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Caracol Mayan Essay

Ancient Astronomy in Mexico

  • By Maggie Masetti
  • July 8, 2010
  • Comments Off on Ancient Astronomy in Mexico

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico. I visited several sites with ancient ruins. One of them was Chichen Itza. The night we were at Chichen Itza, we witnessed a lunar eclipse over it – I have no pics, unfortunately!

Built sometime in the 7th century the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico, called El Castillo, actually had astronomical purpose! In fact, it’s actually a solar calendar. Each of the four sides of the pyramid has 91 steps – and if you add those up, with the final step at the top of the temple platform, they total 365 – the number of days in their year. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top as the final ‘step’, produces a total of 365 steps – the number of days in the solar calendar. There are other significant numbers from the Mayan calendar also built into El Castillo’s architecture.

Additionally, during spring and fall equinoxes, you can see a pattern made by the angle of the sun and the edge of the steps on the pyramid. The triangles of light along the side of the stairs link up with the snake head carvings at the base of the stairs, giving the illusion of a serpent, perhaps a diamond-back rattlesnake. Clearly the builders of the pyramid had an understanding of the movement of the Sun!

You can watch a video of it on YouTube (which I can’t embed) – and there are lots of wonderful pictures on Flickr, like this one:

Here’s my photo of the snake head:

There is another astronomical structure – El Caracol, also known as the Observatory. The windows and doors in the Observatory are specifically aligned with the movements of the Sun, stars, and planets, particularly Venus. The fact that this dome was created in stone is an impressive feat, as are its specifically placed windows. If you want to know more about how El Caracol was used for astronomy, there is a paper about this in Science magazine. This Wikipedia article has more information on El Caracol and Venus.

Here are a few of my pictures of El Caracol.

Tags: astronomy, travel

A view over the Caracol Mayan Ruin.

Caracol or El Caracol is the name given to the archaeological site located in the tourist-friendly Cayo District of Belize. It is located about 25 miles south of the town of San Ignacio in the foothills of the Maya Mountains within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in western Belize near the border with Guatemala. This forest reserve is a largely undeveloped tract of primary and secondary tropical rain and pine forests. Caracol is huge. In fact, it is the largest Mayan site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Mayan world. The core area alone is 15 square miles and once supported a population of about 120,000 people.

The ruins are not well cleared nor excavated as are other ruins in the region. A visit to Caracol is often combined with a stop at the Río On Pools, or one or more of the other attractions in the Mountain Pine Ridge area, and its location in a forest reserve allows for great bird-watching and the chance to see other wildlife.


Ancient Caracol was occupied as early as 1200 BC. Its greatest period of construction was in the Maya Classic period, between 600 and 900 AD. The town grew into one of the largest ancient Maya cities, covering some 65 square miles with an estimated peak population of about 120,000 or more.

Many hieroglyphic texts have been found on stelae, alters, ball-court-markers, capstones and wall facades. The discovery of an elaborately carved ball-court-marker dating back to the end of the early Classic Period has been interpreted as Caracol claiming a military victory over Tikal, located more then 60 miles away in Guatemala.

Caracol was a densely populated city with a prowess in war. Not only against Tikal, but also against nearby Naranjo and Ucanal. Evidence suggests that the general population benefited from these wars which served as a catalyst for the city’s development. One monument records a military victory over the army of Tikal in 562 AD, where Caracol’s Lord Water is shown to have captured and sacrificed Tikal’s Double Bird.

Causeways (sacbeob) link all parts of the city of Caracol as well as outlying parts of the city to a distance of 25 miles. These causeways incorporated previously existing centers into Caracol, serving to integrate the economy. This included the local agriculture and markets which occurred within the city.

The Park

The site is open daily from 8am to 4pm; admission is BZ$15, less than US$10.

The complex covers 30-square miles of thick, high-canopy jungle, and includes five plazas, an astronomic observatory and over 35,000 buildings which have been identified. The tallest of them is a massive pyramid which is capped by three temples and rises over 140 feet above the jungle floor. A project of archaeological excavations and restorations started in 1985 and is ongoing; however, most of the site remains unexcavated. An on-site museum was opened in 1998, but only a small number of tourists visit daily.

Major Attractions

Caracol’s central core consists of three plaza groups surrounding a central acropolis and two ball courts, along with a number of smaller structures. The Visitor’s Center exhibits a number of photographs and diagrams of the site, along with artifacts, including a recovered ceremonial altar.

The main pyramid at Caracol is called Caana or “Sky Palace.” At 136 feet high it is the tallest Mayan building in Belize and the tallest man-made structure in the country. Caana contains four palaces and three temples. The palace rooms were originally coated with white stucco and decorated with red paint.

More than 100 tombs have also been found, as well as a rich array of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Getting There

If you wish to drive to Caracol yourself, it is a good idea to rent a 4×4 vehicle, especially during the June-December wet season. Take the “Mountain Pine Ridge Road” southward from Santa Elena, or Georgeville; both on the Western Highway in the Cayo District. The route is well marked. There’s a small visitor center at the entrance, and a guide can sometimes be hired here; however taking a tour is recommended. There are numerous “Jungle Trails,” cave sites, gift shops, and other tourism-oriented attractions along the road through the Mountain Pine Ridge area.

Tours to Caracol are offered by all tour operators in the Cayo District, and your hotel or resort can arrange such a tour for about US$85 per person. Other day trips in the area include the ruins at Xunantunich, Pilar, and Cahal Pech all of which are located closer to the main town of San Ignacio.

A fine resource is http://www.caracol.org

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