Caracol vs. Tikal

The Competition Lives On

As a pair of U.S. expats living in the Belize jungle, my husband Jim and I have become a bit chauvinistic about the beauty and offerings of our new country. We brag about Caracol, the largest excavated and significant Maya ruin in Belize. But, we needed to visit Tikal, the largest and most significant ruin in neighboring Guatemala, and a long-time enemy of Caracol.

Moments after we parked at Tikal we were approached by Francisco who was hustling his guiding services for the equivalent of $60US for about three hours. He assured us he spoke 'good broken English' and guaranteed us an informative tour. Mysteriously, there were no other guides around for comparison-shopping, so we hired Francisco.

The magnificence of Tikal, the "Land of Voices" must be experienced to be appreciated. Miles of walking are required to visit the excavated and restored sites. Visitors younger than I can climb to the top of some pyramids for a 360 degree view of Tikal.

Francisco led us to a copse of tall trees to observe the antics of a group of spider monkeys. We later took pictures of a Gordo, (Spanish for "Fatty"), the resident coatimundi who steals food from tourists. And we watched a few large male orioles as they made their fearsome sounds to protect multiple nests of Spanish moss in a large tree, while the females were out shopping. The unmistakable sound of howler monkeys was an afternoon delight.

Perhaps the Maya gods were watching over us and sent us Francisco, a Mayan. He is not a typical guide. He is a respected scholar and lecturer among international archaeologists who has devoted his life to studying Maya ruins and other aspects of his heritage. When he learned I was interested, Francisco offered an endless narrative on Maya history, legend, and the disputes among scholars over the unanswered question of why the city-states, like Tikal or Caracol, dissolved. Of course being Guatemalan, he denied the assertion that Caracol conquered Tikal in one of their many wars.

Francisco demonstrated the perfect acoustics of the pyramids of Tikal from which a ruler could speak from the top of a temple and be heard by the people in the plaza below. He also identified trees and the natural remedies offered by their bark or leaves for ailments ranging from diarrhea to insect bites to jungle allergic reactions.

We completed our tour too late to visit the onsite museum which had closed at 4:00. We arrived at the gift stall area in time to buy some t-shirts although the shopkeepers were closing down. Surprisingly, the prices of the gift items were comparable to those of the markets we've visited, although the price of una cerveza (a beer to gringos) was doubled at Q15.

My biggest regret was the lack of time for the jungle canopy tour offered outside the park entrance for $30US. Next time!

In deciding whether to visit Tikal or Caracol or both, Jim and I identified several considerations. Tikal is obviously more extensive. But as a result, it requires about six miles of walking, so it may not be a good choice if one has walking or endurance limitations. Caracol is more accessible and offers an adequate array of excavated sites to offer the tourist a basic education on the Maya lifestyle. And, Caracol is in Belize!