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 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 sign up for a tour with Birding in Belize/Paradise Expeditions (www.birdinginbelize.com; tel. 824-2772). The birding culture of the country is centered in this area, so there is a wealth of information and expert guides. Many of the hotels and lodges have birding tours on their properties as well.
Note: ATVing has become a popular outdoor activity in the last year or so, but the cars tear up the land and disturb wildlife, so I cannot recommend any tour operators until the environmental impact has been significantly reduced.
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. Now that the site is in a more urban setting most of the ticks have disappeared (and those in Belize do not carry Lyme's Disease). 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, and the site is open daily from 6am to 6pm. 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. 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.
Hanna Stables (tel. 661-1536, www.hannastables.com) also offers a four-hour tour for BZ$144 from their property in San José Succotz for those who want to explore Mayan history by horseback.
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. You can contact them on the web at www.chechemhacave.weebly.com or by calling 820-4063. Most hotels in the area can also book tours here, but they'll be more expensive than going directly to the family which charges BZ$100 for the first person and BZ$50 for every person thereafter.Getting to the cave entrance requires a reasonable degree of physical fitness, so skip this one if a 40-minute uphill hike is not for you. The nearby 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. This cave is less popular than others in the area, so it’s a safe bet if you want to avoid crowds while spelunking.
El Pilar (www.marc.ucsb.edu/elpilar; tel. 824-3612) was discovered in the 1970s, but real excavation and exploration didn’t begin for another 20 years, and in fact it’s still in its nascent stages. The site sits on a high hill some 274m (900 ft.) above the Mopan River and is one of the largest Mayan settlements in Belize. Some say it even rivals Caracol. This ancient ceremonial city featured more than 25 known plazas and covered some 40 hectares (100 acres), straddling the Belize and Guatemala border. The site is quite large, but most visitors concentrate on Xaman Pilar (North Pilar) and Nohol Pilar (South Pilar). Pilar Poniente (West Pilar) is in Guatemala, a little less than a mile away. There are several well-marked and well-maintained trails throughout the site. While you can explore El Pilar by yourself—you can even download a very informative trail map from the above website—I still recommend hiring a local guide. Plan on spending at least 3 hours here, though you could easily spend a full day or two exploring this site. The sunsets from Plaza Ixim looking west to Pilar Poniente and the forested hills of Guatemala are spectacular.
El Pilar is located about 19km (12 miles) north of San Ignacio, past the village of Bullet Tree Falls. In addition to driving your own vehicle, several tour agencies in San Ignacio offer horseback or mountain-bike tours out to El Pilar.
UP CLOSE WITH FLORA & FAUNA
Chaa Creek Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm --- The Chaa Creek property is right in the heart of the jungle, and the shaded canopy is the perfect place for blue morpho butterflies to breed. Although the metallic blue butterflies are easy to spot in the wild, the farm (tel. 834-4010; www.chaacreek.com) is your best shot at getting close enough to them for a picture. Naturalists lead tours inside a screened-in building, where blue morphos fly around, land on people, and pose for photos. They don’t look like anything special with their wings closed, but if the sun is shining they’ll spread their wings and you can glimpse their beauty. There are other butterfly species as well, from pupae form to fully grown, plus the Natural History Centre which has a library and animals in jars on display.The farm is open daily 8am–5pm, with 50-minute tours hourly, the last at 4pm. Admission BZ$10, or BZ$20 when combined with the Rainforest Medicine Trail tour, also on the lodge’s property.
Green Iguana Conservation Project --- the Green Iguana Conservation project (tel. 824-2034, www.sanignaciobelize.com/belize-iguana-project) is a very popular attraction at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel where guests get hands-on time with iguanas, an overhunted reptile. Visitors can touch and feed the iguanas, some of which were born there and will be released into the wild, but most are residents that have to stay in captivity for various reasons. You can pose with them, but wear long sleeves to protect your skin from their sharp claws. Tours leave hourly from the hotel lobby between 8am and 4pm every day, and costs BZ$18 per person. Reservations are not required.
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 over 100 species of orchids and a palm exhibit. The gardens are open daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission is BZ$15. Guided tours cost BZ$30 per person, including the entrance fee; for BZ$70 they'll throw in a pick up at your hotel.
Barton Creek Cave --- This is one of the area's easier and more relaxing caves to explore, and not nearly as crowded as the others. 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 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$40 to BZ50. Tours out of San Ignacio average around BZ$120 to BZ$150 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 George Price 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