Perhaps the biggest attraction close to Belmopan is the Belize Zoo.
If you're spending any time in Belmopan, it pays to see if anything is happening at the George Price Centre for Peace & Development (tel. 822-1054; www.gpcbelize.com). Primarily geared towards providing the local community with a library, classes, computer facilities, and meeting facilities, this place often hosts traveling art and museum exhibits, as well as movie showings, concerts, dance recitals, and theater performances.
CAVES BRANCH RIVER CAVE SYSTEM
The Caves Branch River is a gently flowing body of water coming down off the Mountain Pine Ridge. It really should be called a creek in most places. However, what makes the Caves Branch River unique is the fact that it flows in and out of a series of long limestone caves that are easily navigable on inner tubes and in kayaks.
There are two major entry points along the river for visits to the Caves Branch caves: One is at Ian Anderson's Caves Branch jungle lodge, and the other is just above Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archeological Reserve, which was once a lodge called Jaguar Paw, and is still referred to by that name. In general terms, travelers looking for more adventurous and gritty trips into the caves should head to Ian Anderson's place; those seeking a gentler tour into the underworld or who sign up for a guided excursion out of any of the country’s major tourist centers will inevitably be doing the tour out of the Nohoch Ch’en entrance, which is where the cruise ship passengers flock when they’re in town. Still, for anyone looking for some serious cave adventures and explorations, both of the aforementioned lodges offer a host of guided tours to much less commonly explored caves, including the fabulous Crystal Cave, located just off the Jaguar Paw grounds.
Because of this, most visitors go directly through Nohoch Che’en. There’s a decently sized parking area about a kilometer ([bf]2/3 mile) downriver from Nohoch Che’en and a host of operators running the tubing tour from here, plus changing rooms, souvenir stands, and a few lunch tables. You will be supplied with a headlamp on a helmet (GoPro mounting helmets sometimes available), an inner tube, and plenty of information about how the caves were held sacred by the Mayans. Bring hardy water shoes or else you’ll have to rent some, and most of the options are Crocs. There’s an easy 30 minute hike upstream to a dock where you get to enter the river. If your group is small enough, I recommend you coordinate and all shut off your headlamps for a period of time. It’s quite a spooky sensation to be floating in total darkness, wondering where the walls and ceilings are and whether you’ll ever emerge into daylight again.
Most of the caves here contain Mayan pottery and artifacts, although you won't see them on the majority of tube trips, unless your guide stops for a short hike.
Cave tubing tours cost between BZ$50 and BZ$240, depending on who you book with, what they provide and the length of the tour. The most inexpensive way to go is to drive yourself to the government parking area below Jaguar Paw and hire one of the local guides there for around BZ$30 to BZ$60. However, you'll generally get better guides, better service, and better equipment if you go with one of the more established operators.
For the Most Enjoyable Experience -- The Caves Branch River cave system is a very popular tourist attraction, and it can get crowded at times, especially at Nohoch Che’en and the public entrance. When the cruise ship groups are in the caves, it’s downright overcrowded. Whatever tour operator you use, try to time it so that you avoid other large groups if possible. Or do the tour with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch outfit, so you are assured of avoiding the crowds. Also, wear plenty of insect repellent, as the mosquitoes can be fierce here (only on the hike—once you’re in the caves there are none).
ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL
Actun Tunichil Muknal means "Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher," and the site was featured in the 1993 National Geographic Explorer film Journey Through the Underworld. This is one of the most adventurous and rewarding caves you can visit in Belize. The trip involves a 45-minute hike through dense forest to the entrance of the cave. A midsize stream flows out of the beautiful entrance. From here you wade, crawl, and scramble, often up to your waist in water. There are some tight squeezes. Inside, you'll come to several ceremonial and sacrificial chambers. Fourteen skeletons and burial sites have been found inside here, as well as numerous pieces of pottery and ceramic shards. There are even two rare slate stelae, believed to have been used by Mayan religious and political leaders for ritual bloodletting ceremonies. Many of the skulls, skeletons, and pieces of pottery have been encased in calcium, creating an eerie effect, while others are very well maintained, making it hard to imagine that they are over a thousand years old. Moreover, given its remote location and relatively recent discovery, Actun Tunichil Muknal has been spared much of the serious looting that has plagued many other Mayan cave sites. Only licensed guides can take visitors into this cave. Most hotels and tour agencies in the Cayo District can arrange these tours.
Note: You will get wet on this trip. Be sure to pack a change of clothing for when you get back to your transportation.
Another Note: You cannot bring a camera inside this cave, because one guest dropped theirs directly onto a preserved skull, breaking it and ruining it for everyone else. This means no GoPros either.
ZIP LINE CANOPY TOUR
Belize Zipline Adventure (tel. 602-8975; www.zipline.bz) boasts the longest zipline in the Caves Branch area, and lets visitors glide along steel cables from one treetop platform to another, above and through the forest canopy. There are a total of twelve platforms through 7 runs. At its highest, you are some 61m (200 ft.) above the forest floor. The trip costs BZ$150 per person, and can easily be combined with their cave tubing excursion for a full-day adventure outing at BZ$200. Throw in the Belize Zoo for only BZ$70 more! Whatever you pick, it will include mainland pickup, transportation, lunch, and all the involved fees.
Guanacaste National Park, a 20-hectare (50-acre) park located where the Hummingbird Highway turns off of the George Price Highway, about 3.2km (2 miles) north of Belmopan, is an excellent introduction to tropical forests. The park is named for a huge old guanacaste (or tubroos) tree that is found within the park. Guanacaste trees were traditionally preferred for building dugout canoes, but this particular tree, which is about 100 years old, was spared the boat-builders' ax because it has a crooked and divided trunk that makes it unacceptable for canoe building. More than 35 species of epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), including orchids, bromeliads, ferns, mosses, lichens, and philodendrons, cover its trunk and branches.
There are nearly 3.2km (2 miles) of well-marked and well-maintained trails in the park, with several benches for sitting and observing wildlife. The park is bordered on the west by Roaring Creek and on the north by the Belize River. Among the animals you might see are more than 120 species of birds, large iguanas, armadillos, kinkajous, deer, agoutis (large rodents that are a favorite game meat in Belize), and jaguarundis (small jungle cats). Bring along a bathing suit in case you want to take a refreshing dip in the Belize River. This park is administered by the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 223-5004; www.belizeaudubon.org) and is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is BZ$5.The Maya Mountains are primarily limestone and laced with caves, which is why this region of Belize is also known as Cave Branch. About 19km (12 miles) south of Belmopan on the Hummingbird Highway, you’ll find St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, which is not the same entity as the more famous Blue Hole in the sea, and will likely be referred to just as Blue Hole National Park. The first signs you see of the park will be the parking area, visitor center, and trail entrance to St. Herman’s Cave, a less than .8km (1/2-mile) hike from the road to one of the largest and most easily accessible caves in Belize. You’ll need a good flashlight and sturdy shoes to explore this undeveloped .8km-long (1/2-mile) cave.
The principal entrance to St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park is just a hop down the Hummingbird Highway from the visitor center, with a separate parking lot. The park gets its name from a crystal-clear pool, or cenote, formed in a collapsed cavern. There’s a small information center, then a short, well-marked trail that leads to the main attraction here. Dense jungle surrounds a small, natural pool of deep turquoise. A limestone cliff rises up from the edge of the pool on two sides. The water flows for only about 30m (100 ft.) on the surface before disappearing into a cave and flowing on underground to the Sibun River. This is a great place for a quick dip on a hot day because the water is refreshingly cool and clear, and there is a cement platform where you can leave your towel, clothes, and belongings in plain sight. It can get crowded here on weekends, but early in the morning during the week, you may have the place almost to yourself. You can clearly see fish swimming around the edges of the Blue Hole. A 2.4km (1.5-mile) trail connects the Blue Hole pool with St. Herman’s Cave. This trail passes through lush and beautiful primary and secondary tropical forests that are rich in flora and fauna. More than 200 species of birds have been recorded here. Be sure to wear plenty of insect repellent or long-sleeved clothing, as the mosquitoes can be fierce. Tip: If you’re interested in only the pool, be sure to continue on the Hummingbird Highway, and don’t park at the St. Herman’s Cave entrance.
The entire park, which is administered by the Belize Audubon Society, is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm, and admission is BZ$8. A self-guided trail map and a brochure about the park are available at the small visitor center. And if the park ranger is available, he’ll usually throw in a brief guided tour for free.
Extreme adventurers should check out the Crystal Cave (or Mountain Cow Cave to the locals) here. This cave system goes on for miles and features beautiful geological structures and formations, Mayan relics, and some calcified skeletons. Guided tours through Maya Walk on Burns Ave. in San Ignacio (tel. 824-3070; www.mayawalk.com) start with a 50-minute jungle hike before entering the dry cave for a rigorous 7 hour exploration, and cost BZ$220.
A Private Park & Educational Center
Located just inland from Mile Marker 31 on the Western Highway is Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (tel. 820-3032; www.monkeybaybelize.org), a private reserve and environmental education center comprising some 433 hectares (1,070 acres) of varied natural habitat. There's a visitor center, and a range of tours is offered. This place specializes in hosting student groups, but anyone can visit for the day, or even stay in accommodations that range from somewhat plush private rooms to a dormitory-style bunkhouse to camping. In all cases, be forewarned: The showers are cold water only, and the bathrooms are outdoor latrines. Tours include guided hikes, bird-watching expeditions, cave explorations, and canoe outings on the Sibun River. With the recent declaration of the neighboring 911-hectare (2,250-acre) Monkey Bay Nature Reserve, this has become a considerably large protected area, with over 250 recorded bird species.
While walk-ins can often be accommodated, it’s best to contact them in advance before coming for any tour or stay. Rates run around BZ$24 per person for camping, and tents can be rented for BZ$10.50. BZ$60 per person for a dorm bunk and shared bathroom; and BZ$84 for a private field station room, and between BZ$192 and BZ$240 for the deluxe cabins. Two of them even have air conditioning. Meals cost between BZ$24 and BZ$30 and are served buffet style.
A BIRD SANCTUARY
On a farm just beyond Belmopan is Belize Bird Rescue (tel. 610-0400; www.belizebirdrescue.org), where up to 200 birds—mostly parrots, but a few raptors, owls, and others—are rehabilitated either for release back into the wild or for a life in captivity. Many of the birds are rescued from the illegal pet trade, sometimes directly from the hands of poachers. The orgnization offers free tours, though donations are highly encouraged, but these must be arranged by emailing or calling ahead of time. The owners also run an onsite accommodation called Rock Farm Inn B&B which helps the organization stay afloat. Visiting is an ethical way to see some of Belize’s most beautiful birds, in particular the yellow-headed amazon, while supporting a beloved non-profit.
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.