Santiago Juan of Hanna Stables takes riders on a horseback riding vacation in Belize.
Horseback riding vacation in Belize
Taking a half-day horseback riding vacation to the great Mayan site of Xunantunich from Hanna Stables was the right way to experience the natural beauty and history of wild Belize.
That is until we rode up to the ancient hand-cranked ferry on the Mopan River. There, three equestrians and their mounts were about to crowd onto a simple wooden ferry with a lone car and its passenger.
Taking the ferry to upcountry Cayo District of western Belize on a horseback riding vacation
Horseback riding vacation in the Cayo District of western Belize
Here, in the upcountry Cayo District of western Belize, we had just ridden down a magical jungle trail abundant with orchids and maidenhair ferns, birds and butterflies.
And I hadn’t expected the Cayo District to be such an equestrian destination until I watched a thoroughbred being led through the tiny downtown of nearby San Ignacio. Later, while crossing the Hawksworth Bridge over the Macal River in town, I noticed two exercise riders swimming aboard racehorses in the water. And, around town, I saw plenty of content backyard horses, some not even tethered, happily grazing the thick, rich grass.
Santiago Juan takes equestrians on a horseback riding vacation in Belize
Horseback riding through 400-acre San Lorenzo Farm in Belize
That ferry wasn’t worrying me since we were in the capable hands of Santiago Juan, a Belizean of Lebanese and British heritage whose family had settled here in the 1920s. Leading us through the rich pastures of his family’s 400-acre San Lorenzo Farm, Santiago expansively showed off his prized desert Arabian herd of mares and foals, placidly grazing in the strong sun. He deftly opened and shut pasture gates as we traversed his family land where they run cattle, grow beans and corn and operate a dairy concern.
Soon the cow and horse pasturelands gave way to a shady jungle trail that reached the hurried Mopan River. There on the riverbank, we rode past a fat iguana sunning himself on the rocks.
However, that ferry awaited us.
Horses and ferry's on a horseback riding vacation in Belize with Hanna Stables
Horses and ferrys
When we reached the ferry landing in the Mayan village of San Jose’ Succotz, near the Guatemalan border, we dismounted. But Santiago Juan’s horsemanship and training ensured that his horses placidly walked right onto the tiny ferry next to that one automobile.
After this impressive river crossing, we rode up a steep, 1-mile track to the top of a limestone ridge where the spectacular Mayan site of Xunantunich stands. At the Visitor’s Center, we tied up the horses as howler monkeys roared in the forest canopy above.
The Mayan ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch), meaning “Stone Maiden,” are named after a ghost of a woman often sighted by locals. She appears to ascend the 140-foot El Castillo pyramid’s stone stairway and then disappear into a stone wall. Today, El Castillo is a national symbol for Belize and that country’s second tallest pyramid.
Standing since 400 BC, this important ceremonial center dating from the Classic Era occupies one square mile of six plazas and 26 temples and royal palaces. For unknown reasons, the Mayans abandoned Xunantunich around 1000 AD.
Re-discovered in the 1890s by a British medical officer, archeological study didn’t start until 1938. Here, one of the capable, expert guides on site joined us to enable us to really appreciate the Mayan magnificence.
A national symbol, El Castillo can be visited on horseback - although you'll need to hike on foot to the top
Horseback riding vacation to Xunantunich
Today, a visitor’s center built by the Getty Foundation offers insight into this site’s important decorative frieze that once encircled El Castillo, carved with jaguar heads, human faces and royal rituals.
If you’re fit enough to ride horseback to Xunantunich, you can make the daunting ascent on El Castillo, as tall as a 14-story building, for the panoramic view into Guatemala and the Mopan River Valley.
Just make sure there’s enough energy to enjoy the pleasant horseback ride back to Santiago’s barn.
Have you been on a horseback riding vacation in Belize? These Arabian horses from Hanna Stables are waiting to greet you.
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If You Go:
Pacz Tours San Ignacio Belize (501) 824-0536 or cell phone after 8 p.m. (501) 604-6921
For information on other equestrian activities offered by Santiago Juan, go to:
Travel writer and equestrian Lenore Greiner has ridden horses with Argentine gauchos, Hawaiian paniolos and the ringers of the Australian outback. She writes a blog for women travelers and on traveling stylishly and safely.