Macaw Bank, Cayo, Belize
Thursday, December 20, 2012

It was about two and a half hours into the new era, and I was sat on top of Caana (the tallest temple in Caracol, an ancient Mayan city) when the monkies began their bloodcurdling howls from inside the jungle to the left. There were a few other guys who also forwent their tents and were sat up on the tallest manmade structure (still) in Belize; we all exchanged slightly disconcerted looks. It wasn’t immediately clear what was causing the commotion, but about half an hour later, a slow procession of Mayan shaman and elders began walking past the main plaza below. We clambered down the steep steps and went in pursuit, intrigued as to whether they held a secret to surviving (what could’ve still been) the end of the world.

It turns out that we had witnessed the start of a Fire Ceremony that was being undertaken to spiritually cleanse oneself before the new era. Until sunrise, attendents at Belize’s flagship event observed and participated in a tradition to cast out negativity ahead of the new baktun.

This was a deeply symbolic process, and had been prequeled several hours earlier, this time at the top of Caana, with a ceremony asking ancestors who lay on the site, for permission to proceed. By the time the sun had risen on, the fire had burned out in the altar, and people returned to their tents to pack up, have breakfast, and return to civilisation. In the previous 24 hours, much had happened, and there was plenty to observe as people, at least pretended to, prepare for the “end of the world”.

On the morning of the 20th, I took a minibus down with three writers who were reporting on the event for publications in the States, and the ‘Rough Guide to’ books. The route took us through the Mountain Pine Forest Reserve, a place of stunning natural beauty. Rolling hills, rivers running freely, pools and creeks forming intermittently on the terrain. We crossed the Macal bridge, the last water source before Caracol, some twelve miles away. Thankfully the final stretch of road was paved, meaning at was, in relative terms, a gracious entrance to the former city.

After ‘checking in’, interviewed a couple of people and begun the first of my multiple trips up Caana. The reason for this quad workout was not wholly voluntary. Part of my chat with the Telegraph was to send updates to their Live Blog which was being run in London. “That’ll be simple enough won’t it Sam?”. Not the case. The more I chatted to people, we had to run down (and cross off) a number of options that would’ve been straight forward in most places. 3G, Wi-Fi, Phone signal, Phone signal with booster, were all not possible. In the end, the solution had to be a Guatemalan SIM card, from a specific service provider, to pick up signal from across the border, and even then it could only be SMS, as opposed to pictures. The only way to access the signal was above the trees, and so the top of Caana it was.

The first update was sent, and after a descent the 150 or so of the 250 guests were taken on a Guided Tour by head archaeologist Dr Jamie Awe (pronounced ‘Ha-may Ah-way’), who first came to the site nearly 35 years ago when he was first a student. Later in the evening he presented black-and-white pictures of the original team working on excavation when it was completely covered in jungle. The main development of the site came between 2000-04 which confirmed its status as a Mayan powerhouse.

The tour offered a great number of insights into the Mayan culture, and it was interesting to compare with my previous site – Tikal. The two cities were sparring partners: Caracol defeating its rival in 562AD, and revenge coming roughly a century later.

We were shown around houses that different classes of Mayans would live in, including the practice of burying family members in the same tomb: bones of several generations piled up on top of each other. Dr Awe graced us with bits of Ancient Maya trivia (read: Fun Facts) along the way. There was a fair bit of crossover from Tikal, however I shall continue the list.

Fun Fact #14 – the steps to the temples were steep for economic reasons (takes up less space) and so those climbing would be in a submissive position (i.e. on all fours) when facing their rulers

Fun Fact #15 – there are more prehistoric buildings in Belize than there are modern houses

Fun Fact #16 – Caracol means ‘snail’ in Spanish. It is debated why the first archaeologist named it this, but some speculate it is because the route in was so long and winding

Fun Fact #17 – Tikal and Caracol adopted the same system for storing water in reservoirs, with channels across the city acting as overflows

Somebody asked how it is that the archaeologists ‘know’ all of this information. In answer, Dr Awe showed us a big slab with an intricate drawing of one of the Caracol kings. On it, all kinds of events were interpreted. Apparently many of these exist, detailing important battle victories, and marriages between cities. Another one of the Guides referred it as similar to bragging via your Facebook wall.

Once this was done, there was time to explore the site at our leisure followed by a Mayan feast. This was an impressive logistical feat, as there were approximately 15 delicious dishes for us to pile on our plates. The best was pork [“picib”] described as “cooked underground”. Whatever it was, it held a lot of flavour, and tasted great with flour tortillas and tamales. Side note: “tamales” are the ‘smooth pastie’ I couldn’t remember the name of from 6.3.2 Aguacate.

Bellies busted, we were then given a thorough talk on the significance of the 13th baktun, and its derivation – involving a background to Mayan mathematics. I think I was in the minority to last until the end and not nod off.

Many then retired into their sleeping bags (some to double beds put up by a local luxury hotel), however myself and three others went for an after hours tour of the upper class tombs, which were much more sizeable than those of the lower-middle (see photos).

Coffee having kicked in, I decided to take this opportunity to spend some time under the stars, as opposed to fooling myself thinking I could get sleep. I’ve honestly never seen so many stars in the sky in my life. It was amazing. Deciding upon a good spot to gaze, I ascended A-3 in the main plaza and looked out upon the world. As you can see, I attempted (with the help of self-timer) to get a Decent Profile Pic. However without all of the cosmology, it won’t make the shortlist.

This left me to start work instead on my primary reason for travel. In complete silence save jungle noises, on a sacred ancient temple, with only the glittering stars for light, it was a conducive atmosphere to try and Find Myself. No need for details, but certainly good thinking space.

An update was then sent back to England – see 6.5.2 Telegraph Blog – at around 2am, after climbing Caana again. And then the monkeys began their bloodcurdling howls…

Concluding Caracol was simple enough, and for brevity I will just bullet point.

– met travel writers by Caana. Earnt a little shout out here:
– took down a hearty Mayan breakfast, discussed nuances of being British
– took down tent I never ended up staying in
– said thank you and goodbyes to archaeologists who I had met
– hitched a ride back to San Ignacio: passengers nervous as to whether ‘the apocalypse’ had hit outside our inner jungle city

In all, an excellent location to be at for the important moment in Mayan history. At breakfast, they ran out of fruit juice meaning my friend Ian couldn’t have any. “This would never have happended in the last baktun…”.