Caracol: Chiquibul National Park and Forest Reserve (Belize)

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Caracol: Chiquibul National Park and Forest Reserve (Belize)

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Chiquibul National Park is the largest national park in Belize. The park surrounds Caracol, an archaeological reserve that was once one of the most important regional political centers of the Maya Lowlands during the Classic Period. Chiquibul Forest Reserve is adjacent to the park.


Caracol was a major ancient Mayan city and is now an archaeological site in west-central Belize. It is approximately 76 km (47 mi) southeast of the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. It rests on the Vaca Plateau at an elevation of 500 m (1,640 ft) above sea level in the foothills of the Maya Mountains.

Long thought to be a tertiary center, it is now known that the site was one of the most important regional political centers of the Maya Lowlands during the Classic Period.

Caracol covered approximately 200 sq km (77 sq mi), an area much more extensive than present-day Belize City (the largest metropolitan area in the country), and it supported more than twice the modern city's population.

The site was first reported by a native logger named Rosa Mai, who discovered its remains in 1937 while searching for mahogany hardwood trees to exploit. Mai reported the site to the archaeological commission for British Honduras, which today is Belize.

However, it was not until the 1950s that Anderson and Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania returned to the site to conduct initial investigations. During this time, Satterthwaite primarily focused on finding and documenting monuments. He later removed several stelae and altars and shipped them to the University Museum.

In the early 1980s, Paul Healy of Trent University investigated Caracol's core area, recording several architectural groups. He noted the extensive terrace systems and evidence of a high population density in the surrounding area.

In 1985, clearing and excavation of the jungle site began on an extensive scale, initially by a team headed by archaeologists Diane Chase and Arlen Chase of the University of Central Florida.

Mayan glyphs found at the site and other evidence suggested that Caracol flourished during the Middle Classic period (c. 6th century AD), replacing Tikal as the significant regional power around AD 562. Then, after a period of decline, the city rose again to become a substantial power around AD 800.

Excavations have uncovered pyramids, royal tombs, dwellings, monuments, and a ball court. Artifacts such as ceramics, murals, altars, and carvings have also been found. Preliminary surveys have suggested that the area of the city may exceed that of Tikal.

Chiquibul National Park

Chiquibul National Park is the largest national park in Belize at 107,300 ha (265,144 acres) in size and is located in the Cayo District. The National Park surrounds the archaeological site of Caracol, a Mayan city.

Caracol has been designated as an archaeological reserve and is not included in the park's total area. Chiquibul Forest Reserve is adjacent to the park.

Chiquibul National Park was originally part of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, designated in 1956. However, in 1991, due to lobbying from conservationists, three-quarters of the forest reserve that did not have active logging concessions was re-designated as a national park under Belize's National Parks System Act. In addition, the park's borders were re-defined in 1995. As a result, Caracol became surrounded by the National Park.

The Chiquibul National Park's western side lies along Guatemala's border, west of the Maya Mountains. The park's landscape includes the southern Vaca Plateau and the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. In addition, Doyle's Delight, the highest mountain in Belize, is located in the park.

Chiquibul National Park is situated on a limestone strata, Belize's most significant protected karst area. It incorporates portions of the Chiquibul Cave System, the longest-known cave system in Central America.

The cave system comprises caves linked by water flows, including the Chiquibul River, which flows through Belize, goes underground into the cave system, and resurfaces in Guatemala. The cave system includes the most extensive underground passages and chambers discovered in the Western Hemisphere.

The forest has been primarily unbroken since the Maya left it centuries ago. As a result, the park has high biodiversity. Species found in the park include keel-billed motmots, kinkajous, jaguars, jaguarundis, king vultures, margays, ocelots, ocellated turkeys, Yucatan spider monkeys, and Baird's tapirs.

Chiquibul National Park hosts the largest breeding population of scarlet macaws in Belize. In addition, new insect and crustacean species have also been discovered here.

The park's biological diversity has not yet been fully explored. In 1993, a botanist from Missouri Botanical Garden collected over 130 plant species previously unreported in Belize. Three of these species had never before been reported in Central America.

Chiquibul Forest Reserve

The Chiquibul Forest Reserve (CFR) lies within Belize's greater Maya Mountains. The Forest Reserve lies adjacent to the Belize-Guatemalan border and, as such, had been the focus of illegal harvesting of Xate, the leaves from three Chamaedorea species of a palm tree, by Guatemalan Xateros.

CFR covers 59,822 ha (147,823 acres) and is bordered in the southwest, east, and south by the Chiquibul National Park. It is bordered on the northwest by the Caracol Archaeological Reserve (CAR) and on the north by the Mountain Pine Ridge.

The Chiquibul Forest Reserve lies within Belize's Greater Mayan Mountains. It was first designated as a forest reserve in 1956. Part of the reserve was then reclassified as the Chiquibul National Park and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve. The reclassified Chiquibul Forest Reserve is the largest managed reserve in Belize.

The Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Chiquibul National Park, and Caracol Archeological Reserve compose the Chiquibul Forest.

The Chiquibul Forest region includes 17 distinct ecosystems, essentially variants of lowland and submontane tropical evergreen broadleaf forests with differing levels of humidity and substrate types.

This provides a diverse habitat for a wide variety of fauna, including many rare species such as the jaguar, ocelot, margay, and scarlet macaw. Receiving approximately 2,000 mm (79 in) of rainfall annually, the area forms part of the Belize River watershed and the riparian areas supporting Baird's tapir.