miles with an estimated peak population of about 120,000 or more.
The main pyramid at Caracol is called Caana, or “Sky Palace.” At 136 feet high it is the tallest Mayan building in Belize and the highest man-made structure in the country. Caana contains four palaces and three temples. The palace rooms were originally coated with white stucco and decorated with red paint. More than 100 tombs have also been found, as well as a vast array of hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Many hieroglyphic texts have been found on stelae, alters, ball-court-markers, capstones and wall facades. The discovery of an intricately carved ball-court-marker, dating back to the end of the early Classic Period, has been interpreted as Caracol claiming a military victory over Tikal, located more than 60 miles away in Guatemala.
The people of Caracol were noted for a skillfulness in war that included not only battles against Tikal, but also nearby Naranjo and Ucanal. Archeologists suggest that the general population “benefited from these wars” which served as “a catalyst for the city’s development.” One monument records a military victory over the army of Tikal in 562 AD, when Caracol’s Lord Water is shown to have captured and sacrificed Tikal’s Double Bird.
Causeways connect all parts of the city of Caracol as well as outlying parts to a distance of 25 miles. These causeways incorporated previously existing centers into Caracol, serving to integrate the economy. These included the local agriculture and markets which occurred within the city.
The site is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm and admission is BZ$15 (less than US$10). The complex covers 30 square miles of thick, high-canopy jungle, and includes five plazas, an astronomic observatory and over 35,000 buildings which have been identified. The tallest of them is a massive pyramid which is capped by three temples and rises over 140 feet above the jungle floor. A project of archaeological excavations and restorations started in 1985 and is ongoing; however, most of the site remains unexcavated. The visitor’s center exhibits a number of photographs and diagrams of the site, along with artifacts, including a recovered ceremonial altar.