Beyond Augustine/Douglas Silva, the Maya Mountains rise up to the south, while to the west is the wild Vaca plateau. Here the ruins of Caracol (daily 8am–4pm; Bz$20), the most magnificent Maya site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Maya world, were lost for over a thousand years until their rediscovery in 1936. Two years later they were explored by A.H. Anderson, who named the site Caracol – Spanish for “snail” – because of the large numbers of snail shells found there. The first detailed, full-scale excavation of the site began in 1985, and research and restoration continues today.
Most arrive with a guided tour from San Ignacio, as there is no public transport to, or even near, the site. If you manage to make it here on your own, you’ll be guided around by one of the guards. The visitors’ centre is one of the best at any Maya site in Belize and an essential first stop. Of the site itself, only the core of the city, comprising thirty-two large structures and twelve smaller ones grouped round five main plazas, is open to visitors – though even this is far more than you can effectively see in a day. The most massive structure, Caana (“Sky Place”) is 42m high and still one of the tallest buildings in Belize. Hieroglyphic inscriptions here have enabled epigraphers to piece together a virtually complete dynastic record of Caracol’s rulers from 599 AD. One altar records a victory over Tikal in 562 AD – a triumph that sealed the city’s rise to power.