The lush environs of the Wild West are covered with jungle, woven with rivers, waterfalls, and azure pools, and dotted with Maya ruins ranging from small, tree-covered hills to massive, magnificent temples. Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, El Pilar, and the mother of all Belizean Maya sites, Caracol, are all in Cayo.
Ancient history aside, Cayo teems with life in the here and now, from botanic gardens and butterfly houses to primeval jungles and rainforests, where the only thing that’ll come between you and the wildlife is a pair of binoculars. Live it up in luxury in an exotic jungle lodge, or choose from dozens of lower-priced places in and around San Ignacio. If camping is your thing, just pitch your tent alongside the Macal River. No matter where you set up camp, you’ll sleep well after a day of adventure in Cayo.
POINTS OF INTEREST
NOHOCH CHE’EN CAVES BRANCH ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESERVE
Picture yourself on a tube on a river, with tamarind trees and Belizean blue skies… A few minutes after launch the sky will be replaced by total darkness as you and your comrades are pulled down into the very bowels of the earth, where you’ll float through bracingly cold water in an underground network and witness – through the light of your headlamp – wonders unseen in the world above, from schools of eyeless cavefish and stalactites to strange Maya paintings high on the cave ceilings. Welcome to cave tubing, possibly the coolest (and most family-friendly) thing you can do in the dark.
The country’s most popular cave tubing site is east of Belmopan. Here, the Caves Branch River flows through five caves, taking tubers between the open air and cool caverns, and giving them an up-close view of stalactites, stalagmites, crystalline formations, and artifacts from ancient Maya rituals. The extensive network allows for exploration of side passages, which sometimes lead to other caves, such as the spectacular Crystal Cave.
ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL
One of the most unforgettable and adventurous tours you can make in Belize, the trip into Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) takes you deep into the underworld that the ancient Maya knew as Xibalba. The entrance to the 3-mile-long cave lies in the northern foothills of the Maya Mountains, approximately 8 miles south of Teakettle Village on the Western Hwy. The trip is moderately strenuous, starting with an easy 45-minute hike through the lush jungle and across Roaring Creek (your feet will be wet all day). At the wide, hourglass-shaped entrance to the cave, you’ll don your helmet, complete with a headlamp. To reach the cave entrance you’ll start with a frosty swim across a deep pool (about 15ft across), so you must be a reasonably good swimmer. From here, you will follow your guide, walking, climbing, twisting, and turning your way through the blackness of the cave for about an hour.
Giant shimmering flowstone rock formations compete for your attention with thick, calcium-carbonate stalactites dripping from the ceiling. Phallic stalagmites grow up from the cave floor. Eventually, you’ll follow your guide up into a massive opening, where you’ll see hundreds of pottery vessels and shards, along with human remains. One of the most shocking displays is the calcite-encrusted remains of the woman whom Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre) is named for.
RÍO FRIO CAVE & RÍO ON POOLS
Just off Chiquibul Rd, 2.5 miles north of Douglas D’Silva (Augustine), Río On Pools is a series of small waterfalls connecting pools that the river has carved out of granite boulders. It’s a beautiful spot: the pools are refreshing for a dip and the smooth slabs of granite are perfect for stretching out on to dry off. A picnic area and outhouse are the only amenities here, but it’s a popular spot for tour groups on their way back from Caracol.
Once among the most powerful cities in the entire Maya world, this ancient city now lies enshrouded by thick jungle near the Guatemalan border, a 52-mile (much of this very rough) drive from San Ignacio that takes anywhere from three to four hours.
Sitting high on the Vaca Plateau, 1650ft above sea level, it’s postulated that Caracol may have stretched over 70 sq miles at its peak (around AD 650). Nearly 40 miles of internal causeways radiate from the center to large outlying plazas and residential areas, connecting different parts of the city. At its height, the city’s population may have approached 150,000, more than twice as many people as Belize City has today. Though they had no natural water source, the people of Caracol dug artificial reservoirs to catch rainwater and grew food on extensive agricultural terraces. Its central area was a bustling place of temples, palaces, busy thoroughfares, craft workshops, and markets. Caracol is not only the pre-eminent archaeological site in Belize but also exciting for its jungle setting and prolific birdlife.
El Pilar was occupied for at least 15 centuries, from the Middle Preclassic period (around 500 BC) to the Late Classic period (about AD 1000). Long before present-day political borders, El Pilar stretched to modern-day Pilar Poniente in Guatemala, and the two countries are now working as partners to preserve the area. The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora & Fauna straddles the international boundary.
With 25 plazas and 70 major structures, El Pilar was more than three times the size of Xunantunich. Despite excavations since 1993, not much of El Pilar has been cleared; this has been to avoid the decay that often follows the clearing of ancient buildings. While appreciating El Pilar’s greatness requires some imagination, this may help to give you the feeling that you’re discovering the place rather than following a well-worn tourist trail.
Six archaeological and nature trails meander among the mounds. The most impressive area is Plaza Copal, which has four pyramids from 45ft to 60ft high. A partly visible Maya causeway runs 500yd west from here to Pilar Poniente. The site attracts archaeology enthusiasts as well as bird nerds. Toucans, orioles, toucanets, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and even the occasional scarlet macaw are sighted here.
Set on a leveled hilltop, Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nahn-too-neech), is one of Belize’s most easily accessible and impressive Maya archaeological sites. To reach the ruins, take the free, hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River. From the ferry, which comes and goes on-demand, it’s about 1 mile uphill to the parking lot and ticket office. It’s a semi-strenuous walk with great opportunities for sighting birds and butterflies. In the end, your reward is a complex of temples and plazas that date back to the 7th century.
Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC but it was little more than a village. As mentioned, the large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. From AD 700 to 850, Xunantunich was possibly politically aligned with Naranjo, 9 miles west in Guatemala. Together they controlled the western part of the Belize River valley, although the population probably never exceeded 10,000. Xunantunich partially survived the initial Classic Maya collapse of about AD 850 (when nearby Cahal Pech was abandoned) but was deserted by about AD 1000. A good visitor center, located between the ticket office and the hilltop ruins, explains this history.
BELIZE BOTANIC GARDENS
The magnificent Belize Botanic Gardens houses samples of roughly one-quarter of the approximately 4000 species of plants in Belize. One of the region’s highlights, the bountiful 45-acre zone boasts 2 miles of trails, many fruit trees, and four different Belizean habitats: wetlands, rainforest, Mountain Pine Ridge (with a lookout tower), and medicinal plants of the Maya. Two ponds attract a variety of waterfowl; Hamilton Hide allows birders to bring their binoculars and spy on various species. The garden’s native orchid house is the largest of its kind in Belize.