You don’t see “Mother Nature’s Best kept Secret” being used as a tagline for Belize much these days, which makes sense as more and more people have discovered the many fascinating facets of the Jewel, as locals refer to their country. But there are still more than a few undiscovered or at least off-the-beaten track places in Belize that remain under the radar.
You’d think that, in such a tiny country, it wouldn’t take very long before everyone knew everything about everywhere, but I guarantee that you could live in Belize for many years and still keep discovering new things. It’s that kind of place.
We were talking about this the other day and someone said, “Quick! Name three really cool places that aren’t well known.”
OK, here goes
The “Other Blue Hole” – St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park
Not to be confused with the Great Blue Hole off Belize’s Caribbean coast, this is a great rest and swimming stop just some 12 miles southeast of Belmopan on the Hummingbird Highway. Years ago there was just a little scraggly path leading down to this wonderful shady place to swim and cool off on the way to the coast. Now managed by the Belize Audubon Society It’s been upgraded with rest areas, benches, a visitor centre and guard house, but still has that off the beaten path charm and is one more reason why the Hummingbird Highway is one of the best drives in the universe. It’s also evolved from a convenient rest stop to a great daytrip destination in its own right.
There’re the St Herman’s caves, and the trail network known as the Hummingbird Loop where you can encounter a rich and colourful assortment of birds such as the Scarlet-rumped Tanager, various Motmots and hummingbirds, the Red-legged Honeycreeper, the Long Tailed Hermit and the romantically named Piratic Flycatcher, but the main draw is the blue hole itself.
Formed a very long time ago when the roof of an underground river caved in, the pool is one of the best swimming holes in all of Belize, with clear crisp water that becomes a deep indigo at the centre where it seems to go on forever. Bring a snorkel if you have one and dive around the edges for a mysterious trip back into geological time, and while aboveground follow the water into caves filled with bats and swallows.
But mostly, just hop in and enjoy. You’ll get back on the Hummingbird Highway refreshed, invigorated and ready for more adventure.
Actun Che Chem Ha
The fascinating network of Maya ceremonial caves has only recently gained attention as a tourism asset, with tubing through the Barton Creek Caves system and hiking into the amazing Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), known as the cave of the stone sepulchre or cave of the crystal maiden, attracting an increasing amount of visitors each year.
But the little family managed Che Chem Hah cave gives visitors a more Indiana Jones experience and harkens back to the early, pre tourism industry days of Belize. It was only discovered a couple of decades back when one of the family’s hunting dogs chased game into a hole. The son, William, climbed in with a flashlight and discovered over 300 stone, jade and ceramic artefacts, a plethora of pottery and an altar where ancient Mayas conducted sacred rituals.
William did the right thing by alerting Belize’s archaeology department of the find rather than selling artefacts on the lucrative black market, and with their help catalogued the cave’s contents and developed the site into this little family business.
Set in the Cayo district not far from The Lodge at Chaa Creek and less than an hour from San Ignacio, Che Chem Ha makes for a great day trip offering a more intimate cave and jungle experience. With a waterfall and pond for swimming, a walk through the jungle to the cave itself, and family style cooking and snacks available, Che Chem Ha rates very on the “must see in Cayo” list.
Vaca Lake reservoir
The remote Vaca Lake reservoir in the Upper Macal River Valley offers a rare glimpse into a vibrant bit of Belize’s diverse eco system and is home to exotic wildlife such as tapirs, howler and spider monkeys, toucans, parrots and even the occasional jaguar and ocelot.
This is one of the more recent adventure offerings added to Belize’s already rich menu of things to do. The Vaca Lake is a reservoir set in the upper Macal River Valley a few miles upstream from the Belize Botanic gardens and Chaa Creek on the Macal River, and as a manmade body of water one may wonder how it fits in with eco-tourism, but in fact the remote lake has opened up a fascinating part of the jungle world with a rare opportunity to get close to the flora and fauna of the area while relaxing in the shade.
Over the years the reservoir swelled into a six mile long lake that locals began visiting. One of them, Lazaro Martinez, built a motorised pontoon and began organising leisurely day trips along jungle banks that attract a diverse range of wildlife and hundreds of species of birds. Largely through word of mouth, the pontoon, named La Capitana, began attracting wildlife photographers, birders, rainforest explorers and people just looking for a leisurely day cruise in a beautiful jungle environment.
The La Capitana excursion, like Che Chem Ha, represent one of my favourite aspects of Belizean ecotourism – the result of enterprising Belizeans creating family-run, low-impact offerings that give visitors a unique insight into a few of the things that make Belize such a unique and wonderfully low key travel destination.
And the good news is that these are just a few of the very many things on offer in this tiny country so richly endowed by Mother Nature. Let there be no doubt that the secret’s out.
Further information and tours to these sites and much more can be found through the Lodge at Chaa Creek.