On my first true international vacation you would think I would take extra care in planning, given that I was a twenty-something young women in a foreign land. I sure thought I had. All the guidebooks I’d bought on Belize explained how safe the country is (and it is) even to the point that one guidebook was fully comfortable with hitchhiking across the country – I thought that was a no-no everywhere by now! So when I planned an excursion to Caracol I was excited to take the adventure on my own without the help of a guide or travel bus.
Caracol is the ruins of the largest Maya civilization discovered in Belize and is just partially excavated. Only in recent decades could you actually make the trek there as it sits deep into the mountains in the Cayo district in western Belize on the border of Guatemala and there were roads. Even today, with what i would loosely describe as roads, the drive is anything but easy. And being that I grew up with a dad that worked for the Boy Scouts I’ve been on my share of bad dirt roads but even so I was nowhere near prepared for this trek.
I used San Ignacio as my jumping off point for the trip to Caracol. After chatting with locals and hotel staff my comfort with driving myself to the ruins and saving a few hundred dollars was reinforced. The only thing I was told to keep in mind was that I needed to get to about the half way point by 10am as you have to meet the Belizean military for an escort for the last half of the trip. Apparently there’s a problem with Guatemalans crossing the border to poach palm frawns (always wondered where Pier One got all their stock) and there’s been some incidents with tourists in the past. While that should have given me pause, I was already in the grasps of the idea of an adventure.
The next morning, as often happens to me, I woke up late. I’m not a morning person to start with but when you layer on a late night, my odds of making a planned departure time go way down. That being said I rushed out of the hotel and headed down the road. Just after turning off of the paved roads in San Ignacio / Santa Elena and hitting the rocky dirt road, I realized I should have checked the gas gauge before leaving town. Half a tank should be enough though, right? I’d been told it’s only 25 miles away….apparently that was as the crow flies. Anyway, since I had a date with a military escort there was no time to further debate the gas situation.
As you make your way towards Caracol you experience an array of landscapes. Going from jungle to mountain pine forests and back to jungle again as you progress through the mountains. Gradually the roads get more and more dramatic. Throughout the trip the roads have been graded so getting your tires (especially in a rental SUV) to grip the road is difficult with any amount of speed. Then there’s the random large rock that will throw your back out of alignment without warning!
After what seemed like a lifetime I made it to the military barracks and what I looked forward to as some relief following someone who would know the roads. My hopes were quickly squashed when I was told by a group of soldiers that the caravan had already left. They had me sign in and said not to worry that I could just go on to Caracol without an escort. So, despite some reservations off I went again.
The drive continued to be stressful with each portion of road throwing new challenges with every turn. After more than 2 hours on the road I hadn’t reached Caracol and the road seemed to be disappearing into the jungle. Vines and tree limbs were reaching out from both sides of the road trying to envelope my poor little Kia SUV. At this point I was really contemplating turning around….but there was no way to do that. The jungle was far too dense. Then in front of me comes a British military Land Rover that was not too polite about their hurry to pass me. Where exactly did they think I could move to so that they could pass?
As I continued past the soldier the road turned to graded dirt and rock again as I came out of the jungle. Then I saw the most beautiful sight….paved road! For some reason the Belizean government started paving the road from the Caracol ruins back towards civilization. I still can’t fathom how they got the machinery up there to start a road but I was sure glad they had. The last few kilometers were a breeze.
I have often heard people say that getting somewhere is half the fun. At the time I sure didn’t think so (I’ve probably never been so stressed!) but looking back I wouldn’t have done it any other way….well I may have stopped to get gas on the way and avoided a hectic search on the way back. So should you make the drive? If you’re adventurous and rough roads don’t bother you, absolutely. If you’re looking for a bit more of a care free experience, you can get a good guide along the main drag in San Ignacio for a few hundred dollars.