Journey into the Forest: Day Trip to Caracol

Caracol Travel Blog

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The road to Caracol
Our first excursion from San Ignacio was to the ancient Mayan city-state of Caracol. While it was quite remote--a 2.5 hour drive through rough roads into the Chiquibil Forest Reserve--Caracol was an important historical place, successful in even defeating mighty Tikal. Still, this site was more recently uncovered, the last major excavation and vegetation removal taking place in 2005. I had a sense that this would be a tranquil site and it did turn out to be my personal favorite of the four Mayan sites we visited on this trip.

It was a good thing we hadn't planned our trip a week earlier. Everyone said that the rivers and streams were over their banks, which caused many places to be closed or flooded out.
The lonely banana tree
But the only evidence of this was a clear mud-line along riverbanks and a few puddles near some of the lower fords. Driving through the countryside towards Caracol, we passed through a tropical forest and a British military base. We had to sign in at a checkpoint, where we saw a British helicopter land in the field. Along the roadside, we spotted occasional soldiers in camouflage with big guns. It was slightly eerie, but not truly upsetting considering we weren't in a war zone or militaristic state. We also passed through an area where the trees appeared dead from the treetops down and eventually we saw charred branches and trunks. Apparently there had been a raging fire that would have continued spreading had it not been for the torrential rains. Our driver suggested the culprit could have been a stray cigarette from one of the soldiers, but it's unlikely that an investigation would ever yield a cause.
Horseball fruit


Other than the military outpost, a few scattered hamlets and the tiny village of San Antonio, we didn't see much but forest, butterflies and the occasional lizard. Besides our driver, Serge (pronounced "surge"), there was only one other person on our trip, a Greek guy named Alex who spoke fluent Spanish. After arrival, we started out towards the ruins but actually passed by several trees that Serge pointed out to us. He picked up a kiwi-sized "nut" and cut it open, revealing a white pithy substance. This was the fruit of the cohune palm and it tasted a little like bland coconut. We had to watch our step to avoid the large black mounds the fire ants called home. Serge pointed to a banana tree with a large bunch of green bananas and a drooping flower pod hanging down.
The B Plaza at Caracol
I had seen banana trees, but didn't know that they only produce one batch of fruit in their lifetimes and it takes about 16 months to happen. Just prior to the entrance to the main plaza was a tree and its fruit littered on the ground. The fruits were mostly split open to reveal a watermelon-red pulp and dark seeds with a white rind and brown skin, all which looked like an alternate-color version of Pac-Man. Serge squeezed the skin and a thick white sap came out. He explained that this was used as a local glue and to plug the breathing hole in skin that result from a botfly bite. For gruesome pictures of that phenomenon and removal of the larva, the Internet will deliver! Anyway, this strange fruit is called "horseballs" because, well, let's say that they always grow in pairs.
View from the top of Canaa


We emerged onto the expansive plaza while Serge explained that the facades of the temples were adorned with jaguar carvings. Actually they were fiberglass replicas constructed to preserve the originals, which have been removed and will be placed in a museum that is being built near the entrance. Despite Caracol's success as a powerful Mayan site, it had water problems. A small reservoir on site was its only supply, refreshed only by rainfall. One theory holds that as water became even more scarce, the population dispersed. In fact, this theory could be expounded to account for the entire decline of the civilization. There are thousands of Mayan peoples still living in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, and I could understand that over the years through migration and intermarriage with other groups they lived on. Most of what we heard about the Mayan civilization amounted to a bunch of educated guesses.
Mark on top of the world
As with many mysteries of the world, we really don't know what happened. We'll see how well they could predict the future, though, when the calendar hits the 2012 winter solstice.

Only a handful of other tourists were there the entire time. It really did feel like we had a private tour of the place. From the tallest structure there (and just about in the entire country), Canaa, we could see the vast forest stretching out to the ends of the horizon. The macabre screeching of cicadas and grasshoppers could be heard in the air, like a symphonic soundtrack to a horror movie. It was a steep climb to the top, the first of many. We must have spent 45 minutes or more exploring Canaa itself. The heights were awe-inspiring. No wonder the royalty would occupy these heights and feel godlike being that close to the sky.

The ball court was small but apparently exclusive for royalty to watch.
Those Mayans liked their steps; Mark is but just a speck from this level
Again, theories are conflict as to who was sacrificed after these games: the winner or the loser. Most of the guides we had seemed to believe that it was the winner who was sacrificed. It made sense to think that if these people made sacrifices to their gods, a losing captain would not be as worthy as a winning one. It is theorized that even the bound captives were willing victims, believing as they were likely to have done that they were being given up for their god. But as their civilization dwindled, there was evidence of younger victims and head trauma, signaling that perhaps some of the sacrifices weren't necessary willing or cognizant of what was really happening.

More flora on the way to the A Plaza: bird peppers (tiny slivers of intense hotness), wild coriander (flat-leafed cilantro), allspice leaves and green and black avocado trees.
Serge showing us the recovered stela
Serge took us to a makeshift canopy over several stelae (etched rock pillars) that had been removed from the actual sites to be preserved. He pointed out the details of the carved warrior with raised arms and a sheath. There were also a few altar stones preserved in withered detail. Thousands of years of history in an elongated slab of pieced-together rock fragments. Behind us was A-6, better known as the Temple of the Wooden Lintel. It looked somewhat like a mountaintop monastery in the Himalayas, and although it was religious in significance, clearly it was not a Buddhist temple. Square holes at various junctures in the stone were supposedly for scaffolding.

We wound our way around the South Acropolis and past the main reservoir, which was overgrown with a thick covering of green lilypads.
The mighty gumbolimbo
Before reaching the A Plaza the back way, we stopped to observe the site of the original stela Serge had described earlier. Next to it was a gumbolimbo tree, or affectionately known as the "tourist tree" for its red, peeling bark that resembles the typical tourist after a few days in Belizean full sun. We also saw the xate plant, whose leaves are frequently sought by American florists for their longevity after being cut. Unfortunately, this plant is being overharvested and actually poached by illegal xateros from neighboring Guatemala.

Slightly smaller than the B Plaza, but rivaling its grandness, A Plaza contained the Temple of the Wooden Lintel, A-3 temple that was off-limits and A-2 that was accessible but mostly overgrown with plantlife to illustrate the condition of how most temples are found.
Overlooking the A Plaza
We climbed up to the top of A-3 for a magnificent view of the surrounding plaza. It wasn't nearly as high as the first plaza, so we couldn't see the expansive forest tops but the perspective was great for the plaza and trees in the immediate area. Serge told us that they'd found a basin with residue of mercury at the foot of the Wooden Lintel temple, but no one knows what it was used for or where they would have obtained it. Another Mayan mystery unsolved.

After exploring that area, we headed back to the entrance and picnic grounds and had a filling lunch consisting of sandwiches, plantain chips, a banana and an orange. We got a couple things in the gift shop, including a book on Belizean Mayan sites. Luckily the mosquitoes weren't very bad and we ate in relative peace. It was hot, as usual, but by then we'd prepared to exist in a sweat-drenched condition.
The A Plaza and the Temple of the Wooden Lintel from on top of A-2
At least the bathrooms had running water, and all the toilets we encountered were regular flush ones.

On the drive back, we detoured to a place called Rio On Pools, just off the road. It was a series of small cascades flowing over the rocks and forming a small swimming area. We weren't alone this time...we came upon at least a dozen British soldiers who were taking a midday break to bathe, swim and shave in the refreshing water. It was difficult to access the actual waterfalls without endangering ourselves against sharp rocks and swift currents, but the shallow portions of the water we waded through were warm and comfortable. Nearer the Brits the river opened up to a still pond, where we were able to swim for a few minutes. I wanted to get to the edge of the water, which appeared to end on a rock ledge overlooking a canyon. We had picked up a park guard at Caracol and he went with Alex over to the ledge somehow, but Mark and I opted for swimming, which is why we had donned our swimsuits for the entire trip.
I suppose I'm standing under the wooden lintel


I thought we were going to go to a cave, but time must have run out, so we just went back, passing over a few of the same "sleeping policemen" that we'd passed before. Speed bumps were everywhere in Belize, and not just on residential streets. In fact, they were more common on major roadways, including the three main highways in the country. Some of the speed bump signs on this road actually had illustrations of someone with a badge and hat lying down. No one really ever seemed to be in a hurry in this country where I did not see a stoplight the entire time. Our days were packed, but were not really rushed.

It turns out that Serge actually was subcontracted by Mayawalk Tours, the company we paid for the excursion, but he owned the restaurant/bar across the street that we'd lunched at the previous day.
Rio On Pools
So, after we got back and cleaned up, we went to Flayva's again to try the stewed gibnut that we'd heard about, and some stout beers on tap. A gibnut is the local name for an animal called a paca. The flavor was good, and contrary to what most exotic meats taste like, I thought it tasted like pork. However, it was quite bony and fatty, with little meat compared to most dishes we'd had. Had I known it would be the cute little spotted critter we'd later see in the zoo, we would have just ordered another burrito. Apparently, the paca is even a threatened species, although I did not read that in the guidebook or we'd never have tried it.
This is stewed gibnut with rice and slices of papaya
Guilty feelings aside, the mere word "gibnut" tickled our funny bones and we still find ourselves cracking jokes and using it deliberately in sentences or euphemistically.

Another long day, but it was not complete until we sampled the chocolate cake that was tantalizing us on the menu of the Sri Lankan restaurant next door to our hotel, the Serendib. I ordered a Sri Lankan dessert called watalappan, which was a grainy, syrupy custard pie that I found quite delicious. The rum drinks we had also hit the spot. Stuffed and exhausted, we closed another evening in Belize, preparing for another day of unknown adventure.
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The road to Caracol
The road to Caracol
The lonely banana tree
The lonely banana tree
Horseball fruit
Horseball fruit
The B Plaza at Caracol
The B Plaza at Caracol
View from the top of Canaa
View from the top of Canaa
Mark on top of the world
Mark on top of the world
Those Mayans liked their steps; Ma…
Those Mayans liked their steps; M…
Serge showing us the recovered ste…
Serge showing us the recovered st…
The mighty gumbolimbo
The mighty gumbolimbo
Overlooking the A Plaza
Overlooking the A Plaza
The A Plaza and the Temple of the …
The A Plaza and the Temple of the…
I suppose Im standing under the w…
I suppose I'm standing under the …
Rio On Pools
Rio On Pools
This is stewed gibnut with rice an…
This is stewed gibnut with rice a…
Caracol
photo by: DragonFlies