The Cayo District is Belize's prime inland tourist destination. There's a lot to see and do in this area, from visiting Mayan ruins and caves to engaging in a broad range of adventure activities. In addition to the tours, activities, and attractions listed below, all of the listings in the Mountain Pine Ridge section, and in the Belmopan section are easily accessible from San Ignacio.
Some of the tours, activities, and attractions listed below can be done on your own, but others will require a guide or adventure tour operator. Most hotels in the area either have their own tour operations or can arrange to hook you up with a reputable local operator. In addition, there are several long-standing tour agencies based in San Ignacio. Some of the best of these include Belize Eco Tours (tel. 824-4290; www.belize-ecotours.com), Cayo Adventure Tours (tel. 824-3246; www.cayoadventure.com), Pacz Tours (tel. 824-2477; www.pacztours.net), and Yute Expeditions (tel. 824-2076; www.inlandbelize.com). All of these companies offer virtually all of the options and more, including multiday tours, treks, and adventures.
In addition, serious bird-watchers might want to give a call to Birds Without Borders (tel. 824-4416), or sign up for a tour with Birding in Belize (tel. 610-5593; www.birdinginbelize.com).
The Cayo District is in the heart of the Mayan highlands, with several major ruins and cave systems used by the ancient residents of this region. The most impressive are Xunantunich (on Benque Viejo Rd.), El Pilar (near Bullet Tree Falls Village), and Caracol (deep in the Mountain Pine Ridge area), but true Maya-philes can keep busy visiting a host of sites in this area. Close by, in Guatemala, lies Tikal, perhaps one of the best excavated and most impressive Mayan cities in Mesoamerica.
Cahal Pech -- High on a hill to the southwest of downtown San Ignacio are the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech. Although compact, there are actually seven plazas here, as well as numerous residences, temples, and a couple of ball courts. Formerly the home of Mayan royals, this site has received some meticulous restoration. The restoration created a bit of controversy in town because parts of the ruins were restored to an approximation of the way they were supposed to have looked when they were first built, which is a bit more polished and modern-looking than most people like their ruins. However, the setting is beautiful, with tall old trees shading the site's main plaza and pyramid. Tip: Be sure to climb the small B4 pyramid, on your left near the entrance to the site. Though diminutive, it offers excellent views of the Macal River.
The name Cahal Pech means the "Place of the Family of Pech" (Pech means "tick" in Mayan). The name was given to the site in the 1950s when there were quite a few ticks in the area. The ruins date back to between 650 and 900, though many think that the site was used prior to this time as well.
At the entrance, you'll find a small museum that displays a collection of artifacts recovered from the site and provides insight into the Cahal Pech social structure. It also has a small model of the old city, as well as a skeleton recovered from one of the graves here.
Admission to the museum and ruins is BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65), and the site is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Be sure to ask for a copy of the informative guide to the site. To reach Cahal Pech, walk or drive up toward the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, continuing on around the curve for a few hundred yards until you pass the soccer field. Turn left here and climb the hill towards the ruins. The entrance to the ruins is beyond a large thatched building that houses the Cahal Pech disco. It's about a 20-minute walk.
Xunantunich -- Although you may have trouble pronouncing it (say "Zoo-nahn-too-neetch"), Xunantunich is an impressive, well excavated, and easily accessible Mayan site. The name translates as "Maiden of the Rocks." The main pyramid here, El Castillo, rises to 39m (127 ft.) and is clearly visible from the Western Highway as you approach. It's a steep climb, but the view from the top is amazing -- don't miss it. You'll be able to make out the twin border towns of Benque Viejo, Belize, and Melchor de Menchos, Guatemala. On the east side of the pyramid, near the top, is a remarkably well-preserved stucco frieze.
Down below in the temple forecourt, archaeologists found three magnificent stelae portraying rulers of the region. These have been moved to the protection of the small, on-site museum, yet the years and ravages of weather have made most of the carvings difficult to decipher. Xunantunich was a thriving Mayan city about the same time as Altun Ha, in the Classic Period, about 600 to 900.
The visitor center at the entrance contains a beautiful scale model of the old city, as well as a replica of the original frieze. Open daily from 8am to 4pm, the site charges an admission of BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65). Xunantunich is located 10km (6 1/2 miles) past San Ignacio on the road to Benque Viejo. To reach the ruins, you must cross the Mopan River aboard a tiny hand-cranked car-ferry in the village of San José Succotz. You may be able to watch colorfully dressed women washing clothes in the river as you are cranked across by the ferryman. After crossing the river, it is a short, but dusty and vigorous, uphill walk to the ruins. If you've got your own vehicle, you can take it across on the ferry and drive right to the ruins. To get here by bus, take any bus bound for Benque Viejo and get off in San José Succotz.
Chechem Ha -- This ancient Mayan burial cave was discovered by accident when a local hunter, Antonio Morales, went chasing after his errant dog. When the cave was explored, a cache of Mayan artifacts, including many large, fully preserved pots, was discovered. Archaeologists estimate the relics could have been placed here over 2,000 years ago. This cave is one of only two in the area with an elaborate altar used for ceremonial purposes by the religious and ruling classes.
The cave is located 16km (10 miles) south of Benque Viejo, on a dirt road that is recommended only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Chechem Ha, which means "Cave of Poisonwood Water," is privately owned by the Morales family, and admission is only allowed with a prearranged guided tour. Ideally, you should make a reservation in advance, although it's often hard to contact and confirm with the Morales family; their phone number is tel. 820-4063. If you receive no response, you can usually drive out to the entrance any morning and arrange the tour directly with the Morales family beforehand. The cost of a 45-minute tour is BZ$60 (US$30/£16) for up to three people, if you book directly. Local hotels and tour companies also offer this trip, but charge a little bit more. You can also visit Chechem Ha on an organized tour with one of the local agencies working with the Morales family. Almost every hotel and tour agency in the area can arrange this for you, although they tend to charge a little bit more for their efforts.
A short hike from the entrance, the Chechem Ha Falls make a refreshing spot to wash and cool off after clambering around inside the caves. Also close to Chechem Ha is Vaca Falls, a beautiful and remote waterfall that's often combined with a visit to the cave, though it's a destination in its own right.
For much of Belize's history, the rivers were the main highways. The Maya used them for trading, and British loggers used them to move mahogany and logwood. If you're interested, you can explore the Cayo District's two rivers -- the Macal and Mopan -- by canoe, kayak, and inner tube. Throughout most of the year, the waters in these rivers are easily navigable both up- and downstream. However, during the rainy season, things can change drastically -- and fast. I've heard of a few flash floods, and even one story of water nearly reaching the road on the Hawksworth Bridge.
Still, for the most part, trips are leisurely, with plenty of places to stop for a quick swim or land excursion. During the rainy season (July-Sept), white-water kayaking is available, although it's not very consistent. Inflatable kayaks are a much more common and dependable option, not requiring nearly as much technical proficiency or water.
Most tours put in upstream on the Macal River somewhere around Chaa Creek or duPlooy's and then float leisurely downstream. The trip can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on how much time you spend paddling, floating, or stopping to hike or swim. Both of these hotels offer this service, as well as a host of operators in San Ignacio. For its part, the Mopan River is more easily accessible in many ways, since Benque Viejo Road borders it in many places. The Mopan is well suited for inflatable kayaks and inner tubes.
In addition to most of the tour operators listed above, you can contact Toni's River Adventures (tel. 824-3292) or David's Adventure Tours (tel. 824-3674). If you want to go inner tubing, contact the folks at the Trek Stop (tel. 823-2265; www.thetrekstop.com).
Both of Cayo's principal rivers are great for swimming. On the Macal River you can join the locals right in town where the river is treated as a free laundry, car wash, horse and dog wash, and swimming hole. However, you'll do better to head upstream. The farther upstream you head, the more isolated and clear the swimming holes become.
Another alternative is to head downriver about 2.4km (1 1/2 miles) to a spot called Branch Mouth, where the different-colored waters of the Macal and Mopan rivers converge. Branch Mouth is a favorite picnic spot, with shady old trees clinging to the riverbanks. There's even a rope swing from one of the trees. The road is dusty, so you'll be especially happy to go for a swim here. Farther upstream, on both the Macal and Mopan rivers, are numerous swimming holes.
River Race -- While it's still possible to navigate the Belize River all the way to Belize City -- the Macal and Mopan rivers join and become the Belize River -- this is not generally something tourists get to do. Still, each year in early March, scores of three-person canoe teams undertake the long 290km (180-mile) paddle from San Ignacio to Belize City in the Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge. Teams gather in San Ignacio below the Hawksworth Bridge on March 5, and thousands of people line the banks of the river for the start. The finish line, fittingly enough, is the Swing Bridge in Belize City. It takes between 3 and 4 days to complete the course, with the teams scheduled to arrive in Belize City on or around Baron Bliss Day, on March 9.
Belize Botanic Gardens
Located next to duPlooy's and run by the same family, the Belize Botanic Gardens (tel. 824-3101; www.belizebotanic.org) is a sprawling collection of local and imported tropical fauna. They have an excellent mix of fruit trees, palms, bromeliads, and bamboos, all well laid out whether you are taking a self-guided or guided tour. The orchid house is not to be missed, with its beautiful collection of orchids and sculpted waterfall wall. The gardens are open daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission is BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65). Guided tours cost BZ$20 (US$10/£5.30) per person, including the entrance fee. You can also buy a helpful self-guided tour booklet for BZ$15 (US$7.50/£4), and even take a leisurely horse and buggy ride through the lovely gardens for BZ$20 (US$10/£5.30) per person.
Barton Creek Cave
This is one of the area's easier and more relaxing caves to explore. The trip is conducted entirely by canoe, and while there are a few tight squeezes and areas with low ceilings, in general you won't get as wet (you'll stay dry, in fact) or claustrophobic here as you will at many of the other caves in Belize. Located beside a small Mennonite community, Barton Creek is navigable for nearly a mile inside the cave. Along the way, by the light of headlamps and strong flashlights, you'll see wonderful natural formations, a large gallery, and numerous Mayan artifacts, including several skeletons, believed to be the remains of ritual sacrifices. One skull sits so prominently atop a natural bridge that it's likely that a local tour operator moved it there to heighten the dramatic effect. You can climb along the dry edges of the cave in certain parts.
There's a BZ$10 (US$5/£2.65) fee to visit the site, but that doesn't include the canoe trip or transportation. If you drive there yourself, you can hire a canoe that holds two passengers, plus the guide, for around BZ$30 to BZ$40 (US$15-US$20/£7.95-£11). Tours out of San Ignacio average around BZ$60 to BZ$120 (US$30-US$60/£16-£32) per person, not including the entrance fee. Barton Creek Cave is located just off the Pine Ridge Road, about 6.4km (4 miles) from the Western Highway. Visits to Barton Creek Cave are often combined with a stop at the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch.
The Rainforest Medicine Trail
Located directly between the Chaa Creek and the Macal River Jungle Camp, this is the former Ix Chel Farm, which was set up by Drs. Rosita Arvigo and Greg Shropshire. Rosita studied traditional herbal medicine with Don Elijio Panti, a local Mayan medicine man and a folk hero in Belize. Panti died in February 1996 at the estimated age of 104. Here on the farm, they built a trail through the forest to share with visitors the fascinating medicinal values of many of the tropical forest's plants.
The farm boasts a small gift shop that features local crafts, T-shirts, and several relevant books, including a couple by Arvigo. You'll also find Ix Chel's line of herbal concentrates, salves, and teas called Rainforest Remedies.
Self-guided visits to the Medicine Trail, along with a tour of Chaa Creek's Natural History Museum, and a visit to their Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding project cost BZ$18 (US$9/£4.75). You can easily spend 3 hours visiting all three attractions. Guided tours of the Medicine trail are also available. Call tel. 824-2037 for reservations.
Tropical Wings Nature Center
Located just off the main road, at Mile Marker 71 1/2 near the village of San José Succotz, is this small attraction. You'll find an enclosed butterfly garden with scores of brightly colored and varied species flitting about. There's also a butterfly breeding center, as well as an open-air medicinal plant nature trail. Hummingbird feeders ensure that you'll be buzzed by these frenetic, flighty creatures. This place is open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is BZ$6 (US$3/£1.60). Call tel. 823-2265 for more information.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.