Archaeologists Diane and Arlen Chase believe that Caracol one of the largest sites in Belize, is the Maya city-state that toppled mighty Tikal , just to the northwest, effectively shutting it down for 130 years.
Located within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Caracol is out there, offering both natural wonders and Maya mystery. To date, only a small percentage of the 177 square kilometers that make up the site has even been mapped, identifying only 5,000 of the estimated 36,000 structures lying beneath the forest canopy.
The Maya calendar places great significance on the year 2012 and countries throughout the Mundo Maya are planning a yearlong uplifting of Maya culture with events and ceremonies at various Maya archaeological sites.
To learn about what is planned for 2012 at Caracol, please visit the Caracol in 2012 page from our Maya 2012 travel guide .
The centerpiece is no doubt the pyramid of Canaa, which, at 136 feet above the plaza floor (roughly two meters higher than El Castillo at Xunantunich ), is one of the tallest structures—modern or ancient—in Belize. Canaa was only completely unveiled of vegetation in 2005 by the Tourism Development Project (TDP), whose work is responsible for most of the structures you see. The vistas from the top of Canaa are extensive and memorable.
In addition to the aforementioned superlatives, Caracol, a Classic Period site, is noted for its large masks and giant date glyphs on circular stone altars. There is also a fine display of the Maya’s engineering skills, with extensive reservoirs, agricultural terraces, and several mysterious ramps.
Caracol has been studied for more than 20 years by the Chases and their assistants, student interns from Tulane University and the University of Central Florida. According to John Morris, an archaeologist with Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, a lifetime of exploration remains to be done for 6–9 miles in every direction of the excavated part of Caracol. It’s proving to have been a powerful site that controlled a very large area, with possibly over 100,000 inhabitants. The jungle you see now would have been totally absent in those days, the wood cleared to provide fuel and agricultural lands to support so many people.
Many carvings are dated A.D. 500–800, and ceramic evidence indicates that Caracol was settled around A.D. 300 and continued to flourish when other Maya sites were in decline. Carvings on the site also indicate that Caracol and Tikal  engaged in ongoing conflicts, each defeating the other on various occasions. After the war in A.D. 562, Caracol flourished for more than a century in the mountains and valleys surrounding the site.
A former archaeological commissioner named the site “Caracol” (“snail” in Spanish) because of the winding logging road to reach it, although some contend it was because of all the snail shells found during initial excavations.
Entrance is US$15. The small visitors center presents a scale model and interesting information based mostly on the work of the Chases over the last two decades. A new Monument Museum will allow tourists to view a range of artifacts and stelae from the site and will be based on the work of the TDP.
There are no official guides on-site, as most groups arrive with their own. However, the caretakers know Caracol well and will be glad to walk you through and explain the site for a few dollars. Most tours start with the Raleigh Group, move by the enormous ceiba trees, then circle through the archaeologists’ camp and end with a bang by climbing Canaa.
To prepare yourself—and to check on the latest discoveries and trail maps—click over to www.caracol.org .
Most tour operators  offer Caracol day trips, often involving stops at various caves and swimming holes on the way back through the Mountain Pine Ridge . A few, like The Tut Brothers Caracol Shuttle (tel. 501/610-5593 or 501/820-4014, caracolshuttle [at] hotmail [dot] com), specialize in it; their shuttle leaves daily from Crystal Paradise Resort  near Cristo Rey village and can pick up guests staying elsewhere in the area.
The ride should take 2–3 hours, depending on both the weather and the progress made by road improvement crews, who hopefully will not run out of money before you read this. If you’re driving, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must; gas is not available along the 50-mile road, so carry ample fuel.
Camping is not allowed in the area without permission from the Institute of Archaeology in Belmopan. The closest accommodations are those along the Chiquibul Road .
At times, a military escort is necessary to visit Caracol. Ask at your lodge. Tour operators know to show up at 9:30 a.m. at the Augustine (Douglas de Silva) gate to convoy to the ruins.