The easiest way to visit Mountain Pine Ridge and its many attractions is on a guided tour out of San Ignacio or one of the nearby lodges. These tours average between BZ$180 to BZ$300 for a full-day guided trip to Caracol with lunch. If you're staying in Mountain Pine Ridge, just arrange the tour with your hotel. If you're in San Ignacio, check in with Pacz Tours (tel. 824-0536; www.pacztours.net) or Yute Expeditions (tel. 824-2076; www.inlandbelize.com).
Caracol (www.caracol.org) is the largest known Mayan archaeological site in Belize, and one of the great Mayan city-states of the Classic era (A.D. 250-950). At one point, Caracol supported a population of over 150,000. Caracol, which means "shell" in Spanish, gets its name from the large number of snail shells found here during early explorations. So far three main plazas with numerous structures and two ball courts have been excavated.
Caracol has revealed a wealth of informative carved glyphs that have allowed archaeologists to fill in much of the history of this once powerful city-state. Glyphs here claim Caracol defeats of rivals Tikal in A.D. 562 and Naranjo in 631. One of the earliest temples here was built in A.D. 70, and the Caracol royal family has been officially chronicled since 331. The last recorded date on a glyph is 859, and archaeologists conclude that by 1050 Caracol had been completely abandoned.
Caracol is located deep within the Chiquibil Forest Reserve. The ruins are not nearly as well cleared nor excavated as Tikal or Xunantunich. However, this is part of the site's charm. There is great bird-watching and the chance to see other wild fauna out here. Moreover, the area has been declared the Caracol Archaeological Reserve, and excavation and restoration are ongoing. A visit to Caracol is often combined with a stop at the Río on Pools, or one or more of the other attractions in the Mountain Pine Ridge area.
Caracol is open daily from 8am to 4pm; admission is BZ$15 (US$7.50/£4). There's a small visitor center at the entrance, and a guide can sometimes be hired here, although most visitors come with their own guide as part of an organized tour. Caracol is about 80km (50 miles) along a dirt road from the Western Highway. Actually, the final 16km (10 miles) into the park are paved. Plan on the drive taking about 2 hours, a little more if the road is in bad shape.
Important: Visitors have been robbed in this area, since witnesses are hard to come by. This is also a hotspot of conflict between the Belize Defence Forces and Guatemalans encroaching to poach animals, or hunt for xate palm. These incidents have been few and far between, but it's wise to take recautions when traveling on your own in this area. Stop at the Douglas de Silva forestry station along the way to get a Belize Defence Forces escort.
Waterfalls -- Waterfalls are abundant in this region. Perhaps my favorite are the falls found at the Río on Pools. This is a series of falls and pools somewhat reminiscent of Ocho Ríos in Jamaica. There's a little entrance hut and parking lot when you enter the area. From here, some concrete steps lead straight down a very steep hill to the base of the falls. Many of the rocks among the pools are perfect for sunbathing. Many of these rocks are perfect for sunbathing. This place can get crowded on weekends, when locals come for family picnics and getaways. The Río on Pools are located at around Mile Marker 18 1/2 of the Pine Ridge Road. There is no entrance fee.
You can also visit the Five Sister Falls, a lovely series of cascading falls that divides into five distinct side-by-side cascades just above the riverside beach and bar area of the Five Sisters Lodge. If you are not staying at the lodge, you may visit the falls for BZ$10. For an extra charge of BZ$8, a funicular will take you to and from the base of the falls, where the hotel has a little beach area and several natural swimming holes. There are some nature trails you can hike, and a small snack bar, restrooms, and changing facilities. You'll even find a wonderful open-air thatch palapa on the banks of the river strung with hammocks -- a compelling spot for an afternoon siesta.
Rio Frio Cave -- This high, vaulted cave is about 183m (600 ft.) long and open at both ends, with a lazy creek flowing through it. There's a path leading through the cave, and several hiking trails through the forests surrounding it. This is a good cave for those who might normally find the thought of spelunking too claustrophobic for comfort. The views looking out from within the cave are gorgeous. Along the neighboring trails you will find other caves that you can venture into. However, be careful and be sure to have a good flashlight. To reach the Río Frío Cave, drive the Pine Ridge Road to Douglas Da Silva Village at about Mile Marker 24. Do not follow the turnoff for Caracol, but head into the little village. Here you will see signs for the turnoff to the cave. The cave is about 1.6km (1 mile) outside the village. There's a small parking area very close to the mouth of the cave and a couple of picnic tables and benches along the river. No admission is charged to visit here. Important: Ask at the Douglas de Silva forestry station along the way if a Belize Defence Forces escort is required at the time, if bandit activity is prevalent.
Horseback Tours — The terrain here is wonderful for horseback riding. Most horseback tours will take you to one or more of the major attractions in this area, or at least to some quiet swimming hole or isolated waterfall. Most of the hotels out here offer horseback riding tours. Alternatively, you can contact the folks at Mountain Equestrian Trails (tel. 669-1124; www.metbelize.com), who have one of the better stables and horse-riding operations in the Cayo District. A half-day trip including lunch costs BZ$136 per person; a full-day trip costs BZ$186.
Zipline and cave tours— The folks at Calico Jack’s Village (tel. 820-4078; www.calicojacksvillage.com) have opened up a multiadventure sport attraction in the hills and forests just outside the village of El Progresso. The main attraction here is a zipline canopy tour, in which you use a climbing harness and pulley system to glide along steel cables from one treetop platform to another. There are a three ziplining options, from four to nine runs, and one night tour for the truly bold. Their longest run is 884m (2,900 feet) long. The trips range between BZ$80 and BZ$176 per person. While here you can also take a guided tour of one of their on-site caves or hike their jungle trails. Combination packages with lunch are available, and they have a few onsite villas for BZ$150 for those looking to stay.