Roads to Ruins

March 26, 2014 | by Ken

You can check out Cahal Pech and Xunantunich and be back in your hammock sipping a Cuba libre by lunchtime. Visiting Caracol, on the other hand, takes commitment.

Getting there is half the fun. If your idea of fun is a long, bone-jarring drive on roads like these:

As we began our journey, a nice man in a gatehouse wrote down our license plate number and  passed me a clipboard, saying something about his father… cancer treatment… would I like to donate money? That caught me by surprise, especially since I could hardly understand his quiet, accented English. I let him down easy and drove on.

The guidebook recommends allowing three hours to drive the next 50 miles. And visitors need to be at a meeting point by 9am, so they can be escorted along the last stretch of road by guards (a system originally instituted to prevent banditos from robbing tourists along the route, though the area is safe now).

For two long hours, the only break in the scenery was this checkpoint. I pulled over and looked around, but it was deserted, so I drove on.

Arriving at the meeting point just before 9:00, we were surprised to be the first ones there. Until we realized we were actually at the ruins. That checkpoint was the convoy meeting point, and we’d blown right by it! The armed policemen drinking coffee at a nearby picnic table didn’t seem particularly concerned, and this minor mix-up meant that we got to see Caracol before any other tourists had arrived.

On this bright, sunny day, having the sun beat down on us was a welcome change from the weather at home, as Karen explains:

The local howler monkeys put on a show for us, though they were awfully quiet for a creature with “howler” in its name.

Time to start the long trek home, over that same rough road. After driving for a while, we came upon the checkpoint I had ignored earlier. I slowed down to see if anyone was around. Someone was. He was motioning me to pull over.

Pasting a smile onto my face, I hopped out of the car and bounded into the small hut. Two young men in uniforms lazily reclined in wooden chairs, their rifles sitting on the table in front of them. My strategy: kill ’em with kindness. “Hi, ya know, I apologize, but earlier-”

“You’re the ones who didn’t check in this morning,” one officer said without emotion.

I put on my best dumb tourist act, telling him how we had mistakenly… innocently… ha, ha, how silly of us… driven past HQ this morning. He slid a notebook over to me and asked me to sign in. I wrote my name beneath all the law-abiding tourists who had checked in earlier. Car make and model. License number. Then I stopped.

“Do you want me to fill in the time?” I inquired. No, he would take care of that. I had suspected he’d say that. He’s going to mark down that we checked in this morning and exited this afternoon. We won’t get in trouble for driving through; they won’t get in trouble for missing us. We were on our way.

After run-ins with gun-toting boy soldiers, I always like to relax in a natural pool. Like the Rio-On Pools, along our route back. They’re really impressions in the rocks along a river.

I found a mini hot spring and relaxed, until I felt the call of the bumpy road once again.

After a couple more hours of driving, we passed through the gate that marked the beginning of our journey this morning. The friendly guard put a checkmark next to our license plate number. All vehicles accounted for, nothing to see here.

Thanks for visiting Caracol. Now where’s that Cuba libre?