Flashback to the Classic Period: 600AD. With an urban center spreading 55 square miles and a population of over 200,000 people, Caracol is the largest known ancient Maya site in Belize and among the largest in the world. It was connected to other Mayan cities throughout Mexico and Guatemala, and engaged in several conflicts with Tikal, before its eventual collapse around 1000AD. Caracol is now an active archeological site, in an active state of restoration, attracting those who seek both adventure and a humbling dose of ancient history.
However, getting to Caracol on your own takes a bit of planning, as its nestled deep within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve of West-Central Belize, making it both remote and difficult to access.
If you plan to make the trip on your own, here are some things to know:
YOU NEED SOME SORT OF 4X4
This isn’t optional.
Before we knew anything about what it was like to take the trip to Caracol, Greg and I reserved an economy car in advance with Hertz at the airport. The lady behind the desk pulled out a map of Belize, tracing the highways with her finger she said, “You should be good to go on any of these roads. The only road that you are not allowed to take this car is on the road to Caracol. You cannot go there without a 4×4.”
Damn. So we left and spent some time bouncing between rental car companies in search of a car that could safely deliver us to the southern boundary of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. After some negotiating, we eventually secured a Kia SUV with 4 wheel drive from TourBelize.
THE DRIVE IS LONG AND EXHAUSTING
In a nutshell, the drive to Caracol was beautiful and dangerous. The dirt road to the ruins is poorly maintained and offers a super rough and bumpy 2 hour ride through the jungle. Thankful that we were forced to forego our economy car in favor of a SUV, we maneuvered through thick mud, across small broken bridges, and around ditches and sinkholes marked only with flagging tape or a small tire.
CHECK IN AT THE BDF BASE (and at the gate to the reserve)
Due to its proximity to Guatemala and outstanding political conflict between the countries, Caracol is guarded by the Belize Defense Force, making it necessary to check in at the base before continuing to the ruins – partly to keep track of tourism and partly to know if you get stuck on the road and don’t return (seriously, it happens).
There will be a military checkpoint approximately halfway to the ruins. You’ll know you’re getting close when you suddenly pass through a ghost town in the middle of nowhere. When you reach the checkpoint, you’ll have to park your car and get out to check in with the guards. And don’t forget to check out when you leave.
After checking in with the guards, you’ll continue about another 40 minutes to the entrance to the archeological site.
Make a plan to arrive at Caracol between 9 and 10am. If you leave later than that you risk getting stuck behind the military convoy or running out of time to enjoy the ruins.
Due to its remote location and difficult access, there was hardly anyone at the site, allowing us to spend most of the day exploring at our leisure. Unlike grossly more popular ruin sites, such as Tikal and Chitzen-Itza, you are allowed to climb all of the pyramids (including temple Caana, the largest man-made structure in Belize), explore several of of the site’s 70 tombs and original hieroglyphs, and view the original stone altars either with a guide or on your own.
The area is also a great location for wildlife sightings. Keep your eyes out for Ocellated Turkeys.
PLAN TO LEAVE AT 2:00 PM
You’ll need to plan to depart Caracol around 2pm when the military escorts leave. For two reasons: 1. They don’t want tourists roaming the site alone and 2. You don’t want to be stranded if you get stuck on the road on the way out
Which brings me to my next point…
Make sure your gas tank is full! And if you’re able to, it is a good idea to make the trip with another group so you’ve got a second car if you get stuck on the road. Its a smart idea to bring a tow rope and some ratchet straps with you
PACK A LUNCH
There’s a lot to see at Caracol and in the reserve itself. Don’t cut your time short because you’re hungry! Pack a lunch and plan to make this an all day outing.
A great place to grab a local home-made lunch is at First-Stop Fast Food, right next door to the best place to lodge. Keep scrolling for more info on where to stay and where to eat.
DON’T SKIP THE WATERFALLS!
The Mountain Pine Ridge is famous for several awesome waterfalls – and luckily, they’re relatively easy to find as access to most of them lies along the dirt road to Caracol.
We opted to take the short hike down to Big Rock Falls on our way back from Caracol, since it was located just off the road. The extremely slippery hike down to the falls took us about 15 minutes. The water at the falls is usually blue, but given the large amounts of rain, the water was brown and the river was flooded. But since it was a favorite local swimming hole, we didn’t want to miss out on the experience and so we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.
If you plan to stop here, wear shoes with good traction, bring a towel and sunscreen, and hope that you’re lucky enough (like we were!) to get the falls all to yourself.
Side note: there’s nothing in the water but a bunch of rocks, so swim without worries!
Other noteworthy waterfalls in the area (on public land):
– Rio On Pools
– 1000 Foot Falls
WHERE TO STAY
Moonracer Farm is a jungle farm located in the Cayo District, just at the beginning of the road to Caracol. The farm is owned by two former Upstate New Yorker’s named Marge and Tom. They bought the farm after falling in love with Belize: the people, the land, the cost of living, and, of course, the Cayo district (which Marge refers to as a “nature lover’s paradise”).
We spent 3 days here and loved that it was equal parts unique, secluded, and central to everything we wanted to see around Mountain Pine Ridge. If you love glamping, this is for you. Everything was incredible – from the privacy of the jungle cabins; to falling asleep to the rain and waking up to the sounds of toucans; to the lack of wifi and electricity; to Marge’s cooking, the flocks of hummingbirds buzzing over our morning coffee, and dinner by candle light; to their overall hospitality that made us feel right at home. Tom even provided us with tow ropes and ratchet straps for getting to Caracol and towels for swimming in the waterfalls.
Anyway, I knew I had to share this place with you guys, so I reached out to Marge and Tom for a bit of information on the history of their farm and how they operate:
If you’re curious about where the name came from:
“Our farm in NY was full of misfits: off-the-track thoroughbred horse rescues, pound pups and rescue dogs, and stray cats who were dumped in our barns. Like the Island of Misfit Toys, Moonracer Farm was a place where the misfits could be themselves and grow into themselves, and either stay with us forever, or move on to a home where they could fulfill their potential. Crazy horses became state champion children’s jumpers or much loved trail horses, chicken killing Jack Russells became the chief groundhog killers to keep holes out of the horse pastures, and stray cats were in charge of rodent control. While we’re not quite so full of misfits here in Belize as we were in NY, we are attached to the name and brought it with us.”
If you want to know what they love most about running a guesthouse:
“We just love meeting so many really great people from all over the world. We have so many great discussions about different cultures and traveling and people’s lives, that we can’t even begin to identify a single favorite thing … We feel like everyone who leaves here is a new friend, and we stay in touch with a surprisingly large number of our guests”.
If you want to know about how to access other local adventures:
Marge and Tom provide guidance on hiking in the area as well as rides to local waterfalls and swimming holes.
And while they don’t provide tours, but they do put guests in touch with their local friends who are able to share their own piece of Belize and local knowledge, including:
- Julio, who takes guests through a preserved area of Belize, where they can explore natural history, limestone formations, caves with archeological artifacts and a piece of land that he grew up in. Guests can then share a local meal at Julio’s house.
- Jose, who takes guests horseback riding through his family farm and shows them parts of the Mountain Pine Ridge and surrounding jungle
Want to save $40 on your first stay with Marge and Tom? Sign up on Airbnb HERE
WHERE TO EAT
MOONRACER FARM provides 3 AMAZING home cooked meals per day at a price of $10 per meal using local ingredients
FIRST STOP FAST FOOD When you head out for the day, stop for lunch at the fast food stand right next door and pick up Belizean burritos and glass bottled coke for $2!
CARACOL AND WATERFALL DAY HIKE PACKING LIST:
– $10 Caracol entrance fee (extra money if you choose to hire a guide at Caracol)
– Light daypack
– Good walking shoes!
– Camera with extra batteries
– A full gas tank!!
– Tow ropes
– Bug spray
– Comfortable clothes
Is Caracol on your list of places to visit? Have you been here? I’d love to hear from you!