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Mayan ruins of Caracol provide exclusive experience


David Bear,
At the ancient Mayan ruins of Caracol in Belize, the main courtyard is viewed from the top of the Caana (sky palace), the emperor's home.

CARACOL, Belize -- One advantage of Blancaneaux Lodge's location is its relative proximity to Caracol, the largest and most recently discovered of the ancient Mayan ruins in Belize.

Growing from a cluster of farming villages on a broad, mountain plateau about 1000 B.C., the city expanded into a megalopolis, which by A.D. 600 spread across 88 square miles, encompassing more than 36,000 significant stone structures and a population of 150,000. The civilization that created it roughly paralleled that of the Roman Empire.

From Caracol's central acropolis, a network of raised causeways up to 30 feet wide radiate through the jungle for up to six miles, crossed by other causeways with 20 smaller malls at various points. What's more amazing, this urban accomplishment was created without the use of the wheel, metal or any beasts of burden.

For reasons not clearly understood, this city was completely abandoned by 1050, and the entire site was reclaimed by the twisting vines and tangling tentacles of the tropical jungle and completely forgotten for nearly 900 years.

A logger stumbled across the site in 1937 while surveying the virtually impassible jungle for mahogany trees, but it wasn't until 1950 that University of Pennsylvania epigrapher Linton Satterthwaite visited. Dubbing the site Caracol, which is Spanish for "snail," Satterthwaite performed a preliminary assessment of what was there.

Full realization of the extent of the city didn't come until 1985, with the arrival of Drs. Diane and Arlen Chase, archeologists at the University of Central Florida. Each year since, from January to April, the Chases have brought a team of researchers and workers to Caracol, carefully peeling the jungle layers off significant structures and stabilizing them, documenting artifacts, and working to comprehend the magnificence of what was there and the lost civilization that created it.

The newly opened center where all site visitors must register and obtain permits tells the story, but it was hard to understand the scale of Caracol until we strolled a quarter-mile under the heavy forest canopy and stepped into the blazing sunlight of the central acropolis.

Low grass now covers an open square maybe 200 yards on a side. As immense as this square is, it is dominated by the Caana, or "sky palace," the edifice that defines its north edge.

At 145 feet high, the Caana is still, 1,500 years after it was completed, the tallest man-made structure in Belize. Stepping to the sky in a series of stone terraces flanked by what were once apartments for nobility, the ziggurat is so huge that the king's complex at the top, three temples, several pyramids and a large courtyard, cannot be seen from square below.

So, we started climbing its wide stone steps, our guide providing instruction and encouragement along the way. Before we had gone a third of the way, we were glad we'd brought water. Twenty minutes later, finally standing on the summit, we could appreciate a king's panorama. I hesitate to describe it as breathtaking, only because the climb had already taken our breath. Awesome is better. All that which is now thick jungle in every direction was once a vast metropolis with myriad mysteries still to be revealed. Immediately below the huge square, ringed by lesser temples, market places and ball courts, the civilization of daily life would have pulsated. The king was master over all he surveyed.

And we had it all virtually to ourselves.

Guidebooks advise when visiting other major Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala, to arrive early in the day to avoid the crowds that now swarm there in high season.

Rather than hundreds or thousands, Caracol receives fewer than 50 visitors each day. That exclusivity provides an experience that is increasingly rare in these times, the chance to wander through an overwhelming cultural artifact, not at will -- because the company of a licensed guide is required -- but unfettered by the pressure of a stream of other modern visitors.

Of course, there's no way to understand all that is here within a few weeks or days, let alone hours. But being able to climb up and down, to peek privately in hidden nooks and corners, to touch the stones, to hear the howler monkeys bellowing in the jungle made for an experience I found to be both personal and personally moving.

The reason for Caracol's exclusivity, apart from its being only recently rediscovered, is that getting there is an adventure in itself.

The vast site is situated on a hilltop deep in the Chiquibul Forest, at least 50 miles from the nearest paved road. Even today, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, that trip takes two hours each way on a sunny day. Prior to 1993, the site was accessible only by horseback. Even now, a hard rain can make the road impassible, especially when the Guacamallo Bridge, the low stone span that crosses the Macal River, is flooded for days on end. From the river, the way twists up into dense jungle, abundant with tapirs, wild pigs, howler monkeys, stalking jaguars, deadly snakes and a billion brightly feathered birds. Nothing about visiting Caracol is a virtual experience.

But public access to this world-class treasure is slowly being improved. The last three miles that lead from the river up the steep hill to Caracol have just been paved, and there are ambitious plans to start flying in cruise ship passengers to an airstrip a few miles away. Daily tides of visitors will certainly bring new revenues to a restoration project that clearly could use the money, but I doubt it will improve the Caracol experience.

Apart from the transportation logistics, visiting Caracol requires obtaining advance permits from both the Belize Departments of Archeology and Forestry, as well as the services of a registered site guide. Thus it's recommended to make arrangements to visit through a reputable tour operator. For a list: For more information about the University of Central Florida project:

Also see companion article: Two small resorts in Belize deliver more than they promise
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