Caracol vs Tikal?

8th Oct. 2016

In the roots of a Ceiba treeWe are continuing the theme of visiting Mayan sites and today are heading to the Caracol Maya Site. It did not look that far on the map but what we had not counted on was the unmade road for 40 of the 50 mile trip! We had wondered why we were travelling in a 4×4 truck today rather than a smarter SUV.

 

Alone in the car parkIt took 2 1/2 hours to get there and we did not see another vehicle on the way. In my post on visiting Tikal, I said that it was in the middle of nowhere. Well, that was civilisation compared to here. We had to check in with the military en-route, as they used some of the surrounding area for training. When we finally arrived at the visitors centre, we saw some of the military keeping an eye on the place but that was all.

 

Covered ruinsWe were the only vehicle there and for a while we thought we were the only visitors. By the time we left there were four vehicles and we saw a total of three other couples on private tours. We chose to visit here as it is the largest Mayan site in Belize and at its height in approx 650AD there were around 150,000 people living here. It has over 35,000 known buildings but most of them have not been excavated.

 

The only way is upCaracol, meaning snail, as many tiny snails can be found here, was found in 1937 by Rosa Mai whilst she was looking for mahogany trees. This was therefore found much later than Tikal and also much less time and expense has been spent here. As I have said it is much less touristy and less visited than Tikal. The rivalry between the two places began began it their heyday when the rival Mayan clans often fought.

 

Replica housesWe began by walking around the lesser areas with smaller buildings and less restored. In a clearing were wooden buildings which turned out to be replica houses that the working Mayan folk would have lived in (I had to crop out the solar panels and most of the corrugated metal!). These are sometimes used nowadays for those involved in the restoration work. We also saw a wheel less motor bike as the engine was being used on a pulley to get materials to the top of one of the structures being restored.

 

Through the arched windowWe were also able to enter tombs (now empty!) and see the way the Mayans had constructed the rooms. These were a very intelligent race who had mastered many engineering feats to construct such magnificent buildings without any iron tools. It is hard to comprehend how they managed to mount the heavy stones in their constructions.

 

Main PlazaAfter wandering around in the hot and humid conditions for two hours we saw the piece de resistance, still being the tallest man made structure in Belize. The main pyramid called Caana, meaning Sky Palace stands some 141ft high (being an ex British Colony they work in “old money” of feet and inches and Fahrenheit) that is 43metres. The way the Mayans often worked was to build on top of existing buildings and that is what has happened here. There seemed to be three sets of stairs and at the top you feel as if you are quite alone in your own mini plaza.

 

View from the highest structure in BelizeOf course we just had to climb to the top for the magnificent views. I always wondered why the steps are so big  and now I am told it is because the Mayans had to climb on hands and feet in reverence for the king who stood at the top. At the risk of being beheaded for insubordination I continued to climb on foot and by the end it was quite an effort to heave myself up the big steps.

 

Mini plaza on the top of CaanaLuckily this was the last plaza and it was back to the covered seating area at the entrance for our picnic lunch, no restaurants here! Another contrast to the infrastructure of Tikal. Over our tasty chicken with rice and beans we reflected on the different approach Belize and Guatemala have taken to uncovering, investigating and tourist access to their hidden gems.

 

Fishtail palmWhilst wandering through the ruins we also had time to admire some of the fauna. The Ceiba tree was important to the Mayans as they believed it connected to the underworld. The trees live long and they grow to be immense. We also admire the fishtail palm, and guess what? The leaves look like fishtails and are apparently sought after for flower arrangements and sell for $1 per leaf. Also it is illegal to smuggle them out of the country.

 

More hyroglyphs to decipherThe long bumpy journey home was punctuated with a stop at Rio Pools in Mountain Pine Ridge. The cool water was refreshing as we had both overheated on our walk around Caracol. However we got more water than we bargained for as the grey sky which had been threatening for a while deposited it’s raining on us. Only a short shower so not a problem.

 The next decision was in what order we should swim in the hotel pool and to have a beer. Watching the other guests the answer seemed to be both at the same time! Yep we could do that. We do now think we are all ruined out.

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2 Responses to Caracol vs Tikal?

  1. Hollie says:

    My husband, adult son and I will be traveling to Belize in November, and I’m trying to decide between visiting the Caracol ruins vs Tikal. Since you have been to both, which one would you recommend for our main Mayan ruins experience? I read both of your posts, but could not discern if you preferred one over the other. Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  2. Dave says:

    Hi Hollie,

    Glad you found the blog. I see that we posed the question in the post title and then didn’t answer it. Fail!

    Tricky question. Both are well worth visiting and whilst both are much less touristy / developed than Machu Picchu or Cichen Itza, Caracol is more remote and less visited than Tikal. It is also less excavated which is good news and bad news – you get a feel for what the archaeologists are up against, but its easier to envisage the site at its prime at Tikal. Also at Tikal the buildings are significantly higher and in that way, at least, more impressive.

    The other thing I’d say is that overall, we enjoyed Guatemala more than Belize – more variety of sights and much more colour.

    Whichever you choose, I hope you have a great time.

    Dave

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