Beyond the Pine Ridge, to the southwest, are the ruins of Belize's largest and most important Maya site, Caracol. Once among the most powerful cities in the entire Maya world, this ancient city now lies enshrouded by thick jungle near the Guatemalan border, a 52-mile (much of this very rough) drive from San Ignacio that takes anywhere from three to four hours.
Sitting high on the Vaca Plateau, 1650ft above sea level, it's postulated that Caracol may have stretched over 70 sq miles at its peak (around AD 650). Nearly 40 miles of internal causeways radiate from the center to large outlying plazas and residential areas, connecting different parts of the city. At its height, the city's population may have approached 150,000, more than twice as many people as Belize City has today. Though they had no natural water source, the people of Caracol dug artificial reservoirs to catch rainwater and grew food on extensive agricultural terraces. Its central area was a bustling place of temples, palaces, busy thoroughfares, craft workshops and markets. Caracol is not only the preeminent archaeological site in Belize but also exciting for its jungle setting and prolific birdlife.
At the ticket office, a small visitors center outlines Caracol's history and has a helpful scale model. A museum under construction will house much of the sculpture found at Caracol. There are toilets, picnic tables and a small gift shop. Be sure to bring food, water and, if you're driving, a spare tire. Overnight stays are not permitted.
A system of trails meanders through Caracol, but Plazas A and B are the most excavated. The highlight is Caana (Sky-Place), which rises from Plaza B, and at 141ft is still the tallest building in Belize! Caana underwent many construction phases until its completion in about 800. It supports four palace compounds and three temples. High steps narrowing up to the top probably led to the royal family's compound, where Structure B-19 housed Caracol's largest and most elaborate tomb. It contained the remains of a woman, possibly Lady Batz' Ek from Calakmul, who married into Caracol's ruling dynasty in 584. Climb to the top of Caana to feast upon one of the most magnificent views in all of Belize. On the way down, don't miss the hidden tombs around the back on the left side.
South of Plaza B, the Central Acropolis was an elite residential group with palaces and shrines. To its west, Plaza A contained many stelae, some of which are still in place. Atop Structure A-2 is a replica of a stela found here in 2003 that is engraved with the longest Mayan inscription found in Belize. Structure A-6, the Temple of the Wooden Lintel, is one of the oldest buildings at Caracol. One of its lintels (the one to the left as you enter the top chamber) is original.
South of the Temple of the Wooden Lintel is the A Group Ballcourt, where the all-important Altar 21, telling us so much about Caracol's history, was found. A replica of the 'altar,' actually a ball-court marker, sits in the middle. Further south is one of Caracol's many aguadas (reservoirs), and beyond that the South Acropolis, a Classic Period elite residential complex where you can enter two tombs.