Day 4 – Slow down please Old Man Time. This is my last scheduled tour while in the Cayo District. Tomorrow I’ve planned a low-key day puttering around the bounds of my jungle resort, and after that, I go meet up with the wedding party. For now, ruins and waterfalls on the docket.
The day looked to be another murky, foggy day here in the jungle, but I was assured it would clear off as we started along or way. Young Mr. Luis was my guide again, just me and him, and I ain’t gonna lie… the thought of another four hours in the car alone was stressing me out. I already exhausted my go-to conversation topics yesterday, and it was gonna be WERK to come up with some new subjects. Because introvert. The Mayan gods musta been smiling down on me. Almost 5 minutes into our ride, we turned off onto the rockiest side road, one that would tolerate no conversation. I focused on trying to make sure my organs didn’t jumble up inside too terribly much, while simultaneously feeling deep gratitude for the “quiet” morning ride.
We’d given ourselves 2 hours to get the ruins at Caracol. They’re a long way off and you’ve got to traverse rough terrain to get there. The most important thing was getting to a military checkpoint along the way by 9am. There, we would sign in with the Belizean military and get an escort to the site. This is because Caracol, the ruin site (Mayan name = Uxwitza, or Three Water Hill), borders Guatemala, and relations between Belize and G have been somewhat volatile. There’ve been incidents where Guatemalans have robbed Caracol tourists at gunpoint, sometimes kidnapping them for ransom. Sooooo… this military escort is a precautionary measure, I was told. Of course, I was told, again, the day of the tour right as I hopped in the tour van. Which is fine. But these are the kinds of details you like to know in advance. Or maybe that’s just me.
We got to the checkpoint right at 9am, signed in, and took a quick bathroom break. Then another hour or so of driving through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve (vastly different ecosystem than the lush jungle landscape at my resort) before we reached the destination, Caracol.
Now, another “huh” detail about the day… Luis didn’t actually know anything about the site’s history. I was told he didn’t know very much but… he knew nothing, Jon Snow. So I was a wee bit frustrated, post 2-hour jumbly car ride, to learn that my guide was more of a glorified driver than anything else (tho credit where credit is due, he was baller at the cave tubing site yesterday!). Maybe sensing my annoyance, he managed to convince a more knowledgeable guide to let us tag along with another small group made up of two parents and a young gal.
We wandered off to the site. There were 3 “levels” of ruins that we’d be walking through. The middle class, the priesthood class, and royalty. Each was taller and more impressive based on their ranking system. Before actually getting to the ruins we talked some basic info and a few random but important rules of the road. The site is still an active archaeological site. Also, it’s mating season for snakes, so our guide asked to make sure we’d let him pave the way. No problem! He also said he can smell snakes upstream because they release a chemical when they feel threatened. Mmk Belizean Aragorn. Just keep the snakes at bay, and we’re good.
We passed by a couple ginormous Ceiba trees. These trees are incredible and deserve an entire post just to themselves. Mayans believed that the Ceiba tree was sacred, with its 13 layers of branches representing the 13 layers of heaven, the trunk representing the middle world (or earth), and the roots representing the 9 levels of the underworld. Mythology is my jam. Hungry to learn so much more about this tree. Another mind-blowing thing about the Ceiba? They were important resources during the second World War. Ceiba trees produce fruits with a brownish “cotton.” This cotton was used to fill flotation devices, like life jackets, and valued because unlike man-made stuff, Ceiba cotton was not flammable. GAH! Trees! These incredible trees. In person tho… you can really only appreciate their splendor unless you see them in person. I wanted to curl up in their giant roots and read a book or take a nap. Felt a kinship with them, I did. But then, I do love my trees.
John, the tour guide that actually knew stuff, was definitely informed, but not good at crafting compelling stories. I found my mind wandering frequently while he was talking. Some things I did retain. Caracol (named that by archaeologists because of the winding path to the site as well as the many caracols, or snails, found in the area), was one of the largest Mayan cities. At one point, it boasted 36,000 structures, enormous compared to the usual 5,000 – 6,000 in other large cities. It was unique in that, rather than hoarding all the goods for royalty and the priesthood, it shared resources with the middle class, critical resources like cement which allowed them to build durable homes. It was a rich city. It was one that won some key battles with other Mayan cities. It was powerful. It was the best of it’s time for quite a while.
Walking the structures is a top-rate quad workout. I scaled as many as I could, the best one of which was, of course, the structure built for royalty. Vistas at the top of the jungle canopy were made that much better (and louder) by the grumpy howler monkey that was screaming at the top of his lungs. More on critter sightings:
The day’s animal/insect sightings (or not):
Hower monkey mom, with three little kiddos: One was splayed out on a branch curling its tail and dangling it’s leg nonchalantly. Another one was sitting right on its momma’s head, and watched us intently (this was during the drive. We’d stopped to observe).
Scarlet macaw: This was always a longshot. The scarlet macaw is that classic jungle parrot: the red, yellow, and blue variety. There are only 100-200 of them in the wild in Belize… but our eyes were peeled for them anyway.
Leafcutter ants: John pointed out a nest, then stomped on the ground to demonstrate how the big army ants would emerge to check out the disturbance. It took about 30 seconds, but sure enough, they swarmed out their holes, big and burly beefy red ants armed with large pincers. Then Luis showed us how the Mayans might have used them as a way to stitch up wounds. He held one up to his shirt hem, and the giant pincers locked closed. He quickly tore away the body and the antennae slowly stopped moving, but the pincers remained shut. The army ant’s head was still firmly attached to Luis’s shirt after the end of this long day. Twas a disturbing, if effective, demonstration.
MORE howler monkeys: This time the alpha male was terribly angry (classsssic alpha male). It was howling up a storm, right next to the highest formation at Caracol. They’ve said you can hear the howler monkeys howl from up to three miles away. I believe (Belize?) it. It was something awful, and effectively intimidating.
Scorpion Queen: I didn’t actually get to see this though I saw her stinger, and pictures from the family’s camera after the fact. This scorpion lady was wandering around at the very top of the tallest Mayan structure, with tens of her little babies riding along her back. An excellent reminder to watch where I’m going.
The tour done, we grabbed lunch and then headed to the waterfalls. There was a quick pit stop at Rio Frio caves to try and avoid the rush of the post-Caracol visitors to the falls. Once I burned off the last of my energy at the caves, though, I was ready to go home. Luis took me to get some quick snaps of the Rio Frio pools, and at 5ish or so pm, 10 hours after we took off this morning, I arrived back at Amber Sunset Jungle Resort.
There is much-needed rest and relaxation in order for the night, and I’m savoring the idea of a mellow, sedentary day tomorrow. But I seem to have brought back an unwanted souvenir from my day, namely an angry rash forming along my neck and chest (it’s not just about the highlight reel, my friends!). Hopefully, the ancient Mayan spirits haven’t cursed me.