Mayan Ruin #3: Caracol (and more)

When we were researching various Mayan ruins near San Ignacio, there was one that kept popping up that sounded amazing: Caracol. It was one of most recently rediscovered ruins (1937) and the biggest in Belize. In fact, it was a real rival to neighboring Tikal in Guatemala. Not something to be missed! However, it was not very easy to get to, so we had to come up with a plan!

Step 1: Decide whether or not to take a tour.
Not nearly as many people visit Caracol as do the other nearby ruins (in part because there are no easy cruise excursions here). But, several of the tour offices do offer day long trips to Caracol. The cost seemed outrageous. Up to $100 per person for trip of only 40 km outside of San Igancio. Decision: No Tour

Step 2: Explore how to get there without a tour.
The guidebook made it clear that it was perfectly possible to get to Caracol on your own. Only a few problems: there is no public transportation available AND you are going to be traveling through undeveloped jungle near the Guatemalan border and there have been reports of hijackings along the way! The good news is that it had been approximately 15 years since any of those had been reported, in part because the Belizean government had set up a military convoy into and out of Caracol. If you want the safety of the convoy, you must arrive at the starting point by 9 am and you must leave the ruins by 2 pm. Decision: It shouldn’t be too bad – let’s do it!

Step 3: Rent a Car.
We wandered around San Ignacio one afternoon visiting various rental car places listed in our guidebook. We pretty much went with the first one we found and were able to talk with someone (Matus Car Rental). Renting a car in Belize is an amazing experience compared with the US. It went like this: We ask for a car. They quote a price for the day. We say we will do it and go to sign the papers. They give us one easy to understand paper to sign. We ask for what the hidden fees are. They look at us like we’re crazy and confirm that it indeed the quoted price for the day, no more. We are shocked. Decision: Rent cars in Belize!

Step 4: Find Travel Friends!
We have discovered through our past trips that some of the best days happen when you rent a car, find some new friends, and strike out to something off the beaten path. Going to Caracol was the perfect opportunity, so all we needed were some travel buddies. Luckily, our prior trip to Xunatunich provided us with what we needed. We met a really wonderful couple on the top of El Castillo. He was from South Africa, she was from Slovakia, and they were amazing travel companions. Decision: Travel friends are one of the best reasons to travel!

Step 5: Go For it!
We picked up our rental car early in the morning. The first challenge was that the front tire seemed to be flat.

“No problem,” says the rental owner, “you can grab some air at the gas station down the road.” Suspiciously, we ask, “How much does that cost??” Long silence… “Air? Air is free!” He looks at us like we were insane. Who in their right mind could possibly charge for air? Oh…

We filled up the tire, retrieve our travel companions and head off towards Caracol. Della had to drive because Eric still hasn’t learned how to drive a stick shift! ūüėČ The road became pretty bumpy quickly, but not too bad when you compare it to some roads in Gilpin county. We made it to the military checkpoint with plenty of time to spare. The guards looked a little bored and were definitely not worried about anything bad happening. They told us we could wait for the convoy if wanted… or not. We took this as a good sign, but still decided to wait. When the convoy actually happened, it really wasn’t very regimented but we definitely made it safely to the ruins. The last 10 miles in were actually on paved road which was a wonderful change the from the gravelly, washboard road we had been traveling on prior.

We enjoyed a marvelous day at Caracol. We climbed to the top of Caana, which at about 141 ft is still one of the tallest man made buildings in Belize. We saw some great stellae ruins and the Temple of the Wooden Lintel which has an original wooden lintel! The great thing about how hard Caracol is to get to is that not very many people go. We often felt like we were the only ones there.

We left as recommended, with the military convoy at 2 pm. We were pretty tired, but our traveling companions suggested two stops on the way back that were supposed to be lovely: The Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls. Rio On Pools were very easy to find and provided an excellent way to cool off on the hot Belizean day. Big Rock Falls were a bit of a harder challenge. They ended up requiring us to drive into what turned out to be an expensively exclusive resort and then to wander aimlessly through till we made a good guess as to where to park. But, despite the difficulty finding the place, it was amazing! We arrived back in San Ignacio after dark, exhausted but content!  Decision: Get yourself to Caracol! It is fantastic day!

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One of the tallest man-made structures in Belize!

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Climbing Caana

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We made it!

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Top of Caana

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Beautiful Stella

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This is what ruins looks like before their excavated. It’s a wonder they’re ever found!

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Wooden Lintel – original!

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Our trusty rental car

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Enjoying Rio On Pools

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Beautiful way to end the day: Big Rock Falls

Click here to see the route we took. 

Cave Adventure: Actun Tunichil Muknal

One of the activities we were most looking forward to in our time in San Ignacio was a visit to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (called ATM for short). This cave is undeveloped so it is quite an adventure just to explore. Plus, there are also Mayan artifacts and skeletons in a large chamber inside. We enjoy cave formations and we enjoy Mayan ruins, so this was an excellent activity for us!

Because of the unique nature of the cave and its artifacts, you have to go there as part of a guided tour. The tours were quite expensive, but we decided it was a unique opportunity. We evaluated a few different tour guides and eventually chose Mayawalk because their offering was slightly cheaper. (We were warned their their tour would be rushed and impersonal, but that would turn out to be far from the truth).

Our ATM tour was composed of us and 6 other people. We drove out to the trailhead with our guide Martin and started the mile-long walk to the cave.

By the way, we don’t have any pictures from this adventure. A few years ago, a tourist dropped a camera on an ancient Maya skull, leaving a giant crack. So, the powers that be decided to ban cameras altogether.

The walk out to the cave turned out to be pretty interesting just on its own. Martin would stop frequently to show us something interesting, such as leafcutter ants or cohune nuts (which we ate). There were also three river crossings which we had to ford. After some recent rains, the water was moving pretty swiftly!

After a quick snack break, it was time to go into the cave itself. We put on our hard hats and headed for the cave. The entrance to the cave is pretty unique-you have to swim 20 feet across a deep pool of water! Some people indicated it was going to be difficult to get across, but it turned out to be easy.

The first mile of the cave was definitely a pretty wild experience. This is not a calm path with a handrail – you are walking into an undeveloped area. The cave has water running through it which you are walking against most of the time ankle deep but in some cases chest deep!

At one point Martin had us stop so he could look at our neck size, We were a little confused, but after going through the obstacle it made sense – you had to go through some chest deep water between two boulders.The best way is to go through with your neck between the skinniest part!

Martin had us walk one calmer stretch without flashlights – only being guided by placing our hand on the person in front of us. Here is a re-creation of what that looked like:

Pitch Black Darkness

After about a mile of spelunking,we got to the chamber with the Mayan artifacts. We took off our shoes because the artifacts are just lying on the ground right next to you, so they really didn’t want us stepping on them.

First, we looked at many different examples of Mayan pottery. It seemed as if they were arranged into ceremonial offering sites. Martin had us as a group try and interpret what the layout might symbolize. We weren’t ever sure if we got it “right,” but that might have been the point.

Then, we got to see actual skeletons of the Mayans that are still in the cave today. Over time, they have been calcified by the elements and almost look like part of the cave. It was pretty amazing to be able to observe them from a few feet away with nothing separating us. The most impressive remains are what they call the “Crystal Maiden,” a well-preserved female skeleton whose calcification causes the bones to sparkle.

Crystal Maiden - from Wikipedia

Crystal Maiden – from Wikipedia

Because our group spent so long doing various interpretations, we were the last of the various tour groups that day out of the cave. At this point we were also starting to get pretty cold – our clothes were still wet from going through the water, and there isn’t any warm sunlight to dry us off underground! Therefore, we walked out of the cave and then down the trail much faster than we did one the way in. We had a late provided “lunch” back at the van, and then headed back to San Ignacio.

Overall, we really enjoyed the trip and would highly recommend seeing ATM if you are in San Ignacio. It is worth the cost if you have any interest in caves or ancient artifacts. It certainly does not feel like something that you would be allowed to do in the US without filling out extensive paperwork!

Mayan Ruin #2 Xunantunich

On our third day in Belize we took a trip to visit the Mayan ruin of Xunantunich.  This is an easy 11 km trip to the west from San Ignacio. We caught the bus from town for a pretty short and easy ride to the small town of San Jose Succotz. It is impossible to miss because the road there is blanketed with touristy trinket stalls. It was fun to catch the hand-cranked ferry which transported us across the Mopan River.

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From there, it is about a mile hike up a relatively steep road. Like many of the ruins in Belize, Xunantunich is accompanied by a small archeological museum.  We enjoyed learning a bit more about the ruins and their excavations. Xunantunich struck us as being quite different from Cahal Pech (a smaller ruin practically inside San Ignacio) because there were open spaces that the jungle had not encroached upon.

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We walked around several of the smaller structures and enjoyed learning more about the native plants. Though, by learning more, I mean that the park had labeled several of them with nice wooden signs.

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The main site is the large temple called “El Castillo.” The climb is beautiful and we spent more than an hour on top enjoying the cool breeze and amazing views. Xunantunich is only a couple of km away from the Guatemalan border so you feel like you can see almost all of Belize and then stare beyond into Guatemala.

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Overall, we loved Xunantunich. Compared to some other Mayan sites, there was not that much to see, but the peaceful views from the top of El Castillo make for a fantastic day.

From Denver to San Ignacio via the Belize Zoo

Flying

To get to Belize, we first flew to Miami on a red-eye flight from Denver. That meant that we didn’t have to leave our house until the sun was setting. We took the Denver RTD bus to the airport, which was a helpful preview of managing our packs.

Red-eye flights are never fun, but we did manage to sleep a little bit. We got to the Miami airport at about 5 AM local time and found a relatively quiet corner to try and sleep. However, it was tough because the airport was really cold! And we didn’t think to pack anything for warmth in our bags, because we were heading to Belize…

Travel Advice: Never underestimate the probability of over-air conditioning in a public space.

The flight from Miami to Belize City went pretty quickly. Upon arrival and clearing customs,we caught a cab into Belize City. The cab was $25 (US), which seems like a big rip-off, but there aren’t really any public transportation options unless you are willing to walk quite a distance to the highway.

Taking the Bus

We hadn’t heard that there was any great reason to stay in Belize City, so we had to cab take us straight to the bus station. After getting out, some people came up and asked where we were trying to go. We assumed they had nefarious motivations, but it turned out they actually were very helpful and took us straight to our bus which was about to leave!

In Belize, the public buses are old school buses, so it felt very familiar to us to be riding one. The bus was pretty full, so we had to ride with our bags uncomfortably on our laps. We told the “conductor” where we were headed and he said he would tell us when our stop was coming up. Then, he cranked up the reggae on the bus sound system and we were on our way down the Western Highway.

Travel Advice: In Belize, you don’t pay for the bus when you get on. The conductor will come by at some time during the ride itself and ask for your fare. We never determined if there was a formula for when he decided to make his rounds or not.

Belize Zoo

Our final destination for the day was San Ignacio all the way on the western border of Belize. Belize is so small that this means that it is only about 120 km away. Since it was still early in the day, we decided to stop at the Belize Zoo.

The Belize Zoo had the reputation of being one of the premiere places to see animals in Belize, so we thought it would be a good introduction to the country’s natural wonders.

The Zoo is very easy to get to. The bus dropped us off right at the entrance (it is just off the highway). The Zoo had lockers for us to store our big bags. The entry fee was a little steep though.

The Zoo is smaller than the one in Denver but had quite a bit of diversity of animals. Our favorites included:

Tapir (The national animal of Belize.)

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Ocelot

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Jaguar

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Harpy Eagle (Della’s new favorite bird!)

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To San Ignacio

After finishing looking at all the animals, we headed back out to the highway. A westbound bus came by pretty quickly. We flagged it down and headed on to San Ignacio. We made it in plenty of time to find lodging and get some dinner.

A long 24 hours of travel but a fun introduction for our trip!

Why Belize?

Our visit to Belize was almost an accident. We had been planning to visit Ecuador all year.  To that purpose, we had both worked hard to gain American Airlines miles so that we could get there!  But as the summer grew closer, we found that there was just no availability to Ecuador. So, the research began. It was nice to have a slightly narrower focus РWhere could we get to on our American Airlines miles? Belize quickly became the front-runner. A small country known for great water activities including snorkeling and diving as well as amazing Mayan ruins.

After further exploration, we found that Belize is a very easy place for Americans to visit. It is relatively close and inexpensive. ¬†In addition, the official language of Belize is English! ¬†U.S. dollars are widely accepted. ¬†The exchange rate couldn’t be easier to calculate – $1 to BZ$ 2.

We were sold!  And, we loved it!

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