Belize is getting known, and rightly so, as one of the absolute best Caribbean destinations, and invokes images of clear tropical waters and carefree island life featuring reggae music as a backdrop.
This is certainly true, but for me, what makes Belize truly special are its inland treasures; the lush rainforests, misty Maya Mountains, jungle rivers, incredible Maya archaeological sites and friendly English speaking locals. Such lush diversity so close to the Caribbean Sea is simply magic. And nothing exemplifies this so much as the Cayo District, Belize’s own wild west.
The Western Highway runs through mangrove, savannah, pastureland, foothills and low bush dotted with colourful little villages like Roaring Creek, Teakettle, and Cotton Tree before passing through San Ignacio Town, nine miles from the Guatemalan border.
San Ignacio is an interesting, non touristy town that none the less welcomes tourists and provides a range of accommodations from backpacker lodging and budget guesthouses to the more upscale San Ignacio Hotel with its swimming pool and amenities.
This is definitely a town to spend time around if you want to get a feeling for the real inland Belize and experience a unique, easy going border culture; definitely Belizean, but influenced by her more Latino sister country.
Of course, the indigenous civilisation of the Maya knew no such boundaries, and their rich culture spreads throughout Cayo and the Guatemala’s Petén District, with an abundance of Maya archaeological sites, temple ruins and immense sacramental caves such as Actun Tunichil Muknal, recently discovered and rich with artefacts, altars and sacrificial remains. The ancient cities of Xunanthunich, Caracol and the palace residence of Cahal Pech are all close to San Ignacio Town, and Guatemala’s magnificent ancient city of Tikal is a pleasant day trip away.
So my Inland Belize recommendation? Base yourself out of San Ignacio or one of the nearby jungle lodges and take a few days to explore around. I stayed at Chaa Creek, whose owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, settled along the creek and adjacent Macal River around 1980 and over time built up a 365 acre private nature reserve and one of the best rainforest lodges I’ve ever seen. I actually added another day to my western Belize vacation and spent it at Chaa Creek happily horseback riding, canoeing through the most amazing jungle forest and birdlife, checking out the natural history centre and Butterfly Farm, swimming, and all this after an early morning visit to nearby Xunanthunich, a lovely Maya site featuring a an impressive pyramid with a stunning view from the top.
The next day we made the trip up to Mountain Pine Ridge and into a completely different ecosystem, a rolling landscape of native Honduras Pine and broadleaf species with rocky streams and pools. After a swim in the huge lava basins of the Rio On pools, we stopped at the Rio Frio cave and then hit Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge for quick refreshment before continuing up to Caracol, a spectacular city site that gives an idea of how vast the Maya Empire was, and so on to a well earned dinner back at Chaa Creek.
Everywhere you go in this part of Belize you see or hear wildlife, with the jungle still teeming with forest dwellers such as various monkeys, jaguars, ocelots, white-nosed coatis, Baird’s Tapirs, and iguanas. The birding is magnificent, and be prepared for colourful flocks of noisy parrots, as well as bright toucans, macaws, owls, hummingbirds , turkeys, woodpeckers, Blue-crowned Mot-mots, King Vultures, and the Orange Breasted and Laughing Falcons. The leaves seem full of butterflies, including the huge iridescent Blue Morpho, and trees are lit at night with fantastic fire fly displays.
Day three was chock-a-block as well, but in that relaxing way that everything seems to get done in Belize. After a very hearty breakfast, we went mountain biking along jungle tracts, took in the Belize Botanic Gardens, and went into San Ignacio town for lunch. The streets are paved now, but San Ignacio still has a cowboy/border town feel, and a visit to the riverside markets, a stroll through town and lunch at any one of the little restaurants clustered in town is the ultimate western Belize experience. For such a small town we found the food great, with plenty of variety and of good quality. A visit on the hand cranked ferry to Spanish Lookout, a large German speaking Mennonite community that looks more like Indiana farmland than Central America was an unexpected treat.
For such a small, sparsely populated country, Belize has more things to do packed within its 8,867 square miles (22,960 km²) than anyplace I can think of, and I’m always the proverbial kid in a candy shop when I’m there – so many things to do, so little time. However, I do most emphatically recommend that you take time on any Belizean holiday to visit the Cayo District and San Ignacio Town – it all adds up to a tropical holiday experience you’ll never forget.