111km (69 miles) W of Belize City

South of San Ignacio and the Western Highway lies the Mountain Pine Ridge region of Belize. Few people think of pine trees when thinking about the tropics -- but you'll see plenty of them in these rugged mountains. This area is a natural wonderland of spectacular waterfalls, wild orchids, parrots, keel-billed toucans, and other exotic flora and fauna. Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Hidden Valley Falls (also called Thousand Foot Falls), Five Sisters Falls, and the Río on Pools and Río Frío Caves are all located in this area.

Continuing on through the Mountain Pine Ridge, you'll eventually come to Caracol, which is the largest of the Belizean Mayan ruins. Caracol was a major Classic Mayan center, rivaling and frequently battling nearby Tikal. Excavation is still in its infancy here, but the site is nonetheless impressive. At nearly 42m (140 ft.), the main pyramid at Caracol remains the tallest man-made structure in Belize.

In 2000 and 2001 a pine beetle infestation ravaged the forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve, killing as much as 60% of the total forest and leaving broad swaths totally barren with little more than rotting trunks sticking straight up for miles. The forests here have recovered well. Still, you will still notice some of the effects of this plague in different parts of the Mountain Pine Ridge area.