Heading Inland – The Cayo District in Belize
Mayan ruins and river adventures beckon tourists to the Cayo district in Belize’s interior.
After spending two weeks on Ambergris Caye in the town of San Pedro, the rainforest enticed us inland towards the Guatemalan border.
Last fall we were exploring locations in Belize, Costa Rica and Mexico as possible spots for setting up shop outside the US. Not so much as a future retirement home but as a tropical location for extended stays with easy access back to the States if needed.
But as we found out in San Ignacio, November is still part of the rainy season. And the rainforest definitely lived up to its name when we visited.
San Ignacio is the jumping off point for many of the adventure tour companies covering the Cayo District. Some tours can be done as day trips from the coast but many visitors spend a few days in the area to enjoy a variety of activities. The Twin Towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena have a population of roughly 18,000 which was large enough to keep us occupied exploring daily life in this completely different side of Belize.
In San Ignacio, we initially booked a week in a guest house studio with kitchen. Late season rains brought flooding to much of Belize forcing the temporary closure of river-based activities including several of the cave tours. We decided to stay on in San Ignacio to close out our time in Belize, booking the remaining days at a small resort just on the edge of town and across the park from our guest house.
Tour Activities – Mayan Ruins
This area of Belize and Guatemala are rich with both excavated and buried Mayan sites. A wide range of exploration options are available. We made it to several Mayan sites since they were still accessible during the flooding. We worked with an individual guide, Edwin, during our stay joining with other clients just for the more involved tours.
Tikal – A World Heritage Site
Tikal, Guatemala is an amazing place to see the expansive grandeur of the Mayan civilization. A guided tour here is highly recommended even if you abhor tour groups. We chose to do a single full day tour that included transportation from San Ignacio and lunch at Tikal. Apparently, the border crossing can be complicated with vehicles so most tourists will walk through the border crossing and get into a different taxi, van or small bus on the Guatemalan side. We were paired up with a fascinating German couple that were sailing their way up the coast of the Americas. This kept the group small enough to have our guide’s full attention but shared costs kept the price reasonable. If you are interested in car rentals, take a look at Parenthood and Passports’ post with her tips on driving in Belize.
Tour guides in Belize have to pass knowledge exams before getting their various credentials. We had visited two smaller Mayan sites previously with Edwin but for this day a different guide with more specialized knowledge of Tikal would be taking us through the park. (From what we were told, the birding exam is extremely difficult to pass so expect to pay more for birding trips.)
Tikal is well-developed and excavated with miles of trails so plan on a full day of walking in the park.
Climbing up the various temples brings you above the tree line. Don’t skip the climbing, the views are amazing and you’ll see troops of monkeys at eye level.
Overnight tour options are available with the hotels within the park. These offer access to the ruins at sunrise and sunset. If you are seeking a more tranquil experience, this might be the right choice for you. Our budget didn’t allow for it on such an extended trip.
Closer to Home
Xunantunich is just west of the border near the town of Benque Viejo del Carmen. A hand-cranked ferry takes vehicles and people across the Mopan River to the park. This site was growing in importance while Tikal was being abandoned. It has many of the same types of buildings including temples and game courts.
The history of archeologists in the area is complicated. Early in the twentieth century, Thomas Gann is said to have used dynamite to do the initial excavation, blowing up the earthen mounds that signal a ruin underneath. Removal of artifacts from the country to museums and universities abroad was routinely done just as in other British colonies.
Elaborate carvings have been covered with replicas to prevent further erosion yet provide a glimpse into the Mayan culture. Other carved stones have been moved into covered shelters for closer inspection.
Cahal Pech, another site, is right on the edge of San Ignacio so it was relatively easy to walk to. Many of the same features can be found here as Xunantunich, just on a smaller scale. This would be a great intro for younger children that wouldn’t have the attention span for a visit to the larger sites.
ATM Cave Tour
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave had been closed due to flooding during our first week in town but luckily the waters receded before we left. Tours of ATM can only be done with a licensed guide and thanks to a careless photographer, cameras are no longer allowed inside the cave.
This Cave is awesome both for the journey to get there and for what is found inside. Evidence of rituals are scattered throughout the cave, culminating with the skeletal remains of a young woman that may have been a sacrificial killing.
I would call this an active but doable tour – the hike to the cave crosses the river a couple of times. Then the cave opening requires a short swim of about 15 feet (5m) into the flowing water before you begin trekking upstream with varying depths of water. The cold water was a bit of a shock at first but once I got to the wall and could stand again, I was fine. We did have one man panic a bit in the water but he decided to push on.
There are a couple of narrow spots to squeeze through that shouldn’t be a problem unless you are on the larger size, have serious claustrophobia or are uncomfortable in water. The guide sets the path among the submerged rocks through any tricky parts. Bring dry clothes to change into after the tour.
The Green Iguana Conservation Project is hosted at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel making it a convenient stop to add. We spent time with the caretaker learning about their work with the iguanas. Of course it was fun to feed them by hand and I even held one while Joel declined the opportunity.
Green Hills Butterfly Ranch was a nice stop while in the Mountain Pine Reserve. The tour includes time in the butterfly enclosure and seeing the ‘ranch’ operations that harvest eggs and nurturing them through the life cycle. Feeders provided close up views of stunning hummingbirds in action.
Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Pools are located within the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve. The weather was cool and rainy the day we visited so we didn’t play much in the water, content to enjoy a lunch spot overlooking beautiful falls and hiking across the rock platforms at the Pools.
Poustinia Land Art Park is definitely an off-the-beaten path find. Our local guide, Edwin, had never been there. We found it in just one of our tour books and the New York Times had done a write up several years ago. You can read more about our visit here.
This would be interesting to those who like sculpture gardens and walking through a jungle. Again, ask for a guided tour to get a better understanding of the works. I found it really interesting to learn about the politics and art communities in Belize. Call to make visiting arrangements ahead of time since they are not really set up to accommodate walk-up visits.
The Belize Zoo was an add-on to our airport transport from San Ignacio. It proved to be more fun than expected and we got to see some of the exotic animals that make their homes in Belize.
San Ignacio as a base for exploration is worth a few days when traveling to interior Belize. The rains prevented us from spending time on river activities but that allowed us more time to experience local life. Watch for more posts soon!
Have you been to Belize?