“Snake! Snake! Snake!”
John Chuc, a Maya native of Belize and our tour guide for the day, excitedly slams on the brakes of our passenger van and points to the road in front of us just as a speckled racer slithers away into the brush on our left.
We resume forward motion and the van continues to creak down the dirt road to Lower Dover, where the rest of our tour group is awaiting pick up. Just then, John yells “snake!” again, and we watch in amazement as a hawk flies overhead with a snake dangling from its mouth.
The tour hasn’t officially begun yet, but I’m already excited.
It’s a cloudy, humid morning calling for temperatures above 100 degrees. After picking up the rest of our group, we begin on what will prove to be a very bumpy and long ride to the Maya ruin site of Caracol.
Nestled in the Maya mountains 500m above sea level, and close enough to the border of Guatemala that armed guards are positioned throughout the park, Caracol is one of the largest Maya ruin sites in the country. The population of Belize today is just over 300,000, but there were once some 2 million Maya in Belize.
The drive to Caracol is close to 3 hours, with most of those 3 hours spent on winding dirt roads (at times covered in rocks) through mountains, nature reserves, orange groves, pine trees, and a generally stunning landscape. With several stops along the way to take photos (and spot wild crocodiles), like the one above just before entering Chiquibul National Park, the drive to Caracol was an adventure in itself.
As we drove, we switched between making conversation amongst ourselves and listening to John talk about Maya history and life in Belize. The limestone road gradually transitioned to a rich, red clay as we climbed in elevation, and the cloudy skies began to part, until we arrived in Caracol to mostly sunny skies and some serious heat.
After visiting Xunantunich and Cahal Pech in Belize last year, I thought I was prepared for Caracol. But I severely underestimated it. Caracol is HUGE and breathtaking. The immensity of this site and the awe it inspires is something a picture simply can’t capture.
We explored for nearly two hours, climbing various structures throughout the site, which has only been about 10% excavated. John took us off the path and into the jungle, literally, to converse with howler monkeys and chase tarantulas out of their nests.
He promised we’d be able to see all of the other tourists in the site, but that they would never see us – and he delivered. We managed to avoid all of the large groups completely, allowing us to feel we had the site to ourselves to explore.
After fueling up with some much needed lunch and water, we loaded back up into the passenger van and headed out of the park towards our next destination, Rio Frio Cave.
Rio Frio Cave has an impressive 85-foot entrance with a creek running through it. It was not used by the Maya for sacrifices or offerings, but many other caves throughout Belize were. After a short introduction, we were left to explore, gawk at the amazing formations inside, and climb around in the cave to our heart’s content for about 30 minutes.
Standing at the mouth of that cave on a small rock looking out, I was reminded that there’s no better way to put things in perspective than a day spent in nature and it’s incredible natural beauty, feeling small.
As the sun began to dip lower in the sky, we were all ready to get to our next stop at Big Rock Falls to swim and cool down. I mentioned earlier that temperatures soared over 100 the day John and I visited Caracol – I have never sweat so much in my life as I did that day. I would have gladly jumped into a pool of alligators to cool off.
After parking near the path to the waterfall, John Chuc urged us to head on down the path. “It’s just down that way,” he said. The hike began leisurely…just a nice dirt path. A nice dirt path that abruptly transformed into downward winding steps made of everything from tree roots to rocks. After a day climbing the steep steps of Maya ruins (sometimes literally on my hands and knees) I can’t say this was exactly a welcome sight, but it did do a lot for me facing my fears and persevering anyway.
After what seemed to be the most challenging, painfully slow descent (for a big baby like me) we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Big Rock Falls ahead. The “local’s playground” as John Chuc called it.
We took our shoes off and began the new challenge of walking barefoot across large rocks all the way to the waterfall. Here we located a dry rock, set down our belongings, and waded into the incredibly refreshing pools at the base of the waterfall. But our adventuring wasn’t over yet – John Chuc led us straight into the plunging waters (where admittedly I–and almost all the other females in our group–nearly lost my swim top) and instructed us to jump back into the water and let the current carry us through.
A few of the guys, including my John, actually jumped off of various rocks next to the waterfall. John progressively got higher, eventually jumping an alarming 45 feet (!!!!) into the base of the waterfall. I managed about a 6 foot jump…but hey – baby steps!
We spent the rest of our time wading in the pools, where I sat super still until I got a nature pedicure from a school of tiny fish who took great pleasure in nibbling on my feet.
We emerged with a greater appreciation of nature and were rewarded with a beautiful sunset before making our way back to our lodges.
Never in my life have I met someone like John Chuc, so clearly in love with every aspect of his job and nature itself. He was an inspiration to me in terms of making your life all about the things that make you happy. With the look of pure joy on his face at almost all times, it was nearly impossible not to feel the same way myself.
The journey to Caracol isn’t an easy one (and will likely test your bladder control – ha!) but it is 100% worth the bumpy roads, the sweat, the physical effort, the threat of howler monkeys maybe peeing on you, and the long drive to be transported into another world, if only for the day. I will never forget it.
Extra info: John’s tour company is K’in Winik and I cannot recommend him enough. He will take you where other tours don’t go, he’ll make you smile all day, and he’ll give you thorough background on Belize, the Maya people, and nature. I dare you to take his tour and not develop a greater appreciation for our world. As our hosts Claudia and Franklin at Vanilla Hills Lodge told us, he probably knows every rock in Belize by name. I believe them. 🙂