South of San Ignacio, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve comprises a spectacular range of rolling hills, jagged peaks and gorges interspersed with areas of grassland and pine forest. In the warm river valleys the vegetation is gallery forest, giving way to rainforest south of the Guacamallo Bridge, which crosses the upper Macal River. One of the most scenic of the many small rivers in the Pine Ridge is the Río On, rushing over cataracts and into a gorge. On the northern side of the ridge are the Thousand-Foot Falls, actually over 1600ft (488m) and the highest in Central America. The reserve also includes limestone areas riddled with caves, the most accessible being the Río Frio. The area is virtually uninhabited but for a few tourist lodges and one small settlement, Augustine/Douglas Silva, site of the reserve headquarters. It can be very difficult to get around the reserve, as there are not many roads. A mountain bike can be very helpful in this respect – the whole area is perfect for hiking and mountain biking; hitching is another option.
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Nestled in the Macal River valley, San Antonio is the southernmost settlement outside the reserve. It’s a good place to learn about traditional Maya practices: the village was the home of famous Maya healer Don Eligio Panti, and there’s a small, informal museum in the village, dedicated to his life and work. The García sisters, Don Eligio’s nieces, run the inexpensive Chichan Ka Guest House (t 669-4023, e [email protected]; US$13) on the road approaching the village; buses from San Ignacio stop outside. The sisters also serve traditional meals, offer courses in the gathering and use of medicinal plants and are also renowned for their slate carvings – their gift shop has become a favourite tour-group stop. Nearby, the Tanah Museum has exhibits on village life.
Not far beyond San Antonio, the two entrance roads meet and begin a steady climb to the reserve. One kilometre beyond the junction is a campsite (US$7.50) run by Fidencio and Petronila Bol, who operate Bol’s Jungle Tours; Fidencio can guide you to several nearby caves. About 5km uphill from the campsite is the Mai Gate, a checkpoint with information about the reserve, toilets and drinking water. There are plans to levy an entrance fee, but for the moment all the guards do is write your name in the visitors’ book (to ensure against illegal camping).
Once in the reserve, pine trees replace the dense, leafy forest. After 3km a road heads off to the left, running for 16km to a point overlooking the Thousand-Foot Falls (US$2). The setting is spectacular, with thickly forested slopes across the steep valley. The waterfall is about 1km from the viewpoint, but try to resist the temptation to climb around for a closer look, as the slope is a lot steeper than it first appears.
Around 11km further on from the junction to the falls lies one of the reserve’s main attractions, the Río On Pools – a gorgeous spot for a swim. Another 8km from here and you reach the reserve headquarters at Augustine/Douglas Silva. You can camp here and the village store has a few basic supplies. The huge Río Frio Cave is a twenty-minute walk from Augustine/Douglas Silva, following the signposted track from the parking area through the forest to the main cave. Sandy beaches and rocky cliffs line the Río Frio on both sides as it flows through the cave.