Belize can feel like all of Central America and the Caribbean in a single country.
Belize’s Maya Mountain peaks and valleys, magnificent Mayan temples (and there is not a single Mayan Ruin in Belize we would suggest not to visit!), quaint fishing villages, sugared coastline and a wild side sprinkled with oversized ferns.
Perched at the base of the Yucatan peninsula that faces the Western Caribbean, the UNESCO-approved Belize Barrier Reef lies like a string of pearls offshore—spanning 185-miles the length of the country to comprise the majority of the MesoAmerican Reef.
However, the mistress of this remarkable coast is Belize’s inland nooks and crannies, including those hiding ancient civilizations: Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, El Pilar, and the mother of all Belizean Maya sites—Caracol.
With close ties to several Guatemalan border towns, the irresistible latin influences in Cayo blurs those distinctions between Central America and the Caribbean even deeper.
This isn’t the city. It’s not the beach town everyone goes to. Instead, it's Belize's premier adventure and Eco-activity region. And to visit the Cayo District is to begin a love affair: people have come for a week and stayed 10 years. Its interiors teem with nature—from restorative jungle cascades to butterfly houses —while the Twin Towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena seep old-town charm.
There’s also a deeply-embedded Maya footprint: you’re standing in the once-heartland of the ancient civilization, with scattered clues open to visitors to San Ignacio.
Popular amongst travelers seeking adventure, Cayo's twin towns are home to some of the best restaurants in country and businesses centered around an always active Farmer’s Market.
Santa Elena and San Ignacio are connected by Belize’s only suspension bridge, the one-lane Hawkesworth Bridge. But just beyond its winding river that coils around its modern settlements lies grand structures, dating from Belize’s Preclassic period (2600 BC) to the decline of the Classic period (AD 900).
From Belize City’s international airport, Cayo is about a 2- or 3-hour car transfer ahead of you, though the journey back in time is well worth the trek.
Perhaps Belize’s most visited Maya site, Xunantunich—meaning Maiden of the Rock—is found in San Jose Succotz, just outside of San Ignacio.
Home to past temples, administrative hubs, elite ruler dwellings and shrines alike, the adventure begins roadside. Signaled by the ‘captain’, guests roll their vehicles down gently onto the hand-cranked ferry. Big enough for 2 or 3 vehicles at a time, it takes just about 4 minutes to get to the other side, slightly more on a sweltering hot day.
After all, the chain-linked ferry is worked by good ol’ human power—that's the way it was built, and that's the way it's going to stay.
Once across, venture on foot (or horseback) to witness the 26 temples; curious howler monkeys may also join you, making a ruckus as they dangle from the lush trees with their young.
Onsite, the El Castillo temple rises 130 feet above the plaza and features intricate hand-carved friezes and stelae; even neighboring Guatemala is visible from the top on a clear day.
The largest burial chamber uncovered in Belize was found right here at the Stone Lady, which still has the archeology world buzzing today.
Like a stark contrast against civilization around it, Cahal Pech Mayan Ruin, translating to Place of Ticks, overlooks the Twin Towns atop a rolling hill.
Inside, an impressive 34 structures were once home to an elite Maya ruling city, who undoubtedly traded with neighboring cities of Xunantunich, Baking Pot, El Pilar and Buena Vista.
Not to worry: El Pilar got its name after nearby pasture lands, and there’s no cause for tick-related concerns now ;).
Make note of the large circular platforms—used for ceremonial purposes. Plus, a royal burial chamber filled with trinkets for the afterlife: conch shell and bone ornaments, pottery vessels, obsidian blades from Guatemala, and a jade tile mosaic mask.
Found north of Bullet Tree Falls, El Pilar dominates its high terrain for a sweeping view across the Mopan River Valley. Meaning pillar in Spanish after a nearby army camp, the 50-acres stretches just 10 kilometres out of San Ignacio as one of Belize’s largest Classic Maya Sites.
And at just 32 miles from Tikal, El Pilar stretched to modern-day Pilar Poniente in Guatemala, who works hand-in-hand with Belize to preserve this mostly undiscovered area.
Fifteen courtyards (or plazas) summit up to 60 feet inside, but the charm of El Pilar runs far deeper. Meander the mounds, which have been left intentionally unexcavated since 1993 to avoid the decay that often follows the clearing of ancient buildings.
It’s definitely an off-the-beaten-path destination in terms of Maya Sites, but it’ll awaken your inner discoverer, Indiana Jones-style.
Check with The Lodge at Chaa Creek's Belize Inland Expeditions Tour Company on birding options at El Pilar, one of the best birding hotspots in western Belize.
A two-and-a-half hour drive south of San Ignacio lies Cayo’s most dramatic slice of Maya history, where the Vaca Plateau sweeps down the tumble of greenery as Belize’s largest and most significant Maya Site.
After a scenic, but long, red-brick dirt road through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, you’ve arrived. Possibly stretching over 70 sq miles at its peak around AD 650, Caracol Mayan Ruin—The Snail—is found deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve: hands on hips, it’s easy to geek out over the sheer mass of a once-thriving civilization in front of you.
The 143-feet high temple of Caana (Sky Place) at Caracol is still the tallest man-made structure in the country. Not to mention, the immense agricultural field system and city planning—which houses twice the population of present-day Belize City during its height.
All this is also only ever a step away from full-blown wilderness, and that informs the way everything is done in Cayo.
The Maya carved their place in history, rising from the forest floor to the heights of agricultural modernity and trading of their day.
So too with Belize’s jungle lodges, and namely, The Lodge at Chaa Creek —a pioneer in Belizean hospitality since 1981, long before the word ‘Eco-tourism’ was even coined. Birthing a “wildy civilized” ethos, sun-bleached thatch dwellings and modern floor-to-ceiling glass villas curve gracefully within a 400-acre private nature reserve, begging to be discovered too.
That’s what you’ll find here at the Lodge: warm people full of wisdom from their ancestors, relatively unchanged in all the best ways, who have kept the simple pleasures traditional—like hand-made tortillas and regenerative Maya farming techniques.
PRO TIP: Be sure to check out Chaa Creek's very own onsite Maya site - Tunchilen. It is believed that the area where Chaa Creek resides was a trading place for the 3 major Maya sites that forms a triangle around the property, bordered by rivers.
We would like to congratulate Belize and Ms Froyla Tzalam on her appointment as Belize's new Governer General, approved by the Buckingham palace on May 4th, 2021.
Ms Tzalam has worked at the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and the Tumul K’in Center for Learning.
Ms Tzalam is from the beautiful village of San Antonio in Toledo District and holds a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a Master’s degree in rural development.