Heading west from Belize City towards the Guatemalan border, you’ll traverse varied landscapes, from open grassland to dense tropical forest. A fast, paved road, the Western Highway, runs the entire way, moving from the heat and humidity of the coast to the cooler, lush foothills of the Maya Mountains. Before reaching Belize’s tiny capital, Belmopan, the road passes two excellent attractions: the Belize Zoo and the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. West of Belmopan, following the Belize River valley, the road skirts the Maya Mountains. You’re now in Cayo District, the largest of Belize’s six districts and arguably the most beautiful. South of the road, the Mountain Pine Ridge is a pleasantly cool region of hills and pine woods. San Ignacio, on the Macal River, makes an ideal base for exploring the forests, rivers and ruins of western Belize, including Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize, and the region’s many dramatic caves, often filled with Maya artefacts.
Top image © zimmytws/Shutterstock
The Belize Zoo, at Mile 29 on the Western Highway (daily 8am–5pm; Bz$20; belizezoo.org/index.php), is easily visited on a half-day trip from Belize City or as a stop on the way west. Probably the finest zoo south of the US, and long recognized as a phenomenal conservation achievement, the zoo originally opened in 1983. Now organized around the theme of “a walk through Belize”, the zoo offers the chance to see the country’s native animals at close quarters. Residents include tapirs, a wide variety of birds and all the Belizean cats. To get to the zoo take any bus between Belize City and Belmopan and ask the driver to drop you at the signed turn-off, a 200-metre walk from the entrance; you can leave your luggage at the visitors’ centre. If you’d like to stay overnight in the area, the zoo’s Jungle Lodge (t 220-8003, e email@example.com), on the opposite side of the highway about 300m back towards Belize City, offers wooden dorms (US$30) with shared baths and hot showers. Guests can take a nocturnal tour of the zoo for Bz$30.
At Guanacaste, the Hummingbird Highway splits from the Western Highway and heads south to Belmopan (and eventually, Dangriga). The city was founded in 1970, after Hurricane Hattie swept much of Belize City into the sea. The government decided to use the disaster as a chance to move to higher ground and, in a bid to focus development on the interior, chose a site at the geographical heart of the country. The name of the city combines the words “Belize” and “Mopan”, the language spoken by the Maya of Cayo, and the layout of the main government buildings is modelled loosely on a Maya city, with buildings grouped around a central plaza. When built, Belmopan was meant to symbolize a new era, with tree-lined avenues, banks, embassies and communications worthy of a world centre. Few people, however, chose to move here, and Belmopan remains the world's smallest capital city. And although the population is growing slowly, there’s little reason to stay any longer than it takes your bus to leave.
Beyond Augustine/Douglas Silva, the Maya Mountains rise up to the south, while to the west is the wild Vaca plateau. Here the ruins of Caracol (daily 8am–4pm; Bz$20), the most magnificent Maya site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Maya world, were lost for over a thousand years until their rediscovery in 1936. Two years later they were explored by A.H. Anderson, who named the site Caracol – Spanish for “snail” – because of the large numbers of snail shells found there. The first detailed, full-scale excavation of the site began in 1985, and research and restoration continues today.
Most arrive with a guided tour from San Ignacio, as there is no public transport to, or even near, the site. If you manage to make it here on your own, you’ll be guided around by one of the guards. The visitors’ centre is one of the best at any Maya site in Belize and an essential first stop. Of the site itself, only the core of the city, comprising thirty-two large structures and twelve smaller ones grouped round five main plazas, is open to visitors – though even this is far more than you can effectively see in a day. The most massive structure, Caana (“Sky Place”) is 42m high and still one of the tallest buildings in Belize. Hieroglyphic inscriptions here have enabled epigraphers to piece together a virtually complete dynastic record of Caracol’s rulers from 599 AD. One altar records a victory over Tikal in 562 AD – a triumph that sealed the city’s rise to power.
Just off the highway at the turn-off towards Belmopan is tiny Guanacaste National Park (daily 8am–4.30pm; Bz$5), a 52-acre area of beautiful tropical forest. Several short, circular trails leave from the visitors’ centre, winding through the forest and passing the Belize and Roaring rivers; there’s even a spot for swimming. Although a visit here isn’t necessary if you’re planning on spending time in Belize’s other forested areas, Guanacaste provides an excellent introduction to the country’s flora and fauna and is exceptionally accessible; any bus heading west can drop you off at the visitors’ centre, where you can leave your belongings while you explore.
The Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (t 820-3032, w www.monkeybaybelize.org), a 44-square-kilometre protected area extending to the Sibun River, offers birding and nature trails through five distinct types of vegetation and habitat. Adjoining the sanctuary is the Monkey Bay National Park, enclosing a biological corridor that runs south through karst limestone hills to connect with the Manatee Forest Reserve. Apart from being a relaxing place to stay in a private room (US$27), dorm (US$19) or to camp under thatched shelters (US$8), Monkey Bay is a viable experiment in sustainable living, using solar power, rainwater catchment and biogas fuel for cooking; the food (some of it grown in the station’s organic gardens) is plentiful and delicious, and the staff arranges excursions.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; 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.
On the west bank of the Macal River, about 35km from Belmopan, San Ignacio is a friendly, relaxed town that draws together the best of inland Belize. Surrounded by fast-flowing rivers and forested hills, it’s an ideal base from which to explore the region, offering a pleasant climate, good food, inexpensive hotels and frequent bus connections. The town is usually referred to as Cayo by locals, the same word that the Spanish used to describe the offshore islands – an apt description of the area, which is set in a peninsula between two converging rivers. The early Spanish Conquest in 1544 made little impact here, and the area was a centre of rebellion in the following decades. Spanish friars arrived in 1618, but the population continued to practice “idolatry”, and in 1641 Maya priests threw out some Spanish clerics. Tipu, the region’s capital, retained a measure of independence until 1707, when the population was forcibly removed to Guatemala.
There’s little to do in San Ignacio proper, though relative to other Belizean towns, you can spend many pleasant days here, as it’s both relaxed and low-hassle and the streets of the centre are lined with good bars and restaurants, many of which are inexpensive. The Saturday market, meanwhile, is the best in Belize, with local farmers bringing in plentiful fresh produce. Numerous independent tour operators offer superb guided trips to nearby attractions, including Actun Tunichil Muknal and Caracol on the borders of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. There’s some turnover among tour operators, so it’s always worth asking at your hotel about what’s currently being offered. The town also has some of the best-value budget accommodation in the country, and you’ll almost always find space.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (tours around US$85, including lunch, entry fee and transport from San Ignacio; you must be accompanied by a licensed guide to enter), in Roaring Creek valley, gets its name (“Cave of the Stone Sepulchre”) for the astonishingly well preserved skeletons, fourteen in total, of Maya human sacrifices found here. As the cave has historically been inaccessible to looters, little has been touched since the Maya stopped using it over a millennium ago, and the artefacts are spellbinding. Perhaps the most dramatic sight is the skeleton of a young woman lying below a rock wall – and nearby the stone axe that may have killed her. The cave is certainly worth the high price of a tour; note, though, that you’ll need to be pretty fit and able to swim to do the trip; for much of the time you’re wading knee- or even chest-deep in water.
Barton Creek Cave (tours around US$60, including Bz$20 entry fee; you must be accompanied by a licensed guide to enter) is also accessible only by river, though this time by canoe. Framed by jungle, the cave’s entrance is at the far side of a pool, and inside the river is navigable for about 1600m before ending in a gallery blocked by a huge rockfall. If it’s been raining, a subterranean waterfall cascades over the rocks – a truly unforgettable sight. The clear, slow-moving river fills most of the cave width, though the roof soars 100m above you in places. Several Maya burial sites and pottery vessels line the banks, the most awe-inspiring indicated by a skull set in a natural rock bridge used by the Maya to reach the sacred site.
The hilltop Maya site of Cahal Pech (daily 6am–6pm; Bz$12), twenty minutes’ walk west of San Ignacio along the road to Benque Viejo, is well worth a visit. There’s a good chance you’ll have the forested ruins all to yourself, and although the structures are not particularly tall, the maze of restored corridors, stairways, plazas and temples is enchanting. Cahal Pech was the royal acropolis-palace of an elite Maya family during the Classic period, and there’s evidence of monumental construction from at least as early as 400 BC, though most of the remaining structures date from the eighth century AD. The visitors’ centre and museum has a scale model of the site, excellent displays and a variety of artefacts. Entering the site itself, you arrive at Plaza B, where your gaze is drawn to Structure 1, the Audiencia, the highest building at Cahal Pech. From the top, the ruins of Xunantunich are clearly visible to the southwest. Behind Structure 1, in Plaza A, is a restored three-storey temple, as well as other sacred buildings.
Steep limestone cliffs and forested hills edge the lower Macal River, whose main tributaries rise in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and the Chiquibul Forest. In the upper reaches the water is sometimes suitable for whitewater kayaking, though you’ll need a guide for this. A guided canoe trip, however, is by far the best way to visit one of the river’s top sights, the Rainforest Medicine Trail (daily 8am–5pm), in the grounds of The Lodge at Chaa Creek, 5km upriver from San Ignacio. The medical knowledge of the Maya was extensive, and the trail, dedicated to a Maya bush doctor (curandero), is fascinating: among the plants here you’ll see the negrito tree, whose bark was once sold in Europe for its weight in gold as a cure for dysentery. The Chaa Creek Natural History Centre, next to the Medicine Trail (daily 8am–5pm), offers a marvellous introduction to Cayo’s history, geography and wildlife. A combined ticket for both the above is Bz$20. At du Plooy’s resort, a few kilometres upstream from Chaa Creek, the ambitious Belize Botanic Gardens (daily 7am–5pm; Bz$20; t 824-3101, w www.belizebotanic.org) aim to conserve many of Belize’s native plant species in small areas representative of their habitats.
Rushing down from the Guatemalan border, the Mopan River offers some attractive and not too serious white-water rapids. Though there’s less accommodation along the Mopan branch of the Belize River than there is along the Macal, what’s available is more within reach of the budget traveller, and staff can arrange river trips as well as excursions throughout Cayo.
Belize Culture Tours Casa Blanca Hotel t 824-2661, w www.belizeculturetours.com. Specializing in day-trips to Tikal, Elias Cambranes also leads trips to the caves and ruins at Xunantunich and Caracol (US$55–115).
Cayo Adventure Tours Based in Santa Elena t 824-3246, w www.cayoadventures.com. In addition to customized tours to the caves and ruins, a daily shuttle service to Belize City is available (US$30–35).
Easy Rider In the Arts and Crafts store on Burns Ave under Central O’tel t 824-3734, e email@example.com. Charlie Collins organizes the best-value horseriding packages in San Ignacio (US$30 for a half-day, US$50 for a full day).
Pacz Tours 30 Burns Ave t 824-0536, w www.pacztours.net. A wide variety of informative tours, including trips to Actun Tunichil Muknal (US$85), Caracol (US$80) and Tikal, in Guatemala (US$135).
On the Western Highway, around 12km west of San Ignacio, the quiet village of San José Succotz is home to the ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced Shun-an-tun-ich), “the Stone Maiden” (daily 8am–5pm; Bz$10). This impressive Maya site is also one of the most accessible in Belize; any bus heading west from San Ignacio can drop you at the old cable-winched ferry that crosses the river (daily 8am–5pm; free). From the other side, a steep road leads through the forest for about two kilometres to the site. Note that the river occasionally floods in the rainy season so check in advance that the site is open before making a trip.
Your first stop should be the visitors’ centre, with a scale model of the ruins. The site itself, on an artificially flattened hilltop, includes five plazas, although the surviving structures are grouped around just three. Recent investigations have found evidence of Xunantunich’s role in the power politics of the Classic period, during which it probably joined Caracol and Calakmul in an alliance against Tikal. By the Terminal Classic period, Xunantunich was already in decline, though still apparently inhabited until around 1000 AD.
The track from the entrance brings you out into Plaza A-2, with large structures on three sides. Plaza A-1, to the left, is dominated by El Castillo, at 40m the city’s tallest structure. The climb up can be daunting, but the views from the top are superb, with the forest stretching out all around and the rest of the ancient city beneath you.