Maya Adventures /1 – Xunantunich and Caracol

In February 2017 we travelled to Belize and Guatemala, and we had the opportunity to explore several Mayan sites. This post and the following will cover the explorations we made, and a few information on the uniquely beautiful places we visited in that journey.

First of all: where is Belize? Right there. See that green little patch?

This poster was in Atlanta airport. In orange, the areas where the Zika virus is considered more dangerous. Belize is not, the only green area in a sea of orange. Go figure.

Right between Mexico and Guatemala. It’s a young country, formerly known as British Honduras, that received its independence only in 1981. As a consequence of the British colonial heritage, the official national language is English – even if some half of the population uses Spanish, Creole or even Maya as their first language.

We started off our adventure on the coast, with a few days of rest and relax on Caye Caulker, the fabulous island with no cars and that has “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” as a motto. We found that it tries to live to its reputation. It’s a fantastic place for relax, which looks like this:

On the island, my main occupation was this, for a week:

Belize is a little calm, safe place. It’s so safe that one of the most dangerous things you will meet there, is a chilli sauce. Its level five (“Comatose”) is so hot, it comes with a health hazard notice.

“Do not play tricks on the weak or elderly with this sauce”. LOL! It is really, really spicy, though. 

But all this was only a temporary phase, in preparation for the real adventure that was yet to come. I was travelling with my lovely wife Bara, and we met with Karolina and Lukas, two more friends from Prague, for the second part of our journey.

We made a short stop at the Belize zoo. The place surely deserves a visit: it is run by a charity organisation, and it’s a safe space where all the animals have been rescued or found in need of help. It’s a good opportunity to meet the local wildlife in a friendly environment, where attention is given to the health and the wellbeing of the animals.

And the restaurant is good, too. We had breakfast there, and it’s recommended.

It is certainly a great opportunity to learn a lot about the local nature and wildlife. We really loved it.

Bara was learning, fascinated, some facts about the zoo.

From Belize City we rented a car, and went to San Ignacio. It’s 120 km on a generally good road. We passed Belmopan, the capital of the country, on the way, stopping at an Italian restaurant that… was not the most memorable part of the journey. Never mind.

San Ignacio is a nice, lively town far from the more touristy aspects of the Belizean culture, and very close to the border with Guatemala. It is a very good place to make base camp with the intention to explore the Belizean mainland, hike in the jungle and the many Mayan sites of the area. Which is exactly what we did.

First, we went to visit Xunantunich (pronounce: xoo-nan-too-nich, with the soft ch like in church). You can access the site by crossing a hand-operated bridge, which contributes to create the feeling of travelling back in time.

Xunantunich is not one of the major sites when it comes to Mayan history, but it’s very interesting because it has been discovered quite recently, and for the preservation state of its findings. Also, it’s very conveniently served by a modern asphalt road, and it’s super easy to reach. Which doesn’t hurt.

The very interesting fact about all Mayan sites in central America is that most of them haven’t been excavated yet! 

It is estimated that 10-15% of the buildings have been found so far. All the rest (meaning, the vast majority) is still there, under ground and jungle. Some parts have been discovered thanks to radar and ladar technologies (the equivalent of radar, but with laser), but the investments to conduct the excavations are simply too big for a small and young country like Belize, and international partners are badly needed.

A view of the whole site of Xunantunich.

At the moment, American and European universities are cooperating with the Belizean institutions to conduct studies all over the country. The very Xunantunich has been developed thanks to a substantial investment of the European Union.

“Oh but come on, what has the European Union ever done for us?” ALSO THIS and shut up, you idiot.

The site is interesting. The tallest building, “El Castillo”, is the second tallest building in Belize. And it’s very well preserved.

The visitor has the possibility to climb almost to the very top, and enjoy an amazing view.

Here is me, playing Indiana Jones.


Also, the site is immersed in the jungle, and so it’s also very possible to meet wild animals in their own habitat. We met a couple of howling monkeys, that were  apparently not at all scared by us, very happy to show off a few moves for us.

And a nice iguana, with which I had a very close encounter, but this is the best shot I could get.

Anyway, that was it for the day.

The following day we wanted to visit Caracol, which has a legendary aura to its name, because of how hard it is to even get there. It’s not so far from San Ignacio (in Belize, nothing can really be very far from anything else),

but the 85 km or so take at least 2 hours and a half (round up to three, three and a half) because of the conditions of the roads. The traveller has to cross a whole mountain and forest reserve area, which is nice of course, but makes the trip there and back a bit of a real journey.

We left San Ignacio very early in the morning, to make sure we would be at the meeting point for the convoy at 9 AM.

Our rented jeep did quite well, but to say that the road was very bumpy, wouldn’t even start to describe it. We had to be really focused while driving, because the last thing you want is to end up with a flat tire in the middle of the jungle, at 2 hours from the nearest service station.

Here I seem happier than I was, driving on that road. It was fun… until you hit a hole.

All the travellers, with or without tour guides, have to meet at 9.00 AM at a certain check point and register at the local military authority.

The reason for this is that in the past, a few accidents were registered, with travellers being robbed by armed bandits. However, after the local military intensified their presence there, these reports stopped.

On the way to the site, travellers can also stop and visit the impressive Rio Frio caves, which left a strond impression on us.

Caves, and the underworld (Xibalba) in general, had a great importance in the Mayan belief system. Every day, they believed, a battle was fought between deities, and as a consequence the sun was dragged underground – only to be brought back triumphantly, the morning after. Thanks to this balance of forces, all the living beings could exist. Also, Maya believed that all living beings on Earth were connected (and they were right). Which means they were a lot smarter than some of us, modern thinkers.

Caracol: the name comes from the Spanish word for “snail” that were so abundant in the area at the time of the discovery.

And I can confirm, they are still there.

But its original Mayan name, as reconstructed from the findings, must have been Oxwitza (“Three hills water”).

The place is certainly rewarding after the long journey necessary even to get there. The city must have been huge, for ancient standards. It is estimated that more than 100 thousand people must have inhabited the city, and even more considering the surrounding areas. The peak must have been around AD 250 – 500. At the time very few cities in the world could rival with this numbers. Impressive.

This reconstruction in the local visitor centre shows the whole site seen from above.

Then, the city started to decline (well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores), probably because it had used up most of its farmable land. People started to leave, to the advantage of other nearby sites like Xunantunich, until the place was completely abandoned around AD 900. One thousand years and more of jungle growth did the rest to hide it from us.

At the peak of its power, however, Caracol was a regional superpower, able to wage war even with enemies out of its league. I was delighted to find out that one particular war, fought in AD 562 and won against Tikal (in contemporary Guatemala), was actually called “Star War”! They loved it too!

(And fear not: there will be more connection between Maya and Star Wars, coming soon in the next post)

The site was discovered accidentally in 1937, and the excavations are well under way still now.

The Maya are also famous for their deep knowledge of astronomy. Yeah, remember the terrible prophecy that the world would end in 2012?

Yes, this one.

It was due to the fact (to make a long story short) that Maya were counting years in units called “long count”, and the last of these that they cared to predict was supposed to end, actually, in 2012.

They never bothered to update their calculations not out of lazyness but because, well, the got wiped out by a deadly combination of European guns and germs well before their supposed expiry date. Their knowledge, in fact, outlived them. It is very sad.

But the calendar is still there, it’s incredibly complex, and accurate. It’s all based on accurate mathematics, so for example, here you can convert your birthday into Maya time. Mine corresponds in Long Count Date to  Impressive, even if I am struggling to find some possible use of this information.

I just know that the solar year was divided in 18 months of 20 days each, plus one extra month of 5 “unlucky days” (necessary for correction), that should be around August, if I am not wrong.

View of the Observatory and a Maya altar.

The Observatory is still there, and it marks with great precision the equinoxes and solstices of each year.

In Caracol is possible to climb straight to the top of the Caana (“Sky Palace”), which is still nowadays the highest building in Belize with its 42 meters.

The palace had double functions of religious site – and living place for the nobility, who would have their cozy stone apartments carved up at the higher floors. The steps are steep even for our longer legs (and the Maya were quite shorter, in average, than we are now). This was on purpose: to climb up, people had to feel humbled and put to the test. They were, after all, ascending to the sky. 

And the view from the top is indeed awe inspiring.

Caracol has also left several ball courts, the playgrounds were dedicated to the ancient ball court game that apparently had a very important – political and religious – role in the Mayan society.

It doesn’t look that exciting now, does it? But imagine it with crowd on both sides, and blood spilled all over the place.

It was almost certainly played between two opposing teams. Imagine a mix between pelota, basketball and quidditch: the aim of the game being to throw a rubber ball in a stone ring at the end of the field.

It is not clear what would happen next: some say that the losers would be sacrificed to the Gods, some say that this honor was reserved for the winners. What seems to be sure, is that the game ended usually with blood being spilled. Which may help to explain the contemporary attitude of Latin Americans towards ball games, and most importantly football.

All in all, a visit to Caracol can take around 3 hours. Visitors are supposed to arrive together, in convoy, and to leave the area together (departing at 2 PM).

The site is not easy to reach, but remains without doubt one of the most interesting and fascinating landmark in the whole region. It’s absolutely recommended for all those with an interest in history, archaeology, culture in general – and nature, since after all it’s a long journey in a natural reserve.

Soon the next chapter of the journey! With our cross border exploration of Guatemala: Flores and Tikal. Click here to read it!



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