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.
There are a number of fine operators in the area, but we're partial to David’s Adventure Tours (www.davidsadventuretours.com; tel. 804-3674).
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. Read more at www.larutamaya.bz.
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.