Jungle Rivers, hidden waterfalls, mysterious ceremonial caves, ancient Maya cities, picturesque mountains, easy living and quaint villages are all tucked into the beautiful Cayo District in Western Belize. With an estimated population of about 75,000 people, one of Cayo District’s most important industries is eco-tourism.
To experience Cayo you can Hike, Canoe, travel by Horseback, or tour in a comfortable air-conditioned van. Whatever your preference, prepare yourself for the ultimate in an “up close and personal” experience.
Below are the top 13 places to visit in the area:
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Actun Tunichil Muknal is one of the most impressive and artefact-rich Maya ceremonial caves ever found, containing rare bloodletting altars used in sacrifices by Maya royalty and over 1400 catalogued artefacts as well as sacrificial human remains. The ATM Cave is home to the famous “Crystal Maiden” the intact skeleton of a young female that, due to a covering of calcium carbonate, sparkles eerily in the lamp light.
The ATM Cave is a wet cave – you swim into the mouth and then wade through ankle to chest high water before climbing to a labyrinth of dry chambers which lead to the cathedral-like main hall, a towering chamber 350 metres in length and 50 mteres wide and filled with artefacts and sacrificial remains. After this another climb takes you to the stone sepulchre (after which the cave is named) where the Crystal Maiden lies.
This is an extraordinary Belize adventure and a rare opportunity to see ancient Maya ceremonial sites and altars as they were and virtually untouched for centuries. Chaa Creek has always taken an active interest in ensuring that Actun Tunichil Muknal remains as unspoiled as possible, and we are proud to be part of an ongoing effort to protect and preserve this invaluable piece of Maya and Belizean heritage.
Xunantunich or Maiden of the Rock is situated on the Western Highway across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz. This major ceremonial center can be reached by ferry daily and it is only 1.5 Kilometer (one mile) from some lovely rapids of the Mopan River. This Classic Period site provides an impressive view of the entire river valley. The site core occupies only 300 square meters but the periphery covers several square kilometers.
El Castillo rises 40 meters above plaza level, making it one of the tallest buildings in Belize. On this structure there are two temples. The lower temple is famous for its large stucco frieze. A mask with larger ears probably represents the sun god. Next to this mask, there is a moon sign with a border of signs representing Venus.
Iguana Conservation Project
Over the past few years, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel has been at the forefront of conservation for the threatened Green Iguana.
A highly interpretive and educational exhibit has been designed within the Resort’s property in order to create a closer look at this amazing reptile and to learn how vital they could be to the ecological balance of the river habitat.
They offer the Adopt an Iguana Program and the Iguana Kids Club, both of which have received much attention locally and internationally. The process of egg incubation, hatching, rearing and releasing juvenile iguanas is an ongoing process on site. Visitors and school children alike are given the opportunity to have contact with one of the many young resident iguanas. The program aims to create awareness, educate, and to release these reptiles into the wild in an effort to repopulate the riverbanks of Belize with these colorful creatures.
The threatened and endangered species of Belize need more protection and by using interactive exhibits and programs, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel has help educate and create a greater awareness among the general public.
Caracol Maya Ruins
Located deep within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Caracol is the largest known Maya site in Belize and one of the biggest in the Maya world.
Caracol was a Classic Period urban center that spread out over 55 square miles with an estimated population of 180,000 people. Caracol’s enormous central core area covered 15 square miles and was linked together by more than 20 miles of “sacbeobs” (causeways) that radiated outward from its epicenter. The temple “Caana” rises 42 meters above plaza level and to this day is the largest man-made structure in Belize.
Over 70 formal tombs have been excavated and many hieroglyphic texts have been found on stelea, altars, and ball court markers, capstones and wall facades. Ocellated Turkeys are one of the many wildlife species that you will find in this area. This region is also known as an excellent location for birding.
Rio on Pools
Rio on Pools are beautiful and spectacular waterfalls in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve of Belize that features a wide, open expanse of pine forest, and small waterfalls that cascade over large granite rocks, ending in round pools connected by natural waterslides.
Below are some helpful hints to take into consideration before you visit these amazing waterfalls in Belize:
- Anyone can view these marvels of nature and take photos of the site regardless of their level of fitness.
- To access the pools and falls for swimming, you must either descend many stairs and then ascend them back up or take on a bit of a hike with the foot path.
- If you don’t want to tackle the steep and slippery hike back up from the pools, just bring your camera and enjoy the spectacular view.
- Once you are at the site, you can increase your adventure level by jumping from boulder to boulder to get to farther pools and falls.
- Bring Hat, towel, swimsuit, sunscreen, water, insect repellant, camera, and raingear if needed.
- Dress: Long pants and sturdy protective footwear — sleeve lengths are optional.
- Distance: Approximately 12 to 13 miles from San Ignacio Town
Barton Creek Cave
The Barton Creek Cave is a stunning Maya ceremonial cave that can be explored by canoe and is considered one of Belize’s most fascinating natural and cultural wonders.
The tour travels about a mile along a meandering river flowing through the beautiful cathedral -like chambers and wide passages of the Barton Creek Cave, which has become a popular attraction in recent years with high standards of safety and environmental protection. Belizean tour guides are all licensed guides and highly trained in natural history and Maya cultural heritage, making a Barton Creek Cave tour both an educational and highly enjoyable experience.
Enjoy the waterfalls and a refreshing swim or just relax with a packed lunch amid tropical beauty.
Barton Creek Cave was recently included in a list of “nine of the world’s most beautiful and unusual cave destinations,” by the highly regarded Mother Nature Network and no wonder – it is an amazing experience everyone - young and mature – will remember forever.
Cahal Pech Maya Ruins & Museum
The Cahal Pech Maya site and Visitor Center are located in the Cayo District on a hill overlooking the beautiful town of San Ignacio. Its closeness to town and the vast contrast from town life to rich jungle environment make Cahal Pech a unique place to visit.
The site center is made up of 34 structures located around several courtyards, including temple pyramids and residential buildings. The tallest structure here is 23.5 meters (77 feet) high. There are also 2 ballcourts, 8 stelae and 1 altar.
Preliminary investigations carried out in 1988 revealed that Cahal Pech was settled by 1200 B.C. and abandoned around A.D. 850. This makes Cahal Pech one of the earliest Maya sites in the Belize region of the Maya lowlands, contemporaneous with Cuello in the north. A carved monument discovered at Cahal Pech is also the earliest carved stelae yet discovered in the eastern Maya lowlands.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Your full day experience in one of Belize’s nature reserves will amaze you when you see the drastic change from Broad-Leaf Forest to Pine Forest.
The granite base and limestone overlay of the Maya Mountains form the oldest landmass in Central America and contain the cool pine forests (Pinus caribaea) of the Mountain Pine Ridge.
Within this 300 square mile forest reserve you will encounter an entirely different tropical ecosystem along with its unique flora and fauna. Orchids and ferns of many varieties grow abundantly throughout the pine forest while rare and endangered bird species such as the orange-breasted falcon and the king vulture may be sighted.
Chaa Creek Natural History Museum
The Chaa Creek Natural History Centre, situated at the top of the hill behind the cottages, takes students and visitors along a fascinating time line, which begins with prehistoric land formation through to the shifting of the continents. Visitors are able to see the movement of life in Belize through the ages; from Mayan temples in the steaming jungle to modern day traditional healers. On one hand we provide a comprehensive introduction to the history and geography of Belize while on the other we provide visual displays of archaeological artifacts, butterflies, moths, insects and amphibians that capture the curiosity of young children, students and scientists alike. The forested area surrounding the Centre has become an educational destination which, combined with the Rainforest Medicine Trail, this offers an excellent opportunity to study medicinal and useful plants.
Big Rock Waterfalls
Deep in the escarpment of the Mountain Pine Ridge, Big Rock Falls is another of the area’s waterfall treasures. Traveling in the direction to Five Sisters Falls, keep a lookout for a feeder road off to the left that leads to a small clearing, followed by a trail downhill. The journey becomes a bit steeper as the trail descends down the escarpment.
About ten to fifteen minutes later, the Privassion River comes into view and the sound of Big Rock Falls echoes through the valley.
An easy climb over the granite boulders along the banks of the Privassion brings you to the base of the waterfall. The tremendous view of water rushing over the huge 150-ft rock formations and plummeting into the deep perfectly round pool at its base provides a rush of excitement.
A visit to this magnificent spot is one of the highlights of any trip to the mountain Pine Ridge area.
Belize Botanic Gardens
Belize Botanic Gardens (BBG) is located approximately 10 miles westward beyond San Ignacio Town on the Chial Road in the Cayo District, Belize, Central America. It is nestled in the foothills of the Maya Mountains on the bank of the beautiful Macal River. Visitors from Belize and around the world come here to enjoy the beauty of the gardens and to learn about plant conservation.
The Gardens is comprised of 45 acres of gardens, arboretum and natural areas. As a not-for-profit organization, BBG exists to serve as gardens and educational grounds for the Belizean community to enjoy and take advantage of, as well as a scientific and living germplasm resource pool for botanical and horticultural institutions world-wide.
BBG is financed mainly by duPlooys Jungle Lodge, through the visitation and generosity of the local community and international visitors, and through funds granted to them by various institutions. In addition, support and donations from visitors and loyal plant lovers helps to reach their project goals and annual budget.
Rio Frio Cave
Rio Frio Cave is located less than a mile from the Pine Forest Headquarters in Augustine. Stepping-stones lead inside the most easily accessible of Belize’s river caves.
Everything is big in this cave! The two 65-foot arched entryways leave you in awe. Huge stalactites hang from the massive cathedral-like vault, which is part of a cave system the Maya used to bury their dead. Room size boulders are strewn throughout the cave and a stream flows through, forming pools with cascading falls.
Openings at both ends make flashlights unnecessary for viewing the cave’s formations during daylight hours. There is a beach area with a foot bridge for crossing the stream and getting to the other side, which leads to the exit opening.
It is a quarter mile through to the other side, another equally impressive opening. (Do bring a flashlight to watch your footing as you walk through to the other end and to explore other caves in the area). At the exit opening, look for a well-maintained nature trail, one of which leads to a nearby cave, Cuevas Gemelas. A second trail leads back to the parking lot.
Pontoon on the Vaca Lake
The Vaca Lake is a man-made reservoir in the upper Macal River Valley a few miles upstream from Chaa Creek Lodge. When the lake swelled into a 6 mile long waterhole, Lazaro Martinez who grew up in the area decided it was time to invite adventurers to his childhood backyard. Join him on a hilly jungle trek to his pontoon, La Capitana for a tamed loop around the lake.
The gentle drift offers a unique opportunity to spot myriad creatures including, Tapirs, Spider Monkeys, Ocelots and a plethora of Birds conveying at this biospheric junction. La Capitana docks at one of three pristine waterfalls for an exploratory hike and optional swimming. Relax at the water’s edge and enjoy your picnic lunch.
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