By Lydia Carey
At 6am the Melodious Blackbird sings me awake. This is the second day that it has served as my Belizean alarm clock. Today it got me up in time to take a tour of the Caracol Maya ruins site, about an hour and half from the Hidden Valley Inn resort down a bumpy red-clay road past crumbling bridges, military outposts and swarms of butterflies.
The site dates back to 1600 B.C. and was an important Maya city-state in Belize. Its black, worn stone plaza and surrounding buildings are emerge from a dense broadleaf forest, on land chosen by the ancient people for its fertility. “Remember the Maya were farmers,” says our guide Fredy Pineda, Hidden Valley´s guide, naturalist, driver and all around good guy.
The ruins park is surrounded by the Chiquibol natural reserve, a 234,000-acre property where visitors can hook up with tour agencies like Ecoquest to rough it out in the Belizean jungle. It was even the site for a Bears Grylls episode of Man vs. Wild, where he scaled the rock face of the King Vulture waterfalls.
The sky temple, the site´s main structure, is a three-level sacrificial temple dedicated to the goddess of the evening star, Venus. Astrology, seasons and celestial movement were important in the creation of the Maya´s three calendars that functioned as a series of interlocking circles. The haab is 365 days long, the tzolkin, their ritual calendar is 260 and the lang count is a 52-year calendar that begins when the first two meet at the same point and then don´t meet again for another 52 years.
Fredy walks us to the base of the structure facing the main temple and points out the two faces carved into the stone of its facade, one the face of Chaac, the rain god and the other a jaguar, believed to be the sun god.
“When archeologists found these, the face of the sun god had been deliberately covered us,” Fredy says. ¨Archeologists believe this is because of the severe drought that the Maya were suffering towards the end of their time here.¨ The Maya worked hard to balance appeasement of both gods. An ancient, carved seal at the site shows the leader of a neighboring kingdom, about to be killed, bowing down to the Caracol leader in an underground cave — the Mayas location of choice for sacrifices to the rain god and the gods of the underworld.
Their astrology building — where hundreds of people camped out last year to experience the end of the Maya calendar — is towards the back of the site and built so that both solstice and equinox appear between the spaces in the building´s uppermost walls. Fredy told us they found massive amounts of mercury in a room at the top of the building´s steep steps and that it´s believed to have been used by the city´s astrologers as a mirror to observe the stars.
Fredy called our expedition this morning the “city tour” of Caracol and told us that the entire site would take days to explore. There are still several thousand ruins in the park awaiting excavation, but money is tight and the only real funding they are currently receiving (besides admission charges) is from the University of Central Florida. For now, the ruins lay sleeping under giant cieba trees loaded with screeching howler monkeys, and guarded by a dog named Xiba who wanders the grounds, chewing on sticks and looking for shady places to escape the mid-day sun.
If you go:
For more info and photos on Caracol, see the Belize Tourism page for this site. You can travel to Belize from many U.S. and Latin American gateways on Avianca. Luxury Latin America has detailed reviews of the best luxury hotels in Belize.
Story and photos by Lydia Carey, Associate Editor of Luxury Latin America