Belmopan and Cayo - Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma

Moon Belize (Moon Handbooks) - Lebawit Lily Girma (2015)

Belmopan and Cayo


Xunantunich Archaeological Site, San Ignacio.


Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.

S St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park: Get out the hiking boots, flashlight, and a bathing suit for a visit to this park. St. Herman’s Cave offers fun for novice spelunkers, and a swim in the Blue Hole should not be missed (click here).

S Cahal Pech Archaeological Site: The site is unique for both its archaeological intrigue and its location within the city limits of San Ignacio. The walk up the hill to Cahal Pech Village Resort offers spectacular views (click here).


S San Ignacio Farmers Market and Macal River Park: Head to the most colorful farmers market in Belize, where Cayo’s diverse community gathers on Saturday morning for their weekly shopping and socializing (click here).

S Medicinal Jungle Trail and Iguana Conservation Project: Explore this successful iguana breeding and release project via an informative guided tour (click here).

S Belize Botanic Gardens: This low-key attraction features beautiful grounds with hiking trails through a variety of habitats; the Native Plant House is magical (click here).

S Actun Tunichil Muknal: The Cave of the Crystal Maiden is the wettest, dirtiest, most adventurous spelunking trip available (click here).

S Xunantunich Archaeological Site: This ancient city is easily one of the most gorgeous Mayan sites in Belize (click here).

S Barton Creek Cave: This cathedral-like cave is filled with giant stalactites, ancient Mayan ceramics, and plenty of mystery. End the day with a swim in the emerald pool by the cave entrance (click here).

S Big Rock Falls: A moderate hike down a rainforest path leads to this stunning waterfall and surrounding jade pools (click here).

S Caracol Archaeological Site: One of the most difficult ruins to access in Belize, Caracol is rife with discovery and beauty. Enjoy long, peaceful views of the wild countryside from atop its excavated temples (click here).

Tucked in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, the Cayo district is Belize’s largest and most visited area after the Northern Cayes. This westernmost district begins where the George Price Highway leaves the outskirts of Belize City toward Belmopan, the nation’s quiet and landlocked capital. From there, it spills onto part of the aptly named Hummingbird Highway and stretches west all the way to Guatemala, leading toward rivers, rainforests, swimming holes, national parks, Mayan temples, caves, Thousand Foot Falls—the largest waterfall in Central America—and Mennonite villages, all in the space of two hours.

Cayo is home to four of the country’s nine protected areas and offers a world of eco-adventures, solo and guided, low-key or adrenaline-inducing. Hike rainforest paths and medicinal trails that lead to ancient Mayan ceremonial caves. Canoe the Macal River on the way to the farmers market or ride a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan Rover. Climb the boulders of the Río Frio in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. Trek to the top of the Mayan archeological site of Caracol, where scarlet macaws can be seen swooping across the valleys of green.

The district’s true hub, San Ignacio, is a hilly, pedestrian-friendly town with a Latin pulse that’s all its own. It’s a favorite among Belizeans and expats, with outdoor cafés, authentic eateries, and arguably one of the best farmers markets in the country. Staying in town is an option, with several budget favorites, but a short drive away are the country’s best jungle lodges, offering a variety of experiences—campsites, riverside cabins, and luxury tree houses. Recent developments have given San Ignacio a more modern look, with a cobblestoned main street (Burns Ave.) and a new Welcome Center, but it’s still a lovely place to visit. For those seeking seclusion, the Mountain Pine Ridge, one of the most remote areas in the country, offers more accommodations options and plenty of outdoor exploration.

Once the heartland of the indigenous Maya, the Cayo District’s countryside stretches to San José de Succotz and the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen, revealing a diverse mix of mostly Creole, Mayan, and Mennonite rural villages alongside a mixed population of gringo expats, Lebanese, and Chinese. Green pastures with mahogany and sapodilla trees—reminders of a colonial past—are peppered with orange orchards, chicken coops, and grazing cattle, signs of Cayo’s main industry besides tourism. The region produces most of the livestock, poultry, and grain consumed in the country, earning it the nickname “breadbasket of Belize.”




Budget travelers will be pleased to see that their dollar goes farther in Cayo than in other parts of Belize. Most visitors find plenty to do, signing up for a new activity every day, but there’s no rush, and you can easily travel around the area for weeks without getting weary. The beauty is that no two stays in Cayo are the same.

Belmopan is worth an overnight stop for its surrounding natural parks and attractions. Save half an hour for a hike in Guanacaste National Park, explore Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and take a dip in Blue Hole Natural Park’s sinkhole. The world-famous Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch offers easy accommodations near each.

Even if you’ve only got a day or two, San Ignacio is close enough to the coast and worth a trip; the forest runs right up to the city limits, where you’ll find several trails and a fascinating archaeological site. San Ignacio also provides an excellent base for tours to Actun Tunichil Muknal or into Tikal, Guatemala. Jungle lodges line the Macal River and into the Mountain Pine Ridge.


After Hurricane Hattie destroyed government buildings and records in Belize City in 1961, the new capital, Belmopan, was built far away from the coast to keep it safe from storm damage, with the expectation that large numbers of the population of Belize City would move with the government center. They didn’t. Industry stayed behind, and so did most jobs. Today, while there is some growth in Belmopan, the masses are still in Belize City, which remains the cultural and commercial hub of the country. Some capital employees live in Belize City and commute 50 miles back and forth each day. Belmopan, however, was designed for growth and has continued to expand, with a population of around 20,000, plus a surge of several thousand commuters during weekdays. Today, Belmopan still isn’t a destination for travelers; but it has several services, including a bus station and hub for going to other parts of the country, an excellent coffee shop nearby, and a couple of decent restaurants. You’ll also find most foreign embassies and international organizations here as well as most important Belizean government services, including immigration. Other than that, it’s a city—and the feel inside the city grid (within Ring Rd.), with rows of small cement homes and chain-link fencing, has been compared to a lower-middle-class Los Angeles suburb.


The majority of travelers, however, see only Belmopan’s bus terminal and, if they have time, the small open-air market right next door. Some jog across the market to take a peek at the government buildings (only a few hundred yards away). Their intentionally Mayan-influenced arrangement—built around a central plaza—gives the scene just enough strange irony to make it worth the visit. Just beyond Belmopan, the Hummingbird Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in the region, snaking through densely forested hills that are riddled with trails, rivers, cenotes, and caves.


The Hummingbird Highway is one of Belize’s most beautiful drives.


Belmopan is just east of the Hummingbird Highway and just south of the Western Highway; it is usually accessed by Constitution Drive, which leads straight into the center from a traffic circle. Banks, buses, the market, and government buildings are tightly clustered within easy walking distance of one another. Turning right on Bliss Parade from Constitution Drive, you’ll find the dilapidated Belmopan Hotel on your right and Novelo’s bus station and the market on your left. Bliss Parade joins Ring Road, which loops around the central town district. Ring Road passes various government buildings and embassies on the left before meeting back up with Constitution Drive.


George Price Centre for Peace and Development

This homage to the founding father of Belize, George Price, is an impressive and modern air-conditioned museum, library, and center for conflict resolution and peace. The George Price Centre (Price Centre Rd., tel. 501/822-1054,, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sun., free) is just off the eastern part of the Loop Road, near the Catholic Church. Set aside at least 30 minutes to tour the display, which now includes a setup of Price’s modest living quarters while he was alive, and watch a worthwhile 23-minute documentary, Man of Purpose and Vision, in the media center, or admire the original flag that flew at Belize’s independence ceremony in 1981. The website features a list of events and some fascinating information on George Price’s legacy and Belizean history.

Born in 1919, Price died at the age of 92 on September 19, 2011, just two days before the country’s 30th anniversary of independence from Great Britain. I happened to be in Belize at the time of his passing and attended the state funeral ceremony, the country’s very first, in Belmopan. It was one of the most moving days I’ve experienced in Belize, watching the crowds standing for almost eight hours in the sun, from the procession along the Western Highway in Belmopan—aptly renamed the George Price Highway in 2012—to the burial in Belize City, saying good-bye to their hero. He was dearly loved by Belizeans.

Market Square

This is where the action is for local shoppers. Starting at the crack of dawn, the lines of stalls are alive with the commerce and gossip of the area. Hang out here for a little while and you are sure to see a parade of local farmers, government workers chowing down on tacos or stew beef for breakfast, and colorful characters going about their business. The coffee may be instant, but the food is freshly made—try some fry jacks, a tasty tamale, or a plate of garnaches (crispy tortillas topped with tomato, cabbage, cheese, and hot sauce) for next to nothing. Bananas, oranges, mangoes, tomatoes, chilies, and carrots are cheap too; stock up before heading deeper into Belize.


Despite Belmopan’s reputation for being a “dead” town, weeknights and Saturday can be quite alive in the capital city, although you shouldn’t expect a big party scene. Monday-Wednesday are fairly quiet; in fact, most nightspots only open midweek. There’s a cozy new lounge for a drink, bites—think ceviche, burgers, wings—and nondeafening music at Desire Lounge (37 Half Moon Ave., tel. 501/822-0356, 11am-2pm and 4pm-midnight daily, US$5-10), a clean spot with ample and tasteful futon seating.

Thursday are for karaoke at the Bull Frog Inn’s Restaurant & Bar (25 Half Moon Ave., tel. 501/822-2111,, 8pm-midnight daily) but turn into a dance party around 11pm, when the place can get packed. The Wing Stop’s Puccini Lounge (Nim Li Punit St., tel. 501/636-0048, 10pm-midnight daily) turns into a dance spot on Thursday and Friday, with a DJ. Nightspot La Cabaña (tel. 501/822-1577,, 6pm-2am Thurs.-Sat.), in the western part of town on a hill above Hummingbird Highway by Las Flores, attracts partygoers from around the district and sells drinks and cheap bar food, but there have been occasional violent brawls there, so be sure and ask around on the latest before heading out.

Barrio Fino Sports Club (off Constitution Dr., opposite the gas station, 5pm-3am Thurs.-Sat.) is a local cool spot, dance club, and bar, with popular pool tables.

On September 21, Belmopan celebrates Independence Day along with the rest of the country. The day begins with a morning official ceremony at the Court House Plaza (you may glimpse the prime minister of Belize from a distance making an address) and includes military parades. After the speeches comes the fun part of the day, with food and music all around the Market area and town, and a citizens parade along Bliss Parade, complete with colorful floats and costumes. Line up around the Bliss Parade area or Constitution Drive near the Market to catch the start of all the fanfare, and follow the crowds.


Besides Market Square, you’ll find a few handy stores in Belmopan. In the market area you’ll find plenty of pharmacies, shops, and Internet spots. Angelus Press (Constitution Dr., tel. 501/822-3861, 7:30am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) has a good office supply store and bookstore in the building right across from the bus station. The Art Box (Mile 46, Western Hwy., tel. 501/623-6129,, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) is on the Western Highway and has an excellent selection of woodworking materials, watercolors, and picture frames in addition to standard gift-shop fare (as well as Christian books and CDs).


If you’re staying in downtown Belmopan, you’re either a businessperson, a diplomat, a development worker—or just overnighting.

Under US$50

The most reasonably priced beds are found at the newly refurbished S El Rey Inn (23 Moho St., tel. 501/822-3438 or cell 501/620-4808,, US$30-90 plus key deposit), with 10 tidy, decent guest rooms, from simple fan-only budget guest rooms to cozier, roomy junior suites with private baths, hot and cold water, Internet access, air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs, and coffeemakers. On a side residential street, this small hotel is an easy walk to the center of town, and its on-site Bystro Mia serves tasty home-cooked meals and desserts.

The Hibiscus Hotel (Hibiscus Plaza, Melhado Parade, below Corkers Restaurant, tel. 501/633-5323,, US$55) offers six decent-size guest rooms with king beds, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning, Internet access, and simple baths. The location is convenient for those arriving by bus, just one street over from the hustle and bustle of the bus terminal and Market Square. Half of the profits go to the Parrot Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre of Belize (, a nonprofit created and run by Hibiscus owners and British expats Jerry Larder and Nikki Buxton.


S KenMar’s Bed & Breakfast (22-24 Halfmoon Ave., on the side street behind the Bull Frog Inn, tel. 501/822-0118,, US$85-125) is an adorable, spotless guesthouse, with 10 air-conditioned guest rooms in a large house, each with an en suite bath and plenty of amenities, cable TV, mini fridges, coffeemakers, and more; there’s also a luxury suite (US$140). Owner Marion Fuller (call her “Miss Mar”) has thought of everything, including clothes irons, shower gel bottles, purified water in the guest rooms, and free continental breakfast (if you’re lucky, it will include her homemade cinnamon rolls), and she’s a gem of a host. There is a very nice common area, a small pool at the back, full Internet access, and sometimes the smell of fresh baking from the kitchen.

The Bull Frog Inn (25 Half Moon Ave., tel. 501/822-2111,, US$90 plus tax) has 28 guest rooms that could be mistaken for those of any basic roadside hotel in the United States. The inn reports that 80 percent of its guests are businesspeople doing work for the government or private businesses. The on-site restaurant is solid, and the bar turns into an all-night disco on Thursday.


There are rave reviews for The Inn at Twin Palms (Mile 54, Hummingbird Hwy., tel. 501/822-0231 or cell 501/610-2831,, US$115-125), a six-room inn seemingly tucked away from the main road and city, yet a close ride to town. It has nicely landscaped grounds and small swimming pool, with plenty of garden seating areas. The guest rooms, equipped with queen or double beds, are nicely furnished and include all the necessary amenities, including air-conditioning, mini fridges, coffeemakers, clothes irons, cable TV, and Wi-Fi. The guesthouse is located directly behind a school, and you might occasionally hear the children playing in the yard all afternoon.

Jungle Lodges

When they first arrived in Belize more than 30 years ago, Montana cowboy John Carr and his wife, Carolyn, ran S Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure (tel. 501/832-2020,, US$77-225) as a working cattle ranch. Today, most pastures have been converted to fields for growing corn and beans, and the ranch now hosts a lodge. Half of the 4,000-acre ranch is covered in lush rainforest, and within its borders guests will discover not only a wide variety of wildlife but also a small Mayan ruin.


sunset at Banana Bank Lodge and Jungle Equestrian Adventure

There are five guest rooms in the main house (three share a bath) to accommodate guests, and five cabanas that sleep up to six people each. There’s an old-school elegance to the guest rooms, suites, thatched-roof cabanas, dorm rooms, and chalets—no two are alike, and some have beautifully funky bathtubs and Carolyn Carr’s stunning paintings of Belizean life, and all are a few steps away from the riverfront. Food is delicious, with breads and pastries baked in-house, and served family-style; breakfast is included in the room rates, and lunch (US$10) and dinner (US$15) are available.

With 90 saddle horses in its stables and 25 miles of horse trails, Banana Bank is passionate about guests experiencing horseback riding. John Carr is known for using the horse-whisperer method, and horses are carefully matched to their riders. Ask about moonlight rides, often followed by a riverside bonfire.

Banana Bank is also a place to bird-watch, fish, hike, or take a boat trip down the Belize River, with plenty of time left for a cooling swim in a gorgeous swimming pool. Look for Tikatoo, a beautiful jaguar the Carrs rescued as a cub and have cared for since (they are the only people in the country, besides the Belize Zoo, to have a license to do so). You can take a closer look at Tikatoo in her fenced-off jaguar enclosure right on the lodge grounds. Take photos—she’s used to it.

The Carrs are wonderful hosts who will make you feel right at home. Artist and owner Carolyn Carr is considered one of the country’s premier artists; be sure to visit her on-site Galleria Carolina.

Next door to Banana Bank Lodge, the Belize Jungle Dome Hotel Resort (tel. 501/822-2124,, US$95-165) has five guest rooms in a unique geodesic dome setting. The guest rooms are fully equipped with queen beds, air-conditioning, private baths, and wireless Internet, and there is a lovely pool and a separate four-bedroom villa. The Jungle Dome serves three meals daily and caters to all dietary requirements. The resort is a licensed tour operator and runs a full range of tours as well as airport transfers. The owner, Andy Hunt, is a retired British Premier League soccer player.

Banana Bank is located across the Belize River, about 10-15 minutes by car from the Western Highway. Turn into Roaring Creek by taking the turn next to the big Westar gas station and hotel on the right. You’ll come across the Calendar Hamilton Trust Bridge; continue straight to head to the entrance, and two miles in is the actual lodge.


Even if you’re not staying in Belmopan, it is a common lunch stop for anyone traveling to or from Belize City. The cheapest meals, which are quite good, I might add, are at the market stalls and small restaurants that surround the bus terminal. Don’t be surprised to see folks eating full meals at 8am, including stew beef and rice. But the restaurant scene in Belmopan has slowly evolved, and a few of these eateries are worth the stop.


Get your coffee fix at Moon Clusters Coffee House (E. Ring Rd., behind Brodies, tel. 501/602-1644, 11am-7pm Mon.-Sat.), the second of two Belizean-owned Moon Clusters in the country (the other is in Belize City), serving the most delicious frozen espresso drink I’ve had in a while: the Choli—a double shot of espresso topped with ice cream and cinnamon. It’s to die for. There’s a nice seating area and plenty of other hot and cold beverage options, including hot chocolate and smoothies. Owner Amilcar Aguilar takes pride in his coffeehouse, a place to “have a nice drink and good conversation,” with no Internet to distract—now, there’s a refreshing concept.

Another excellent pick and my favorite place to enjoy a cup and get online is S Formosa (Nim Li Punit St., tel. 501/822-0888, 9am-7pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-8pm Fri.-Sat.), a small but cozy café, with additional seating in an adjoining room. There’s everything you’d need in one place—including Taiwanese bubble milk tea, breakfast food, burgers and soups, gourmet coffee, and desserts. The service is very friendly.


S Miriam’s Sunrise (across from First Caribbean Bank and Court House Plaza, 6am-3pm daily, US$2-5) is a delightful spot for breakfast and a good alternative to Market Square, serving up excellent, inexpensive local dishes—stews, soups, burgers, tacos, and more—from breakfast through lunch, as well as fresh squeezed local fruit juices (try the horchata, very refreshing on a hot Belmopan day). Seating is casual on picnic tables and is often shared, ideal for meeting locals or expats and asking about the town.

S Caladium Restaurant (across from Market Square, tel. 501/822-2754,, 7:30am-8pm Mon.-Fri., closes earlier Sat., US$5-14) is a favorite among locals and expats, serving up solid local breakfasts, rice and bean dishes, and stews for lunch—ask for the day’s special (the chile relleno looked amazing)—and an international menu of seafood, salads, steaks, burgers, and a lot more. The tiled dining room is cozy and air-conditioned, with a full bar.

DelNorte Cevichería (6 St. Paul Rd., tel. 501/630-0712, noon-11pm Tues.-Sun.) is on the east side of town, with fresh ceviche (US$3-10), nachos, tacos, and beer. What else could you need? It’s in a purple house on a residential street just north of the George Price Centre.


Scotchies (7753 Hummingbird Hwy., tel. 501/832-2203, 11am-9pm Sun.-Wed., 10:30am-11pm Fri.-Sat., US$3.75-16), the popular Jamaican chain restaurant specializing in jerk cuisine, is now open in Belize. The setup is similar to its Jamaican counterparts: a gated yard with thatch huts and wooden benches, albeit a lot more polished. Outdoor cooking of pork, chicken, and sausage is on pimento logs covered in zinc sheets, the traditional jerk way. Make sure to ask for dipping sauces made from scotch bonnet peppers; they seem to forget to give you some. Side options include festival, breadfruit, and the trusted Belizean rice and beans. The jerk taste is decent, though not yet as succulent as it is at Jamaica’s Scotchies branches. There’s ample seating—surprisingly large for a small town—and a bar serving mostly beers and soft drinks. The location makes it an easy roadside stop. Whether it becomes a hit, as it is in Jamaica, is anyone’s guess.

Pepper’s Pizza (St. Martin Ave., across from Bull Frog Inn, tel. 501/822-0666, 8am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-9pm Sun., US$5-16) delivers free anywhere in town. Pasquale’s Pizzeria (corner of Forest Dr. and Slim Lane, delivery tel. 501/822-4663,, 11am-9pm Mon.-Sat., noon-9pm Sun., US$8-15) is quite popular with those who can afford U.S. prices, and offers large hand-tossed New York-style pizzas, pastas, wings, and burgers. Bystro Mia (El Rey Inn, 23 Moho St., tel. 501/822-3438, 6:30am-9pm daily, US$3-8), is set in a residential area but worth finding, with a small but savory menu offering local breakfasts with gourmet coffee, if you choose, as well as pizzas, quesadillas, burgers, and pasta (the Bolognese sauce was delicious). Also worthwhile is Wing Stop (Hummingbird Ave. and Mountain View Blvd., tel. 501/636-0048, 11am-11:45pm daily, US$5-14) where you can get—you guessed it—wings, from 6 pieces to a bucket of 24 or more, among other options.

The open-air restaurant and bar at the Bull Frog Inn (25 Half Moon Ave., tel. 501/822-2111,, 7am-10pm daily, US$10-40) has a long-standing reputation among the elite of Belmopan, and this is one of the most popular spots in town to dine. The fish fillet, chicken, and burgers are all good and moderately priced, and there’s a daily local special. For an international menu prepared by a chef from England, and the prices to go with it, Corkers Restaurant & Wine Bar (top floor of Hibiscus Plaza, tel. 501/822-0400,, lunch and dinner 11am-8pm Mon.-Sat., US$7-25) caters to the expat crowd and has salads like tuna niçoise as well as wraps, burgers, steaks, and pastas. There are trivia nights on Monday, and happy hour (4pm-10pm Thurs.-Sat.) with half-price cocktails.

For a taste of Spain in Belize, head to Cabo’s (Mile 49, Western Hwy., beside Westar gas station, tel. 501/832-2170, 8:30am-8pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-7pm Sat., 10am-4pm Sun., US$22-60) and try their seafood paella or the lamb marinated in white wine; steaks are also on the menu. The owners hail from Santander.

Among the many Chinese restaurants, Chon Saan Palace (7069 George Price Blvd., tel. 501/822-3388, 10am-midnight daily, US$5-10) is the best.

Vegetarian and Vegan

The healthy diet and vegan wave has officially reached Belize, with Belly Happy (East Ring Rd., across from Brodies, tel. 501/629-9709,, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat.), the first place to offer gluten-free rice and beans, tofu, and other surprisingly tasty and healthier lunch options. Freshly made vegetable and fruit smoothie choices are also a highlight, with fun combinations and names to match—the Green Goddess is quite good, with spinach, apple, cucumber, moringa, and parsley—and the lunch menu offers whole-wheat wraps (made of a carrot and spinach base) with Mediterranean fillings, soups, salads, and pastas. There are daily lunch specials, and even nondairy organic ice cream. Sidewalk seating completes this unique spot, along with an eclectic indoor lounge.


For well-stocked supermarkets and drugstores, head to the Belmopan branch of Brodies (tel. 501/822-2010 or 501/822-3078,, 8am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-1pm Sun.) or try The Mall (Hummingbird Hwy., tel. 501/822-3399, 8am-9pm daily), selling everything from groceries to hair extensions.

Some students and scientists come to Belmopan to do research in the Belize Archives Department (26-28 Unity Blvd., tel. 501/822-2097,, 8am-5pm Mon.-Thurs., closes earlier Fri.), a closed-stacks library popular with both local students and foreign researchers.

Garden City Plaza (Mountain View Blvd., about US$2.50 by taxi from the city center) has a few shops, including Antonini’s Restaurant (tel. 501/802-0263), offering decent fast food and sandwiches, an Internet café, a health food store, and an Atlantic Bank branch.


If you are traveling Belize by bus, it’s nearly impossible not to visit Belmopan, as all buses traveling between Belize City and points west and south—even express buses—pull into the main Belmopan terminal for 5-30 minutes as they rustle up new passengers (and the driver takes a break for lunch or a smoke). If you need a local taxi driver while in Belmopan, they are usually parked by Market Square, outside the bus terminal, or standing by the station exit asking every exiting passenger if they need a ride.

Buses leave Belize City to Belmopan (US$2) every 15 minutes 4am-8:30pm daily. Buses from Belmopan to Benque at the Guatemalan border leave every 30 minutes 6:30am-7pm daily. Buses from Belmopan to points south such as Dangriga and Punta Gorda leave hourly 6:30am-7:30pm daily. Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your departure to line up, if you don’t want to risk the bus filling up before you have a chance to get on (it does happen).


The Hummingbird Highway stretches south from Belmopan to St. Margaret’s and farther on to Dangriga. The road was paved only recently and boasts some of the most scenic driving in Central America (in my humble opinion). The drive from Belmopan southeast toward Dangriga is an awesome reminder of just how green and wild Belize really is. Some of the canopy took a hit during Hurricane Richard’s strange inland rampage in 2010, but the forest grows quickly in these parts, and it is still most impressive.


The highway passes through towering karst hills and long views of broadleaf rainforest as you cross the Caves Branch Bridge and enter the Valley of Caves. It climbs into the Maya Mountains and then descends toward the sea. The junction with the Southern Highway is 20 miles east of Over the Top Pass, and Dangriga is another five miles from there.

Guanacaste National Park

Located at the T-junction on the Western Highway where the Hummingbird Highway begins, the 50-acre Guanacaste National Park (tel. 501/223-5004, 8am-4:30pm daily, US$2.50 pp) is probably one of the most overlooked small attractions in Belize. Comanaged by the Belize Audubon Society (tel. 501/223-4987 or 501/223-5004) and the government, this park gets its name from a massive 360-year-old guanacaste, or tubroos, tree on the property. The original tree is no longer living (they had to cut the limbs off for safety), but the park is still filled with ceibas, cohune palms, mammee apple, mahogany, quamwood, and other trees as well as wildlife like agoutis, armadillos, coatis, deer, iguanas, jaguarundis, kinkajous, and more than 100 species of birds. Among the rare finds here are resident blue-crowned motmots. The amate fig also grows profusely on the water’s edge and provides an important part of the howler monkeys’ diet.


This is a perfect place for a picnic and a dip on your way to or from Belize City. There are three easy trail loops. Or bring a swimsuit and take a dip at the quiet spot in the Roaring River just before it enters the Belize River.

Roaring River Golf Course

The only functioning golf course in all of Belize is the Roaring River Golf Course (Mile 50½, Western Hwy., tel. 501/820-2031,, an unpretentious executive-type nine-holer (3,892 yards, par 64, slope rating 116). It’s a short drive from Belmopan and a worthy activity for anyone staying in an area lodge or resort, whether you’re a seasoned slugger or just golf curious (free lessons are offered for beginners). The feel of the course, clubhouse, and restaurant is tranquil, the staff is friendly, and the greens fees are reasonable (US$18 per round or US$25 all-you-can-play).

This is a unique rainforest-golf opportunity by any measure. More than 120 bird species have been identified on and around the property, there are crocodiles in the water hazards, and you’ll hear the sound of the nearby river, which flows from Thousand Foot Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge. After sweating out a round, take a dip in one of the cool, clean, shady pools of the river.

Roaring River Golf Course is well maintained with a level layout and interesting landscaping dividing the fairways; greens boast Bermuda grass, grown from seed. Paul, the South African owner, notes that his course uses chemicals very sparingly, almost not at all—”just a bit of spraying for the ants,” he says. The property uses water from a natural spring flowing from within the mountain.

Plant your nongolfing family members in the river for the day while you hit those links. The restaurant Meating Place (11am-9pm daily, US$10-20) has earned several “best steak in Belize” comments from reviewers (Paul’s wife, Jennie, who hails from South Carolina, cures and ages the meat herself); their top filet goes for US$18. Make sure to make reservations ahead of time.

Guests can stay in one of four well-furnished villas with air-conditioning, Internet access, TVs, queen beds, fridges, coffeemakers, work counters, lounge suites, and stunning back porches over the river. Staying here is a perfect option for someone who really wants to get some early rounds in, or for anyone trapped by an assignment in Belmopan, which is only 10-15 minutes away.


Bed-and-breakfast homestay options are sometimes available in several villages up and down the Hummingbird Highway, notably in Armenia. This is a quiet settlement, eight miles south of Belmopan, with a Mayan and Latino population offering Rock of Excellence Homestays (call Maria “Betty” Gonzalez, tel. 501/630-7033 or 501/625-0088, community tel. 501/660-1881,, There are about seven participating families, with a wide range of accommodations, though all are simple, rustic, and usually within the home of your hosts (US$30 for a night’s lodging and three meals); it’s best to call a day ahead. They can also arrange tours for the day, at extra cost.

S St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park

Covering 575 acres, the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park (Belize Audubon Society, tel. 501/223-5004,, 8am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., US$4) encompasses a water-filled sinkhole, St. Herman’s Cave, and the surrounding rainforest. Rich in wildlife, the park harbors jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, peccaries, tamanduas, boa constrictors, fer-de-lance snakes, toucans, crested guans, blue-crowned motmots, and red-legged honeycreepers.


sinkhole at St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park

The pool of the Blue Hole is an oblong collapsed karst sinkhole, 300 feet across in some places and about 25 feet deep. Water destined for the nearby Sibun River surfaces briefly here only to disappear once more beneath the ground. Steps lead down to the swimming area, a pool 25 feet deep or so. It is a 45-minute hike from the visitors center, or you can cheat and park closer a little farther down the highway. You can also go tubing and caving here.

St. Herman’s Cave requires a hike of a little more than a 1.5 miles across rugged ground. A flashlight and sturdy, rubber-soled shoes are necessities (you can rent flashlights), and a light windbreaker or sweater is a wise choice in the winter. The trail begins near the changing room. The nearest cave entrance is actually a huge sinkhole measuring nearly 200 feet across, funneling down to about 65 feet at the cave’s lip. Concrete steps (laid over the Mayan originals) aid descending explorers. The cave doesn’t offer the advanced spelunker a real challenge, but neophytes can safely explore it to a distance of about one mile. Pottery, spears, and the remains of torches have been found in many caves in the area. The pottery was used to collect the clear water of cave drippings, called zuh uy ha (sacred water) by the Maya. For a guided trip (recommended, US$40), call Job Lopez (tel. 501/633-7008), who is on-site at the park. If you’re interested in bird-watching, park director Israel Manzanero is considered one of the most knowledgeable birders in Belize.

Blue Hole National Park is located 12 miles southeast of Belmopan on the right side of Hummingbird Highway. It’s wise to visit most caves with a guide, and don’t visit the park unless the wardens are there. Amenities include a parking area and a changing room. Blue Hole is a perfect daytime stop on your drive to either Belmopan, San Ignacio, or Dangriga.

Five Blues Lake National Park

Located at Mile 32 on the Hummingbird Highway, Five Blues Lake National Park (US$5 pp) is home to several Mayan sites accessible to visitors. Within the Duende Caves, ceremonial pottery can still be found. While some of the more significant sites are heavily regulated by the Belizean Institute of Archaeology, Five Blues Lake provides ample opportunity for visitors to see Mayan writings and pottery. In 2006 a mysterious draining of some of the lakes occurred as the earth sucked some of the famous blue water back into the limestone. In 2010 the water returned. Spooky. There are many birds and other wildlife species here, including coatimundis, collared peccaries, and agoutis.

Entrance fees support the park and can be paid to the ranger on duty. At the park entrance, a visitors center has maps of the trails available, along with picnic tables and restroom facilities. From the visitors center, you can take any of the park’s trails or go directly to the lake.

St. Margaret’s (Mile 32) is the entrance to Five Blues Lake National Park and may have some of the same homestay services as Armenia. Blues Lake National Park can be reached by taking a local bus from the terminal in Belmopan to St. Margaret’s Village. From the deserted park office in the village, a rutted 2.5-mile road leads to the park. This road can be hiked, or local park rangers may be willing to provide transportation.

Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge

One of the premier adventure lodges in Belize, Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge (Mile 41½, Hummingbird Hwy., U.S. tel. 866/357-2698, tel. 501/610-3451, offers expeditions that can be strenuous and exciting; it is also a hub for social active travelers. As Ian said a few years ago, “We’re certainly not for everyone—thank God!” On the 58,000 acres of this private estate are 68 known caves, and Ian has discovered and explored them all, developing a variety of trips around many of them. The longest and deepest of these Mayan ceremonial caves extends seven miles. Pristine dry caves glisten with crystal formations. Some caves still have pottery shards, skeletal remains, and footprints coated with an icing of rock crystals. Ian offers expeditions ranging one to seven days, including tubing trips through river caves. All expedition guides have received intensive training in cave and wilderness rescue, evacuation, and first aid; they are, in my mind, some of the best guides in the country, in every sense of the term. Popular excursions include the Black Hole Drop—an amazing 400-foot rainforest rappelling experience—waterfall trips, river caves, and the best tubing in the district. Their honeymoon packages are particularly creative and adventurous.

The lodge offers their brand of “rustic luxury” in their 25 units, which include rainforest cabanas and suites (US$169-294), all the way up to spectacular 800-square-foot luxury tree house suites (US$426-591) with views to write home about. The screened accommodations are open to the sights and sounds of the surrounding wildness. Lighting is still by the glow of kerosene lamps and the moon, but flush toilets and hot and cold water are available throughout (actually, the warm “jungle shower” is the highlight of many a guest’s stay). The guest rooms have electricity for lights and wicker fans, but there are no outlets or appliances. New additions include a spa, wedding facilities, and a helipad. The on-site Botanical Gardens’ orchid collection, a must-see, has over 400 species of rescued specimens, less than one-quarter of which have yet bloomed. Guests dine together in the main open-air lodge, where they discuss the day’s stories and the next day’s plans over family-style meals (breakfast US$8, lunch US$12, dinner US$16, plus taxes).

Access to Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch is on the Hummingbird Highway between the Blue Hole National Park visitors center and the parking lot for the Blue Hole; turn left (if you’re headed south) and continue to the end of the mile-long dirt road. If you’re traveling by bus, you’ll have to hike in from here if you haven’t arranged to be picked up by lodge staff.

San Ignacio

The region from San Ignacio and beyond is referred to as “Cayo” by the locals. Most visitors choose to stay in this area rather than Belmopan, mostly because of the allure of bustling San Ignacio. San Ignacio is a charming town located in the heart of Belize’s much-visited green and hilly western Cayo District—home of Mayan sites and caves amid a lush interior of mountains, rivers, pine forests, waterfalls, and citrus plants. One of Belize’s crown jewels of tourism, San Ignacio is popular with locals and visitors alike for its hip, laid-back village feel, its picturesque landscape, a Latin vibe, cheap and authentic eateries, a wide variety of accommodations options—from camping to some of the most upscale jungle lodges in the country—and outdoor activities. The area around San Ignacio is ideal for travelers seeking an outdoors type of getaway and organized activities in Belize’s lush rainforest interior. There is plenty to do here, from the mild to the extreme, canoeing the rivers, spelunking, rappelling, exploring archeological sites and botanical gardens, or sampling authentic Belizean cuisine. Together with the neighboring sister town of Santa Elena, the population here is mostly mestizo—a mix of Mayan and Spanish—and there are sizeable Mennonite, U.S., and Chinese expat communities. Spanish is spoken more frequently than Creole, in addition to English.



Driving to San Ignacio from Belize City, you’ll first pass through its sister town of Santa Elena, turning right at the Social Security building and continuing across the Wooden Bridge to the San Ignacio side of the Macal River, close to the open market grounds. From there, turning left will take you directly into “downtown” San Ignacio, marked by a five-road intersection that is nearly always abuzz with activity. Burns Avenue crosses here and is the main drag for locals and travelers alike. Within two or three blocks in any direction of that intersection, you’ll find most of San Ignacio’s budget accommodations, restaurants, Internet cafés, and tour operators.

The town’s three banks are on the block of Burns Avenue that runs east toward the river from the big intersection, and at the end of that block you’ll find a tiny traffic circle in front of the police station, which guards the western abutment of the Hawksworth Bridge. Built in 1949, the Hawksworth is the only suspension bridge in Belize; it is also the starting line of the big canoe race in March. Normally, only eastbound traffic is allowed on the one-lane bridge from Santa Elena to San Ignacio, except when the lower bridge floods and traffic is diverted, as it was several times in 2008 during the highest recorded river levels since 1961. Any of the roads that lead uphill from downtown San Ignacio will eventually place you back on the Western Highway heading toward Benque and the Guatemalan border.


S Cahal Pech Archaeological Site

A 10-minute walk uphill from downtown San Ignacio, Cahal Pech is a great tree-shaded destination filled with ancient tales. The ruins of Cahal Pech (Place of the Ticks) features an excavated series of plazas and royal residences. The site was discovered in the early 1950s, but research did not begin until 1988, when a team from San Diego State University’s anthropology department began work with local archaeology guru Jaime Awe. Thirty-four structures were built in a three-acre area. Excavation is ongoing and visitors are welcome. It is well worth your trip and admission fee (US$5), paid at the Cahal Pech visitors center (tel. 501/824-4236, 8am-5pm daily). The visitors center also houses a small museum of artifacts found at the site, along with a skeleton from Xunantunich.


Nearby Tipu was a Christian Mayan town during the early years of colonization. Tipu was as far as the Spanish were able to penetrate in the 16th century.

S San Ignacio Farmers Market and Macal River Park

Every Saturday morning, from dawn through the afternoon, vendors from all of Cayo’s villages descend on San Ignacio’s market to sell locally grown fruits and vegetables, dairy, Guatemalan spices, meats, clothing, and more. Fresh mestizo food is cooked and sold on-site as well, and everyone comes out to shop and sit and enjoy a brunch of pupusas, tacos, empanadas, and tamales. They sit in families around long picnic tables and enjoy the live music. Others relax in the shade by the Macal River, just beside the market, or riffle through the tents looking for a new dress. It’s San Ignacio’s one big social event of the week.

S Medicinal Jungle Trail and Iguana Conservation Project

When the local iguana population was in a noticeable downward cycle, the folks at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel created this successful breeding and release project to bring the animals back and protect the riverside from further development. Groups go on hunts for eggs, capture the females, and hijack the eggs, which they raise in a predator-free, food-rich environment before releasing the iguanas back into the wild. The program has also trained former iguana hunters to become iguana guides, a far more profitable and sustainable endeavor, and hosts many school groups, featuring their Adopt an Iguana program.


The Green Iguana Conservation Project and the interpretive herb trail is accessed through the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (perched above the Macal River, a short downhill walk from the town center, tel. 501/824-2034 or 501/824-2125, U.S. tel. 855/488-2624, To date, 175 species of birds have been observed here, including a rare family pair of black hawk eagles, plus a number of mammals. Tours (30 minutes, US$7 pp) of the herb trail or the iguana project are offered on the hour 7am-4pm daily.

S Belize Botanic Gardens

Visiting the country’s only botanical garden, the Belize Botanic Gardens (tel. 501/824-3101,, 7am-4pm daily, entrance US$7.50, includes self-guided booklet, guided walk US$15) makes a wonderful half- or full-day activity. Walk through 45 acres of fruit trees, palms, tropical flowers, and native plants as you learn about the medicinal and ritual plants of the Maya and experience the Native Plant House, with more than 100 species of orchids. Botanists’ work here has resulted in 20 new orchid records for Belize and one species new to science: Pleurothallis duplooyii (named after Ken duPlooy), which has a bloom about the size of a flea. There is also a rainforest trail, a pine forest habitat complete with a 30-foot fire tower, plenty of bird-watching, a special guidebook for children, and a sustainably built visitors center for meetings, yoga, and other activities. There are picnic tables too, and you can easily spend a fun afternoon here, with an on-site restaurant and the river below for a freshwater swim. Call to find out about a shuttle from San Ignacio, or get a taxi ride. The gardens’ office is in the reception area of duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge Resort.

Land of Orchids

Flower lovers are in for a treat: Belize has well over 300 native species of orchids, hence its national flower, the year-round blooming black orchid (Prosthechea cochleata). While you’re likely to spot a few in the wild while hiking, you can enjoy them in their full glory by visiting the two top orchid and native plant gardens in Belize, right here in Cayo.

The Orchid Garden at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch (tel. 501/610-3451,, 9am-4pm daily, free) is a lovely retreat on the lodge’s property; it is now home to one of the largest collections in Belize of orchids native to Belize and Central America. Ella Anderson, who oversees the garden, received several of the plants from the older women in the nearby city of Belmopan who were no longer able to care for them. Once a month, these women come by the resort to enjoy the pool and visit the botanical garden to check on their favorite orchids. If you go during spring, you will get to examine the hundreds of blooming flowers here, all carefully labeled for an easy self-guided tour; grab a bench and enjoy the fragrant air. Guides are also available to show you around; stop by the lodge’s front desk for more information.


The black orchid is Belize’s national flower.

Another favorite is the original Native Plant House at the Belize Botanic Gardens (tel. 501/834-4800,, 7am-3pm daily, entrance US$7.50, guided tour US$15), located at duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge Resort (take a shuttle or taxi from San Ignacio), with only Belizean orchids. Look out for the vanilla orchid—native to Belize—the original source of the famous flavor enjoyed worldwide. Make it a full day by grabbing lunch at the restaurant, swimming in the river, and relaxing in the gardens.


Cayo District is home to a beautiful lattice of trails, from short nature walks and medicine trails to a range of hiking trips through the surrounding hills. Mountain biking the Cayo District is fun, beautiful, and a great way to burn off a few Belikins, but it can be dusty in the dry season. Equestrians will find horseback riding at a growing number of jungle lodge resorts and custom tour operators in and around San Ignacio.

Many Cayo resorts offer excellent guided cave trips of varying levels of difficulty, for everyone from the beginning spelunker to the professional speleologist; day and overnight trips are available. Ask about the varied experiences to be had in Actun Tunichil Muknal (worth every penny), Barton Creek Cave, Actun Chapat, Actun Halal (on private property), or Chechem Ha Cave, or any of the most recently discovered ones that are as yet unnamed.

Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are absolute musts and popular ways to enjoy the Macal and Mopan Rivers. One popular trip is to paddle up the Macal River from downtown San Ignacio, making your way to the Ix Chel Rainforest Medicine Trail or Belize Botanic Gardens.

Canoeing and Kayaking

Canoe five miles up the Macal River to Chaa Creek and the Botanic Gardens at duPlooy’s (or vice versa); pick the vivacious Andy Tut (tel. 501/834-4016 or cell 501/634-5441,, US$40 pp, includes pickup from San Ignacio), an excellent canoeing guide stationed at the Crystal Paradise Resort and offering trips along the Macal River as well as river birding; he’ll pick you up from San Ignacio.

Cave Tubing

Plop yourself in a tube and float along the stream passing through deep caves (weather and water levels permitting), while admiring the stunning scenery of limestone, pottery shards, and rainforest canopy; your best option is the seven-mile float across the Caves Branch river and cave system. Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge (Mile 41½, Hummingbird Hwy., tel. 501/610-3451, U.S. tel. 866/357-2698,, offered Mon., Wed., and Fri., US$95 pp, minimum 4 people) is the original creator of this signature Belize adventure activity. Cave tubing inside the cave system at Jaguar Paw also gets great reviews—contact any of the Cayo tour operators to arrange or compare pricing.


cave tubing

Cayo Guides and Tour Operators

Cayo is famous for both the quantity and quality of its guides, naturalists, and tour operators. Signing up for a tour is as easy as contacting your hotel’s front desk or walking up Burns Avenue, where most of Cayo’s tour operator offices are located. It’s often the same price to book a trip through your hotel as it is directly with the tour company, but if you’d like to handle it on your own, here are a few recommendations.

Pacz Tours (tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536,, cave trip US$110 pp, Tikal US$150) is the number-one tour operator in town, offering the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave trip as well as overnight camping options with some combination of river running, a waterfall, ruins, rappelling, and caves—always with fun cultural stops along the way. They are also the only licensed guide to camp overnight at Caracol. Walk-in prices are a little less than online, but you risk not getting your preferred tour dates as Pacz sells out fast. When major U.S. film crews come to town—National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel—they call Pacz.

Cayo Adventure Tours (tel. 501/824-3246, offers all kinds of day trips in the area, including horseback riding and mountain biking (both US$75).

Belizean Sun Tours (San José de Succotz, tel. 501/601-2630,, US$95) is passionate about preserving Cayo’s history and giving visitors an off-the-beaten-track experience. Operator Kenneth Dart is an excellent guide whose Actun Chapat and Actun Halal Caving Adventure begin with a rugged eight-mile Land Rover ride through the rainforest (quite the adventure!), then a hike to several sites, including Actun Chapat, a cave with 60-foot ceilings and huge formations. The Maya used this cave extensively for rituals and left behind altars, terraces, carved faces, and artifacts. These two caves are among the most unique in Belize. Since it’s on private property, this is an exclusive trip and you will be the only people here.

Hun Chi’ik Tours (tel. 501/670-0746 or 501/600-9192,, US$85-90) has experienced guides and a creative range of trips. They are conscious about the importance of “oral tradition and local knowledge” to enhance the educational value of their tours.

David’s Adventure Tours (tel. 501/804-3674 or cell 501/628-2837,,, canoe trips US$15-50 pp, birding US$30 pp, overnight rainforest tour US$75 pp, includes food and gear) is one of the old standbys, offering volumes of local knowledge and the full range of tours.

River Rat (tel. 501/628-6033, specializes in Actun Tunichil Muknal, kayak expeditions, and overnight float trips.

Paradise Expeditions’ Tut Brothers (at Crystal Paradise Resort, tel. 501/834-4016 or cell 501/634-5441,, US$40 pp, includes pickup from San Ignacio) specialize in canoeing, horseback riding, and birding, for an off-the-beaten-track fun journey into the rainforest.

Yute Expeditions (Burns Ave., opposite Hotel Casa Blanca, tel. 501/824-4321,,, cave trip US$90 pp for 2, includes equipment, entrance fees, and lunch; half-day Xunantunich trip US$45 pp) is run by a very experienced Cayo family. They’re especially good for families and groups, and have a top-notch fleet of air-conditioned vehicles.


Right in town is San Ignacio Resort’s self-guided Medicinal Jungle Trail, easily explored in 30 minutes or for as long as you’d like to examine all the “bush medicine” surrounding you.

Just outside of town, visitors can head over to The Lodge at Chaa Creek (tel. 501/824-2037, US$10 pp), for a short riverside hike, highlighting the medicinal plants of the Maya and their uses. The site also boasts the Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Center and the Chaa Creek Natural History Museum, with exhibit areas that examine ecosystems, geology, and Mayan culture in the Cayo area.

Love exploring on foot? A nice walk is from San Ignacio town to the Hawksworth Bridge and crossing over into Santa Elena, with lovely views of the Macal River and everyday life as you go along.

Horseback Riding

Book your horseback riding trip with Andy Tut (tel. 501/634-5441, half-day US$45 pp for 2 people)—a reliable local guide to have whether you’re a novice or advanced rider; his energy and laughter are contagious. He’ll pick you up from San Ignacio and you’ll ride through the Cristo Rey Village, stopping at a waterfall to cool off.

Off the Chiquibul Road, Mountain Equestrian Trails (Mile 8, Mountain Pine Ridge Rd., tel. 501/669-1124,, half-day and full-day rides US$61-90) is the area’s premier riding center, with one of the biggest trail systems in the Pine Ridge.


Who doesn’t love a cool dip in fresh water, along with a picnic on a sunny afternoon? On the weekends in particular, you’ll spot local families and children splashing about along the banks of the Macal River. Some swing from a tree branch, and others sit on the grass to contemplate their beautiful district. Another wonderful river, safe and even cleaner to swim in, is the Mopan River.


The Cayo District has an abundance of birdlife, and it’s almost impossible to go wrong wherever you choose to roam—over 300 species have been spotted within 10 miles of San Ignacio. But the best way to increase your sighting odds is to explore with the best guides in the area. Contact the Tut brothers at Crystal Paradise (tel. 501/610-5593,, who offer multiple bird-watching tours in the area for all levels of birders; ask them about birding at Aguacate Lagoon. You can also do it solo and head to one of the jungle lodges—try duPlooy’s with its Botanic Gardens, rainforest trails, and expert on-site birding guides for advice.

Massage and Bodywork

Right in San Ignacio, you can find reasonably priced massages (US$40 per hour), pedicures, manicures, facials, and body waxing at Gretel’s Salon and Spa (Joseph Andrews Dr., above Western Dairies, tel. 501/824-4888 or 501/604-1126,, 8:30am-7pm Mon.-Fri., closes later Sat., 1-hour massage US$37.50, wash and blow dry US$17.50), a locally owned and oriented beauty salon.

Of course, there are full spa services at some of the upscale resorts in the area, notably Hilltop Spa (US$85-105) at The Lodge at Chaa Creek; combine a visit here with a trip to the nearby botanic gardens or a paddle on the river. Ka’ana Resort and Spa (Mile 69¼, Western Hwy., U.S. tel. 305/735-2553, tel. 501/824-3350,, US$80-150) offers massages, facials, and body scrubs with homegrown brown sugar, cacao, and coffee; they also offer energy work with a Mayan healer.



San Ignacio’s nightlife has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years—not to the level of San Pedro, but still with quite a few more bar, dancing, and happy-hour options than other spots in the country. There’s always somewhere to go for a drink after a long day exploring the countryside. It’s a small town, so finding the party is not difficult; just follow the masses as they trek between bars, or ask around for the latest. Thursday through Saturday are the most happening nights. Start your evening with the popular happy hour at Mr. Greedy’s (34 Burns Ave., tel. 501/804-4688, 6am-midnight daily), especially on “ladies night” when women get happy hour prices all night (we’re talking US$2 cocktails and occasional live music), or one of the copycat happy hours at other restaurants on Burns Avenue. For a more upscale bar scene, check the bar at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (above the Macal River, tel. 501/824-2034,, noon-midnight daily).

Bush Medicinal Trails

Belize’s rainforests are home to hundreds of trees, plants, fruits, and vines that have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes. “Bush medicine” in Belize dates back to the days of the Maya, thousands of years ago, when they relied on nature both to survive and to cure their ailments. Sadly, the number of living bush doctors and practitioners has declined, particularly since the 1996 death of Cayo’s great Elijio Panti, Belize’s most respected Mayan healer.

Medicinal plants are everywhere today—in the rainforests and in gardens, even while driving along the highway—though less abundant. Belizeans continue to use the same plants for medicinal purposes, as many were raised learning of the benefits as well as the dangers of the rainforest. There are plants for ailments ranging from sunburn, cough, and toothache to male impotency.

As a traveler, exploring the various medicinal trails in Cayo will teach you quite a lot about the rainforest and the various plant and tree uses. Knowing what’s in your backyard can come in very handy when there’s no pharmacy nearby. You’ll also hear fascinating stories from your local guides and even children about their own healing experiences, passed on from their parents and grandparents, and some of the amusing names given to these plants.


The “hot lips” plant helps women to expel the placenta after giving birth.

Calico Jack’s (Mountain Pine Ridge, tel. 501/832-2478, has a guided walk of their “Ancient Jungle Garden Trail,” one of the most informative and entertaining tours around. Learn about the “tourist plant,” or red gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba), whose tree bark looks just like peeling red skin and is used to treat sunburn.

Rainforest Medicine Trail at Chaa Creek (8am-4pm daily, guided tour US$10 pp, self-guided US$5) features many of the medicinal plants Elijio Panti used in his practice and offers a historical background on his achievements. Guided hour-long tours run every hour on the hour, or you can walk the trail on a self-guided tour.

San Ignacio Resort Hotel (above the Macal River, downhill from the town center, tel. 501/824-2034,, US$5) offers another great medicinal trail, where you can take a 30-minute guided tour (9am, noon, 1pm, and 4pm daily).

H’men Herbal Center (Maya Centre, near Cockscomb, tel. 501/533-7043,, entrance US$2.50) is about a two-hour drive from Belmopan. Owned and operated by Aurora Garcia Saqui, niece of the late Elijio Panti, it features a four-acre botanical garden, a medicinal trail, herbs for sale, and seminars on herbal medicine.

To learn more about bush medicine, pick up a copy of Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer by Rosita Arvigo, about her decade-long apprenticeship with Elijio Panti, or Rainforest Remedies: 100 Healing Herbs of Belize by Rosita Arvigo and Michael Balick.

Meluchi’s (Joseph Andrews Dr., across from the cemetery, tel. 501/668-2920, 10am-2pm and 5pm-10pm daily) is another good bet for happy hour and delicious tacos, among other options, as well as karaoke on Thursday. On weekends, tables are cleared and it turns into a dance club. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world where you can dance while looking onto a cemetery on one side and a playground on the other. On weekends, the Cahal Pech Village bar (tel. 501/824-3740, noon-midnight Thurs.-Sat.) is buzzing with locals and travelers hanging out poolside, with lovely views of the Cayo hills at night and a boom box playing all the latest tunes. Ask for bartender Oscar’s signature Belizean Snow cocktail; he won the 2009 Best Bartender title at the annual Taste of Belize event.

For dancing, you can try the only decent nightclub in San Ignacio, Club Next (inside Princess Casino, no phone, 9pm-2am Thurs.-Sat.). Across the street is the popular chain Thirsty Thursdays (Apollo St. and Buena Vista Rd., across from Princess Casino, tel. 501/824-2727, 3pm-9pm Wed., 3pm-2am Thurs.-Fri., noon-2am Sat., noon-9pm Sun., US$4-14), set back in a lush garden with a palapa bar, with plenty of seating and a front wooden deck to dance to the reggae and international beats played by a resident DJ. There’s a decent snack and dinner menu, with burritos, fajitas, and pizza. Folks start here before continuing across the street at Club Next or on to Tabu. Right in town, on the top floor of a commercial building, is the indoor Tabu Nightclub (Manzanero Bldg., no phone, 9pm-2am Thurs.-Sat.), a late-night spot where the dancing gets pretty raunchy, Caribbean style. Also in town is Blue Angel’s (Post Office Rd., no phone, 10pm-2am Fri.-Sat.), which gets a bit dicey late at night—avoid going here on Saturday.

Festivals and Events

Belize’s biggest sporting event is La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge (, an exciting and convivial canoe race held during the first week of March and timed to coincide with National Heroes and Benefactors Day (formerly Baron Bliss Day) celebrations. If you are in San Ignacio for the start of the race, you’ll watch 100 teams of paddlers mass together in the Macal River, then bolt downstream—racing five days down the 173-mile length of the Belize River all the way to Belize City. Crowds gather all around the river, and it makes for one lively event. Increasingly popular since its inception in 1998, La Ruta Maya has many divisions to compete in, including women’s, mixed gender, amateur, dory, and pleasure craft, and it offers more than US$15,000 in prize money. The race is part athletic event, part tourism draw, and several parts fiesta.

Organized by the Belize Cycling Association (, Belize’s Annual Holy Saturday Cross-Country Cycling Classic takes place every year on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. Teams race from Belize City all the way to the hills of Cayo, passing through the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, and back.


There are small gift and supply shops along Burns Avenue in San Ignacio, but the best shopping in the area (some would say in all of Belize) is a few miles east of San Ignacio at Orange Gifts & Gallery (Mile 60, Western Hwy., tel. 501/824-2341,, 7:30am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri.). Orange Gifts (there’s also a shop in San Pedro) has an enormous collection of original and imported arts and crafts, including the custom hardwood furniture and the art of proprietor Julian Sherrard. You’ll also find jewelry, paintings, textiles, and practical items for travelers like laminated maps, books, postcards, and Gallon Jug Coffee. Orange has an excellent restaurant and bar.

Nearly across the highway from Orange, Hot Mama’s Belize (Mile 60, Western Hwy., tel. 501/824-0444,, 9am-5pm daily) makes some fine and spicy condiments. Gift packages and other sundries, as well as tours, are available.

Gifts from Mayaland (tel. 501/661-1952, 11am-6pm daily) is tucked in a wooden shack across from the market and is well worth the find for its made-in-Cayo gifts from various local artists, including handmade bath soaps and Mayan crafts. Look for Linda’s section of the store, Riverbend Wines & Condiments, and get a bottle of her tropical fruit wines—organic and made at her farm in Camalote village. Flavors are seasonal, and include golden plum, blackberry wine, honey mead, and even a tangy mango liqueur she calls Mangoluah.

To sample Belizean music and take some home, Venus Records (6 Hudson St., across from the post office, tel. 501/824-2101, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat., closed for lunch Mon.-Fri.) has a good selection.


Choices abound for such a small town; there are many cheap, clean, converted family homes, most within a few blocks of one another. Cayo can get hot at times, but remember that it’s generally cooler than the rest of the country, so air-conditioning may not be a big priority, especially from October to February. Also, note that most (but not all) accommodations in Cayo quote prices with tax and service charges included; most also offer deep discounts in low season and for multiple nights. The rates quoted in this chapter, as in the rest of the book, are high-season double-occupancy rates only.

Under US$25

The S Hi-Et Guest House (West St., tel. 501/824-2828,, US$12.50-25) is an excellent option built right into the owner’s large home. The five guest rooms with shared baths and cold water are clean and comfortable and have hardwood floors. The five guest rooms with private baths in the next building are a big step up in quality and not much in price—they’re well-kept and have tiled floors and balconies but no air-conditioning. There’s a common area with a fridge and seating, and Wi-Fi access is included.

The Tropicool Hotel (30A Burns Ave., tel. 501/804-3052, US$17.50-38) has seven simple, clean guest rooms with shared baths and four nicely kept and furnished cabins around a peaceful garden, each with a private bath, a TV, and a fan.

Find quiet, friendly lodging at J & R’s Guest House (20 Far West St., tel. 501/626-3604,, US$10-23); there are four guest rooms, two with private baths, and breakfast is included, for now. It may be a bit tricky to find, but once you do, it’s amazing how close it is to town—just a couple of minutes’ walk downhill.


One of the best-value mid-range hotels is the well-located S Casa Blanca Guest House (10 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-2080,, US$30-50, with a/c US$50-70), where Ms. Betty keeps eight immaculate, cozy guest rooms with private baths, hot and cold water, and TVs as well as access to a beautiful common living room, kitchen, balcony, and rooftop deck. It’s on Burns Avenue near the banks and across from Hannah’s restaurant.

Rosa’s Hotel (65 Hudson St., tel. 501/804-2265,, US$28-38, breakfast included) has a selection of guest rooms with private baths and fans or air-conditioning; guest rooms range from small and stuffy to high and airy—check out a few before deciding, and check the door locks: Some show wear and tear.

A longtime standard is Venus Hotel (Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-3203, US$34-47), right in the middle of town with 32 decent guest rooms with private baths; take your pick of those overlooking the park or the street.


Martha’s Guesthouse (10 West St., tel. 501/804-3647,, US$70-95) continues to offer a tasteful atmosphere in the center of San Ignacio town, with an abundance of common lounging areas for guests to mingle in. The 16 guest rooms have hardwood floors and furniture, private baths, fans, hot water, wireless Internet access, and cable TV. Laundry services are available. There’s a decent restaurant downstairs that has outdoor patio seating, and the front desk can arrange tours. Martha’s just expanded into a six-room annex, about a three-minute walk up Burns Avenue, with beautiful apartment-style options, several with kitchenettes and porches (US$50-65, weekly rates available).

Talk about a vista! S Cahal Pech Village (tel. 501/824-3740,, US$90-114) offers a variety of guest rooms and cabanas spread out on a spacious hillside with stunning views of San Ignacio and the valley below. The 21 guest rooms have private baths and air-conditioning, or choose a thatch-and-wood cabana overlooking the hills, with a private bath, hot and cold water, and a screened porch with a hammock. There are new third-level suites, from which the already amazing views of Cayo are now jaw-dropping, with a 180-degree wrap-around balcony—you can see San Ignacio, Santa Elena, and even Spanish Lookout in the distance. Cahal Pech is ideal for groups, families, and retreats. A restaurant, a lively bar, and a creative swimming pool round out the resort, in addition to its quick access to the Cahal Pech ruins down the hill. The road leading up to Cahal Pech is just a little rough, but it’s well worth it. The resort also sells water taxi tickets to the Cayes and has an on-site tour-operating company as well as an on-call masseuse, Flor (1-hour Swedish US$55).


view of San Ignacio from Cahal Pech Village

S Clarissa Falls Resort (tel. 501/833-3116 or cell 501/668-6979, is at the end of a mile-long dirt road, accessed on the right at Mile 70½ on the Western Highway. I fell in love with the grounds when I first visited. This is an intimate, laid-back, and affordable lodge. Whether you hang out by the outdoor dining area or swing in a hammock in the yard by your cabana, you can listen to and enjoy the view of the cascading water below. You can walk down just a few steps to the waterfall and the Mopan River for a swim, or tube down the stream. Guests either camp in their own tents (US$7.50 pp) or stay in a cottage with private bath (US$75 d). The shared toilet and shower building has hot and cold water and is cement-basic. Don’t miss the nature trails and a hike (or horseback ride) to Xunantunich, the highest pyramid visible from the cottages. The dining room serves tasty food, including a few specialties such as black mole soup and great cheap Mexican-style tacos or stuffed squash (US$6-9). You’ll get much bang for your buck at Clarissa Falls.


Only a two-minute drive from San Ignacio, Windy Hill Resort (Western Hwy., tel. 501/824-2017,, US$105-256, includes meals) sits on its own lovely rise, just above the Western Highway. You’ll find 25 well-appointed, clean, air-conditioned deluxe cottages and standard guest rooms with private baths, hot and cold water, ceiling fans, private verandas with hammocks, an infinity swimming pool, a fitness center, and a recreation room complete with a TV, a bar, table tennis, and darts. Windy Hill specializes in tours and multiday packages with meal plans. Guests enjoy canoeing, caving, horseback riding, nature tours, and hiking trails. Meals are served in the casual thatched-roof Black Orchid Restaurant.


The San Ignacio Resort Hotel (tel. 501/824-2034, U.S. tel. 855/488-2624,, US$191-400) is proud of having hosted Queen Elizabeth in 1994 and has never stopped improving the property toward the luxury side of things. From the grand marble lobby and reception hall to the new bar lobby and the lap pool and range of services, this is definitely an excellent upscale option that is both in town and a tad remote-feeling. The hotel is perched above the Macal River and is a short downhill walk from the town center (it feels longer walking back uphill). There are 24 deluxe air-conditioned guest rooms, some with their own secluded balconies; the guest rooms have private tiled baths, TVs, comfy furniture, and phones. There is also a honeymoon suite on the second floor. The hotel hosts a new open bar lounge, the Running W Steakhouse & Restaurant, one of the best fine dining spots in town; a rainforest-view patio deck ideal for bird-watching; a tennis court; a disco; a casino (bring ID); and convention and wedding facilities. Bird-watching tours are available with the on-site guide, who can also show you the Green Iguana Conservation Project and Medicinal Jungle Trail on the hotel’s grounds (tours on the hour).

Ka’ana Boutique Hotel & Spa (Mile 69¼, Western Hwy., tel. 501/824-3350,, US$275-450) opened in 2007, a few miles west of San Ignacio. Ka’ana is a small, full-service boutique resort with 15 guest rooms and 10 fully equipped casitas around a pool, spa, and lounge. Newly built are luxurious one- and two-bedroom private-pool villas. The restaurant (7am-9pm daily, dinner entrées US$12-33) and bar offer an elite departure from the standard fare in San Ignacio; at the bar, try the sweet corn colada (cocktails US$5-12). There are tastings held at 7pm each evening in the well-stocked climate-controlled wine cellar.


Smith’s Family Farm (13 Branch Mouth Rd., tel. 501/604-2227) is a peaceful 25-acre retreat up Branch Mouth Road with a shaded campground (US$7.50 pp) and a collection of cabins (US$25), all with private baths, hot and cold water, and simple furniture. Weekly rates are available, and the owner, Roy, sometimes lets you trade labor on his organic farm for a stay at the place. On the same road, just past the Midas Resort, River Park Inn (13 Branch Mouth Rd., tel. 501/824-2116,, US$20) is a 15-minute walk from town and has pretty grounds, many big trees, and mowed lawns where you can pitch your tent or park your RV. It’s on the Mopan River and has shared baths and showers, but it’s somewhat isolated.

A couple of miles outside San Ignacio on the Western Highway, Inglewood (tel. 501/824-3555,, electricity metered at US$0.40 per kWh, tent camping US$15-20) offers full hookups for RVs (US$30). Following the same road, you’ll find campgrounds at the lovely Clarissa Falls Resort (tel. 501/833-3116, US$7.50 pp).

Jungle Lodges

Set on 90 lush acres of rolling countryside on the banks of the Macal River is duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge (tel. 501/824-3101,, US$195-315). Guests have a number of choices, including Jungle Lodge rooms (US$195) and comfy bungalows (US$250, includes breakfast, canoes, and Botanic Gardens admission) with king beds, bathtubs, full kitchens, and private decks; you’ll get to your room via wooden catwalk, which gives you your own canopy tour on the steep riverbank. Other options include La Casita (sleeps up to 8, US$350). Meals, packed lunches, and a dining room provide top-notch, cow-free sustenance—vegetarians welcome. DuPlooy’s offers river canoeing, walks in the on-site Belize Botanic Gardens, horse trails, hiking, orchids, and bird-watching tours. In addition to composting, waste reduction, and recycling, they also use zero chemicals on their vast landscaping—no small feat in the rainforest. In 2010 they went fully solar (with a backup generator).

The Lodge at Chaa Creek (tel. 501/824-2037,, from US$380, includes breakfast) is one of the top-rated jungle lodges in Central America. Chaa Creek’s 365 acres on the Macal River host the ever-evolving vision of owners Mick and Lucy Fleming, an American-British couple who came to Belize in the late 1970s, fell in love with the land, and stayed. The 23 palapa-roofed cottages have electricity and private verandas for viewing wildlife and are furnished with fine fabrics and works of art from around the world; two “treetop” suites with jetted tubs perch on the riverbank, their wide porches boasting views of iguanas basking in the branches. Chaa Creek guests choose among on-site activities, included in the rates, such as daily birding walks, canoeing and swimming in the Macal River, a butterfly farm tour, and a medicinal trail walk. There is full concierge service and meals prepared with many local ingredients (packed lunch US$15, dinner US$36).

One of the best deals in the region is Chaa Creek’s S Macal River Camp (US$65 pp), a 10-minute walk from the main lodge. Accommodations are in a screened lantern-lit casita with a porch and access to all the main Chaa Creek facilities and activities. Dinner and breakfast are included. There are 10 units centered around a fire pit and eating area, all with access to a shared restroom and shower house. Homemade meals are excellent and are eaten communally under a thatched roof, with a bar available as well.

Upstream on the Macal River, Ek’ Tun (tel. 501/820-3002,, US$190, 3-night minimum, breakfast and dinner US$32) is one of the remotest and most romantic lodgings in Belize. Accommodations consist of two quaint, tastefully appointed cottages in the middle of a vast green chunk of the upper Macal River Valley. The cascade-fed mineral-water swimming pool is surrounded by beautiful landscaping and meditation platforms. Excellent meals include Mexican specialties, fresh fruit, spicy local dishes, and desserts. The cottages are rustically elegant and comfortable; there is no electricity. Ek’ Tun’s intimate atmosphere makes this a favorite for honeymooners, and it’s for couples only, no children.

Another couple of river bends later is S Black Rock Lodge (tel. 501/834-4038,, US$110-215, meals and taxes extra), easy to recommend for the sheer beauty of its location. The seven-mile drive to the lodge takes in grazing cattle, citrus orchards, coconut trees, and river views, and there’s an incredible vista from the open-air dining pavilion. Guests stay in one of 14 units that include gorgeous River Suites, a stone’s throw from the river below the main lodge, with marble floors, wooden decks, and French windows. Communal meals are served at long tables, and the menu includes four-course dinners (US$22) as well as breakfast and lunch (US$12 each). There are numerous hikes on the 242-acre property, 30 species of trees in a fruit orchard, a small organic garden, unique bird habitats, and plenty of wildlife in the area, as the lodge is located across the river from Elijio Panti National Park. Yoga practitioners will enjoy the yoga palapa; inquire about occasional yoga retreats. Black Rock is off the grid and is powered by a combination of solar and hydro technology, including solar hot-water heating.



Cafés and bakeries have popped up along with downtown San Ignacio’s facelift. The colorful New French Bakery (tel. 501/804-0054 or 501/620-0841,, 6:30am-6pm Mon.-Sat., US$1) is located across the market and a stone’s throw from the Welcome Center. It serves fresh-baked breads, all sorts of pastries—from tasty beef patties to doughnuts, cheese croissants, pizza slices, and apple turnovers—and has ample seating, both on an outdoor terrace and indoors. There’s regular fresh coffee daily—good enough to wash down your snacks.

A modern U.S.-style gourmet coffee shop is The Treatery (Cayo Welcome Center, tel. 501/824-3663, 7am-9pm daily, US$3-5) offering the usual frozen coffees and accompanying pastries. The outdoor terrace facing the Welcome Center is a nice spot to relax under the shade and enjoy the view of passing foot traffic.


The best barbecue cooks set up in Santa Elena, just over the Hawksworth Bridge, and they cater especially to weekend party crowds, offering grilled mounds of meat, rice, and beans used by many customers to soak up all that beer sloshing around in their stomachs. Most swear by the chicken at Boiton’s Bar-B-Q and House of Pastries (23 Western Hwy., Santa Elena, tel. 501/804-0403, 10:30am-9pm Tues. and Thurs.-Sat., 5pm-close Wed. and Sun., US$8), just after the bridge entrance, and others are loyal to Rodriguez (no phone, 11am-5pm daily, US$2.50), just a couple of blocks farther up—a more casual experience where your crispy chicken is served on a piece of foil and bench tables are shared.


Saturday street barbecue in neighboring Santa Elena


Some say Erva’s (4 Far West St., tel. 501/824-2821, 8am-10pm Mon.-Sat., US$3-10) dishes out reasonably priced Belizean food. It is a quality family-run restaurant that often caters to groups. Dine inside or out on the patio and choose from breakfast, stew chicken, rice and beans, burritos, and a full menu of comfort dinners, including chicken cordon bleu. Prepare to wait, as everything is prepared from scratch.

S Ko-Ox-Han-Nah (5 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-3014, 6am-9pm daily, entrées US$5-16), which means “let’s go eat,” is one of the most popular local restaurants, offering Belizean fare with daily specials, plus a large cosmopolitan menu that includes Asian, Indian, and vegetarian dishes along with an ample wine list, all prepared with organic ingredients and meat raised by the owner. Portions are sizable for the price, and the food is excellent.

D Catch Seafood Bistro (Welcome Center, tel. 501/633-7820,, 4pm-9pm daily, US$6-12) specializes in ceviche—shrimp, conch, or octopus—served from a colorful open-air shack next to other eateries around the Welcome Center. While fresh, the taste can be hit or miss, depending on the chef’s occasional heavy hand with the salt. Try your luck; it’s worth a shot, if only for the lovely conch-shell presentation and the fun outdoor setting.

S Pop’s (tel. 501/824-3266, 6:30am-2:30pm daily, US$3-6) may be the closest Belize comes to a small-town American-style diner, with booths, bottomless cups of coffee, and customers watching CNN and talking religion and politics—except Pop’s is owned by a 100 percent Belizean Hemingway look-alike; the delicious breakfast is the best in Cayo. It’s just around the corner from the five-way intersection, to the south; ask anyone nearby for directions.


Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant (23 Far West St., lunch and dinner daily, US$10) is a family-run café with a good reputation among the locals. Prices are moderate; you won’t pay much for the best meal in the house and a beer.


It’s hard not to fall in love with the turquoise-colored house and lush yard turned bistro-restaurant at The Guava Limb Café (79 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-4837, 11am-7pm Tues.-Wed., 11am-9pm Thurs.-Sat., US$4-13). Wooden floors and furniture, colorful art, open window shutters, and a breezy, spacious outdoor terrace facing the town’s beautiful Macal Park provide a pleasant daytime dining experience in a town where most lunch spots are best for running in and back out. Meals are farm-to-table and include tasty options ranging from salads to jerk quesadillas and chicken baskets. There’s a small kid’s menu as well. Whatever you do, don’t miss sampling a slice of the red velvet cheesecake. Other desserts look just as delectable.

The ultra-trendy Fuego Bar and Grill (Cayo Welcome Center, tel. 501/824-3663, 11:30am-10pm Sun.-Thurs., closes later Fri.-Sat., US$5-20) sticks out with its modern decor: red and black with leather seating and red ambient lights, fancy smart phones for taking orders, and New York lounge music. The menu promises a “new Belizean experience”—essentially a modern twist on longtime favorites, including coconut shrimp tacos and pulled pork sandwiches, as well as steaks and pastas. The food is tasty, and the floor service is friendly but slow once the place gets busy. The real gem here? Bartender Humberto, one of the nicest and most talented mixologists I’ve come across in Belize. Try the house margarita, made with jalapeños.

Serendib Restaurant (27 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-2302, 6am-3pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., US$12) serves curries and dal, along with reliable hamburgers, steaks, and chow mein. There’s outdoor sidewalk seating and friendly service. S Mr. Greedy’s (34 Burns Ave., tel. 501/804-4688, 6am-midnight daily) understands the importance of a super-hot oven in the production of succulent pizza crust (large cheese pie US$14). They also do a great breakfast, burger platter, wings, and sandwiches, and have a long cocktail menu. The environment is very casual, and wireless Internet is available.

Martha’s Kitchen (10 West St., tel. 501/804-3647, 7am-midnight daily, US$4-8) has some good pizza, plus a full menu that includes stir-fried vegetables, T-bone steak with gravy and fries, and a simple club sandwich. Visitors give high praise to Yoli’s Pizza (Welcome Center, tel. 501/824-4187,, 9am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 5pm-9pm Sun., US$1.75-20), which also delivers.

Eva’s (22 Burns Ave., tel. 501/804-2267 or cell 501/804-2267,, 6:30am-10:30pm Wed.-Mon., US$5-12) is the hub of Burns Avenue—a place for sidewalk people-watching along with hearty breakfasts and, later in the day, Latin comfort dishes like nachos, sandwiches, and burgers. Check out the patio through the back door; there’s Internet access, and you can book tomorrow’s tour while you wait. For ambience, you’ll want to try Sanny’s Grill (E. 23rd St., tel. 501/824-2988, 6pm-11pm daily, US$6-10), which is a bit out of the way (toward the western exit to Benque, just down from the UNO station) but well worth it for the fine menu and nice lighting and music.

In addition to juicy steaks, pork chops, and seafood entrées (from US$10), the S Running W Steakhouse (in the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, tel. 501/824-2125, 7am-10pm daily) also serves up an open-air dining patio above the Macal River and overlooking the pool and rainforest canopy. Belizean classic plates start at US$5 and feature beef from the restaurant’s own ranch. Try the aged Angus marinated in a red wine reduction, and the chayote (or cho cho) pie for dessert. The indoor hotel bar is a good choice for equally tasty appetizers, such as the lobster bites or fried conch.

A stone’s throw outside of San Ignacio, along the Western Highway in Unitedville, you’ll find delicious New York-style pizza—whole or by the slice—at the colorful open-air B’Z Place (by the gas station, tel. 501/824-2999, noon-8pm daily, US$2-20). Haitian natives Beatriz and her husband moved to Belize from Miami after falling in love with the country just a year earlier. Made from scratch, her pizzas are generously sized and include the classic meat lovers, Hawaiian, chicken, or veggie options. B’Z also offers burgers, wings, Creole dishes, and Western Dairies ice cream. It’s the ideal stop on a road trip to or from San Ignacio. Beatriz is a delight to talk to, especially along these parts where restaurants are few. She also bakes—try her banana bread, with or without ice cream.


San Ignacio has a higher-than-average number of cheap mestizo fast-food places—a mix of Mayan and Spanish dishes—and a few pupuserías serving El Salvadoran pupusas: fried tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese, and meat for good measure. Check out the row of shacks across from Welcome Center. Saturday morning at the market, very early, is the best bet for cheap eats, as organic farmers, local cooks, and produce vendors congregate at the outdoor market. This is the best place to chow down on fresh eats before catching a bus to other regions or even before your next activity. Fresh pupusas, tacos, barbecued meats, and more are made on-site, and locals come here to eat all day long on shared picnic tables.

S Mickey’s (Burns Ave., no phone, 11am-9pm daily), a small joint next door to Hannah’s Restaurant, serves up excellent Creole dishes, made fresh and served quickly. The rice and beans are delicious, and there’s always a daily special. It gets crowded with locals at lunchtime, all the validation you need. Right next to Mickey’s is a similar “fast food” shack, Mincho’s (Burns Ave., no phone, 11am-6pm daily), serving mestizo grub from garnaches to tacos and panades (3 for US$0.50) and the best fresh-squeezed juice (US$0.50) you’ll find anywhere in town—choose among papaya, lime, watermelon, coconut water, and more.


For ice cream, go to Cayo Twist (near the western exit to town, nearly across from the UNO station, tel. 501/667-7717, 6pm-9:30pm Thurs.-Sun.), which has delicious soy ice cream. Get your gelato fix at Fabio’s Amor e Mio (Burns Ave., no phone, 11am-7pm Mon.-Sat., later on Fri.-Sat.), a small outdoor stand right on Burns Avenue’s cobblestones, with flavors like soursop, mango, and more. A stone’s throw from the market, the popular Mennonite-owned chain Western Dairies (tel. 501/223-2374, 9am-5pm Mon.-Sat.) sells locally made ice cream by the cone or by the tub; there’s also thick pepperoni pizza available by the slice (US$2).


Across from the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Celina’s Super Store (43 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-2247 or cell 501/669-1222,, 8am-noon and 1pm-6pm Mon.-Sat.) is the largest, best-equipped supermarket in town, but there are many other Chinese shops scattered around as well.


Visitor Information

There is an official visitor information post at the Cahal Pech Visitors Center (8am-5pm daily). The Belize Tourism Industry Association has a stand near the Savannah Taxi Co-op downtown (tel. 501/824-2155), offering brochures for local resorts, taxi charters, and a town map. However, you’ll find out much more by reading the posters and advertisements at the various restaurants around town. The most regularly updated website on Cayo’s businesses and attractions is

For travel arrangements, Exodus International (2 Burns Ave., tel. 501/824-4400 or 501/824-4401, is at the beginning of Burns Avenue, near the bridge.


Atlantic Bank, Scotiabank, and Belize Bank are all on Burns Avenue, just past the Hawksworth Bridge as you come into town; all have 24-hour ATMs.

Media and Communications

The post office (Hudson St., 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) is in the center of town. Tradewinds Internet (Hudson St., next to the post office, tel. 501/824-2396, 7am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-10pm Sun.) has fast machines, scanners, and printers. Venus Photos and Records (6 Hudson St., tel. 501/824-2101, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat.), across from the post office, sells camera batteries, memory cards, and some camera equipment.


Downtown San Ignacio is tiny and entirely walkable, although there are a few steep hills, including the trek to Cahal Pech and the walk to San Ignacio Resort.


All resorts can arrange for a transfer (US$125) from Phillip Goldson International Airport (BZE, 10 miles west of Belize City, tel. 501/225-2045,; as of December 2012, visitors can fly direct from Belize City’s international airport to Cayo on Tropic Air (, US$94.50 pp one-way), landing at the Maya Flats airstrip, located near Chaa Creek. Belize San Ignacio Shuttle & Transfer (tel. 501/620-3055,, US$95 for 2 people) can arrange rides anywhere, including both airports; the owner, William Hoffman, is accommodating and flexible.


Westbound buses from Belize City and Belmopan run through the middle of town, stopping at the Welcome Center (essentially the town square) as part of the daily runs to Benque. The street running along the Welcome Center is the temporary bus station. Expect limited service on Sunday. Express buses take about two hours between Belize City and San Ignacio, including the quick stop in Belmopan. Regular buses leave every hour, and there are a handful of express buses 7am-7pm daily. Check the express departure times the day before your journey, as the bus schedules are constantly changing.

In addition to the main buses running back and forth on the Western Highway, village buses come into the Welcome Center area from most surrounding towns, returning to the hills in the afternoon. To the south, buses only run as far as the village of San Antonio.


Taxis anywhere within the city limits cost US$2.50-4 pp. Cheap colectivo taxis run from San Ignacio in all directions throughout the day, making it easy to get to towns and destinations in the immediate vicinity (including Bullet Tree, Succotz, and Benque). If you want your own driver, a safe bet is Mr. William from William’s Taxi Service (tel. 501/625-4365,; he’ll take you pretty much anywhere you want to go, whether around town or to sites and other parts of Belize. Don’t hesitate to ask your guesthouse or resort for taxi recommendations—they often keep a couple of names handy.

Car Rentals

Anyone wishing to travel independently to the Mountain Pine Ridge, Caracol, Hydro Road, or El Pilar might consider renting a car—either in Belize City or at one of the few places in San Ignacio and Santa Elena. Renting in Cayo (as low as US$60 per day) is cheaper than in Belize City, and it’s a good way to go if you really want to explore this area.

At the top of the Old Benque Road at the western edge of San Ignacio, by the UNO gas station, you’ll find Cayo Rentals (tel. 501/824-2222 or cell 501/610-4779,, with a handful of newish vehicles for rent in the UNO parking lot; US$45-75 for 24 hours includes insurance, which is cheaper than any place in Belize City. There’s also Matus Car Rentals (tel. 501/663-4702 or 501/824-2089,, US$58-68 per day, US$315-367 per week), on the hill up from the town center, which offers decent weekly rates.


On the Western Highway toward San Ignacio, after passing the Hummingbird Highway junction, you are greeted with a jarring series of speed bumps at the roadside village of Teakettle. Turning left at the Pook’s Hill sign carries you past cornfields grown atop ancient Mayan residential mounds.

S Actun Tunichil Muknal

This is the acclaimed “Cave of the Crystal Maiden,” one of the most spectacular natural and archaeological attractions in Central America, and recently named the number-one cave by National Geographic. The trip to ATM, as the cave is also known, is for fit and active people who do not mind getting wet and muddy—and who are able to tread lightly around ancient artifacts.

Tours start in San Ignacio with a ride to Teakettle. After the initial 45-minute hike to the entrance (fording three rivers on foot) and a swim into the cave’s innards, you will be asked to remove your shoes on climbing up the limestone into the main cathedral-like chambers. The rooms are littered with delicate Mayan pottery and the crystallized remains of 14 humans. There are no pathways, fences, glass, or other partitions separating the visitor from the artifacts, nor are there any installed lights. The only infrastructure is a rickety ladder that, toward the end of the journey, will lead you up to the chamber of the Crystal Maiden herself, a full female skeleton that sparkles with calcite under your headlamp’s glare, more so during the drier months.

Extreme Adventures

There’s more adventure in Cayo than you can possibly experience in one trip, even if you stayed for a whole month. Below is a cheat sheet of must-see activities for adrenaline junkies who like to be on the go and make the most of each day (though I recommend a day’s rest after intense hiking).

Spelunking: The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is popular for all the right reasons—there’s no hype to it. Or experience the unique caves of Actun Halal and Chapat, located on private property in nearby San José de Succotz, not for the faint of heart. Be sure to pick the right tour guide: Pacz (tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536, or Belizean Sun Tours (San José de Succotz, tel. 501/601-2630,

Rappelling: There’s no better place to rappel than in Cayo’s dense rainforests. The most intense experience is the Black Hole Drop, offered by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge (Mile 41½, Hummingbird Hwy., tel. 501/610-3451, U.S. tel. 866/357-2698, A grueling 1.5-hour hike is followed by rappelling 400 feet into the rainforest and landing at the entrance of an enormous cave.

Hiking waterfalls: Climb over boulders and swim in the pools among them; the scenery at Río on Pools, in the Mountain Pine Ridge, is spectacular and worth the journey alone. If you’re feeling intrepid, arrange a hike over to Thousand Foot Falls, the highest waterfall in Central America.

Zip-lining: Head to Calico Jack’s Village (tel. 501/832-2478,, in the rainforests of the Mountain Pine Ridge, and swing like Tarzan or Jane from a rope off a 50-foot-high pyramid. Then make your way across 2,700 feet of zip line over and through the rainforest, complete with a cable walk and rappel.

Rainforest night hike: You haven’t experienced the rainforest until you’re surrounded by it at night. During a night hike at Pook’s Hill Lodge (tel. 501/832-2017,, prepare to see all sorts of creepy crawlies—including the occasional snake—and listen as the rainforest comes alive.

Be careful—the fact that visitors are allowed to walk here at all is as astonishing as the sights themselves. At the time of this writing, somebody had already trod on and broken one of the skulls, and in 2012 a visitor dropped a camera on a second ancient skull, prompting the current strict no-camera rule.

Only a few tour companies are licensed to take guests here: Pacz Tours (San Ignacio, tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536,, US$110) is the most popular provider. The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is not for the out-of-shape—you need to be agile and in good health—nor recommended for small children or claustrophobics. In fact, children under the age of 8 (or 12, depending on whom you ask) are not permitted inside. Entrance to the site is US$25 pp.


Arriving at the remote clearing that is Pook’s Hill Lodge (tel. 501/832-2017,, accommodations US$198), you’ll have a hard time believing that you are only 12 miles from Belmopan and 21 miles from San Ignacio, so dense and peaceful is the forest around you. Towering hardwoods, flowering bromeliads, and exotic birds hem in the accommodations, which are built around a small Mayan residential ruin. Pook’s Hill is a 300-acre private nature reserve, bordered by the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and the Roaring River and offering active travelers 10 thatched-roof cabanas from which to base their Cayo explorations. The cottages have private baths, electricity, and comfortable furnishings. The lounge-bar area overlooks a grassy knoll that gently slopes toward the creek. The dining room is downstairs from the lounge, and good filling meals are shared on lantern-lit dining tables, communal style. Vegetarian or other food preferences can be accommodated with advance notice. There are plenty of guided walks, birding, tubing, and night walks, all included in the lodging rates for guests. Pook’s Hill is the only lodge within walking distance of Actun Tunichil Muknal and offers early morning private tours before the crowds arrive.

To get there, look for the hand-painted sign at Teakettle Village (around Mile 52.5, Western Hwy.); turn left and follow the signs to Pook’s Hill for 5.5 miles (there are a couple of turns). The road can be rough, and a 4WD vehicle is recommended, as is calling ahead so they know to expect you.


Covering 6,741 acres, the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve (, no public access) is one of the jewels in the country’s crown of natural treasures. The deep, steamy rainforest is ripe with an abundance of plantlife. Every wild thing native to the region roams its forests, from toucans to tapirs, coatis to kinkajous. At present, the reserve is off-limits to all but scientific expeditions, but you can see a piece of it by going on an Actun Tunichil Muknal trip.

Spanish Lookout

Turn off the Western Highway at the Spanish Lookout sign and watch the landscape change from ragged forest to neat, rolling green countryside with green lawns and men riding John Deere lawnmowers. Spanish Lookout is one of Belize’s largest Mennonite communities, with about 3,000 farmers and builders who supply a large part of the furniture, dairy, and poultry products for the country. Many Mennonites here have embraced organic living, and if you drive around you’ll find produce and items that cannot be found anywhere else in Belize. The discovery of oil in the area has added a modern twist to this unique scene (you’ll pass a few pumps and the refinery on your way in).


sunset in Spanish Lookout

Spanish Lookout has no accommodations, but it has a few excellent places to eat as well as shopping and services (Scotiabank has an ATM here, and there are three gas stations). Folks from all over Belize come to shop at places like Farmer’s Trading Centre, Reimer’s Feeds, the Computer Ranch, and Westrac (the best place for car parts, period). There’s an average restaurant, The Golden Corral (Rte. 20 W., tel. 501/823-0421,, 10:30am-2:30pm Mon.-Wed. and Sat., 10:30am-2:30pm and 5pm-8:30pm Thurs.-Sat.); it’s about US$7.50 for the all-you-can-eat buffet and all-you-can-drink homemade iced tea. There are amazing meat pies and other goodies at Midway Convenience (Center Rd., tel. 501/823-0095, 7am-4:30pm Mon.-Sat.).

Mennonite Life in Belize

Cayo is a cultural melting pot, home to at least five different cultural groups. Of these, you will no doubt notice the tall, blond, blue-eyed Mennonites, who also reside in various parts of the country, notably the west and the north.

The German-speaking Mennonites started emigrating to Belize in 1958, after a long nomadic journey that took them from Switzerland to the Netherlands, Russia, and Canada in the 1800s, and Mexico after World War I. They decided to remain in Belize after finding the land ideal for farming. The government agreed not to subject them to either property tax or military service and gave them freedom to practice their own religion, schools, and banking. In turn, they have brought valuable farming knowledge and enough capital to invest in the country, although they do not vote.

You’ll notice Mennonites as you head to the Saturday market in San Ignacio, selling cheese, fruits, and desserts. The men grow long beards and often wear overalls and straw hats, while the women wear long plain dresses and head caps. Mennonites travel for trade within Cayo, but choose to live in their own communities, notably Barton Creek (traditional Mennonites)—where a traditional sawmill is powered by horses—and Spanish Lookout (progressive Mennonites).


a Mennonite horse and buggy, parked in Barton Creek

Traditional Mennonites tend to stand out—they do not use any modern machinery or conveniences, traveling instead by horse and buggy. Most traditional Mennonite men work hard at farming, cutting wood, or selling produce at the markets or on the roadside; women tend to the home and children. Mennonite villages run their own churches and schools (most education consists of home schooling) and, on Sunday, go to church and rest.

Visiting a traditional Mennonite community is a worthwhile experience, although you cannot disturb them on Sunday. Most Mennonites are friendly and will welcome your questions; be courteous and don’t take photos without asking, even from a distance. Mennonite markets supply most of the country with poultry, dairy, and vegetables (plus they sell the sweetest tasting watermelon I’ve ever had). Look for Mennonite supermarkets and market stands in and around San Ignacio, and for stands on the highway.

If you’re in the area close to sunset, drive to the community’s Countryside Park, and once at the gate, let the security guard know you’d just like to take some photos by the lake. There are no benches but the views are beautiful. You might even spot an armadillo or two, aside from bird colonies.

Bullet Tree Falls

This sleepy old village of a few thousand people is less than three miles north of San Ignacio on the road to El Pilar. Bullet Tree’s ultra-mellow riverbank mood, combined with cheap and easy access to the relative bustle of San Ignacio, makes it a pleasant mid-range alternative to the usual Cayo fare of fancy jungle lodges and backpacker camps. On my first visit to Belize, I stayed in this village and still had access to the full range of Cayo-area activities, and San Ignacio was easily reached by colectivo taxi (US$2 pp) or private cab (US$5). Most people like to just sit by the river or float it in a tube. You can also arrange a hike with Beto Cocom, a Mayan shaman who offers medicinal-plant trail walks for donations; ask at any local hotel. Hotels can also arrange horseback expeditions to El Pilar and other sites.


Rolling into town, you’ll pass the soccer field on your right and then come to a fork in the road; this is the bus stop. Fork left to cross the bridge and reach the turnoff for El Pilar, or right to reach Parrot Nest Lodge (tel. 501/669-6068 or 501/660-6336,, US$49-65), which is a rustic hideaway with immediate river access (and free use of inner tubes). The tropical gardens have remarkable on-site birding. There are seven simple, cozy cabins, including two tree houses on stilts under the limbs of a gigantic guanacaste tree. Each cabin has 24-hour electricity, a fan, linoleum flooring, and a simple single or double bed; four have private baths, and others share a bath. Meals are reasonably priced (breakfast US$4-6, dinner US$12).

A mile or so upstream (turn left before the bridge when you enter Bullet Tree Falls), Mahogany Hall (Paslow Falls Rd., tel. 501/664-7747,, US$150-600) has a spectacular castle-door entrance to a striking view of the Mopan River. In this three-story building, there are six luxurious and stately guest rooms with heavy wooden furniture, high ceilings, large windows, and French doors, all cradling a pool and restaurant practically on top of the river; it’s a good choice for folks who want their air-conditioning and TV but want a unique setting.

El Pilar Archaeological Site

Seven miles north of Bullet Tree Falls, these rainforest-choked Mayan ruins are visited by only a handful of curious travelers each day; the rough approach road plus the lack of attention paid to the site by most tour operators helps make El Pilar the excellent uncrowded day trip that it is. Entrance is US$10. Two groupings of temple mounds, courtyards, and ball courts overlook a forested valley. Aqueducts and a causeway lead toward Guatemala, just 500 yards away. There have been some minor excavations here, including those by illegal looters, but the site is very overgrown, so the ruins retain an intriguing air of mystery. Many trees shade the site: allspice, gumbo-limbo, ramón, cohune palm, and locust. It’s a beautiful hiking area and wildlife experience as well.

Even if you book your El Pilar trip in San Ignacio, be sure to start your quest with a visit to the Amigos de El Pilar Visitors Center (9am-5pm daily) and Be Pukte Cultural Center in Bullet Tree Falls. Here you’ll find a scale model of the ruins, some helpful booklets and maps, and guide and taxi arrangements (it’s about US$25 for a taxi to drive a group out and wait a few hours before bringing you back).

San José de Succotz

About 6.5 miles from San Ignacio, you’ll find this hillside village on your left, above the Mopan River, right where the ferry to Xunantunich is located. In Succotz, the first language is Spanish, and the most colorful time to visit is during one of their fiestas: March 19 (feast day of St. Joseph) and May 3 (feast day of the Holy Cross).

A stroll through the rough village streets is enjoyable if you’re into observing village life. Magana’s Art Center (Western Hwy., 1 block before the Xunantunich ferry) is the workshop of David Magana, who works with the youth of the area, encouraging them to continue the arts and crafts of their ancestors. You’ll find the results inside in the form of local wood carvings, baskets, jewelry, and stone (slate) carvings unique to Belize. There are a few taco stands in town, including the popular local eatery Benny’s Kitchen (Western Hwy., across from the Xunantunich ferry, tel. 501/823-2541, 7am-9pm Mon.-Fri., closes later Sat.-Sun.), where you can get a substantial breakfast and other tasty items for low prices. Cold draft Belikin is served in frosty mugs.


Just before entering the roadside village of San José de Succotz, look on your left for the S Trek Stop (Mile 71½, Western Hwy., tel. 501/823-2265,, US$24-38), a backpacker classic offering 10 cabins set in lush gardens on 22 acres of second-growth tropical forest. You can hear the highway, but you can also hear howler monkeys, birds, and the inspired conversation of your hosts and fellow travelers. There are camping facilities (US$7 pp) with access to composting toilets and solar showers, a patio restaurant with inexpensive Belizean dishes, and walking access to the Xunantunich ruins. Simple wood cabins have twin or double beds, electricity, porches, and a shared bath; a larger, more private cabin with a private bath is available. Even if you’re not spending the night here, come visit the Tropical Wings Nature Center (9am-5pm daily, US$3 adults, US$1.50 under age 12), one of the best and most diverse butterfly ranches in the country. Be sure to leave time for a round on Belize’s only disc golf course, a nine-basket Frisbee golf game through the rainforest; discs are available (US$3 pp). The course is a par 31 with narrow and challenging fairways that leave little room for error (wear long pants and closed footwear to retrieve those errant drives). There is a nice view and sometimes a breeze from the Mayan ruins atop hole 6.

S Xunantunich Archaeological Site

One of Belize’s most impressive Mayan ceremonial centers, Xunantunich rests atop a natural limestone ridge with a grand view of the entire Cayo District and the Guatemalan countryside. The local name for the site, Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-ta-nitch), or “Stone Lady,” continues to be used, even after the ancients’ own name for the site, Ka-at Witz, or “Supernatural Mountain,” was recently discovered, carved into a chunk of stone.


Xunantunich is believed to have been built sometime around 400 BC and deserted around AD 1000; at its peak, some 7,000-10,000 Maya lived here. Though certainly not the biggest of Mayan structures, at 135 feet high El Castillo is the second-tallest pyramid in Belize, missing first place by just one foot. The eastern side of the structure displays an unusual stucco frieze (a reproduction), and you can see three carved stelae (stone monuments) in the plaza. Xunantunich contains three ceremonial plazas surrounded by house mounds. It was rediscovered in 1894 but not studied until 1938, by archaeologist J. Eric Thompson. As the first Mayan ruin to be opened in the country, it has attracted the attention and exploration of many other archaeologists over the years.

In 1950, the University of Pennsylvania, noted for its years of outstanding work across the Guatemala border in Tikal, built a facility in Xunantunich for more study. In 1954 visitors were invited to explore the site after a road was opened and a small ferry built. In 1959 archaeologist Evan Mackie made news in the Mayan world when he discovered evidence that part of Xunantunich had been destroyed by an earthquake in the Late Classic Period. Some believe it was then that the people began to lose faith in their leaders—they saw the earthquake as a sign from the gods. But for whatever reason, Xunantunich ceased to be a religious center long before the end of the Classic Period.

Located eight miles west of San Ignacio, the site is accessed by crossing the Mopan River on the Succotz ferry, easily found at the end of a line of craft vendors. Buses ($0.75) and taxis can take you from San Ignacio to the ferry entrance (US$10 private or US$1.75 shared colectivo). The hand-cranked ferry shuttles you (and your vehicle, if you have one) across the river, after which you’ll have a 30-minute, one-mile hike (or a five-minute drive) up a steep hill to the site. The ferry, which operates 8am-3pm daily, is free, but tipping the operator is a much-appreciated gesture. Don’t miss the 4pm return ferry with the park rangers, or you’ll be swimming. Be forewarned that during rainy season the Mopan River can rise, run fast, and flood, canceling this service and closing access to Xunantunich until conditions improve.

Entrance to the site is US$10 pp; guides are available for US$20 per group and are recommended if you have the time—both to learn about what you’re seeing and to support sustainable tourism, as all guides are local and very knowledgeable. There’s a new Visitors Center, just past the ticket booth, with beautiful and informative displays of Mayan history, Belize’s various archeological sites, and the history of Xunantunich itself. It’s worth a stop here before continuing on your hike to the temples.


Benque Viejo del Carmen ( is the last town in Belize (the Guatemalan border is about one mile farther), approximately eight miles west of San Ignacio. Located on the Mopan River, Benque Viejo has been greatly influenced by the Spanish, both from its historical past when Spain ruled Guatemala and later when Spanish-speaking chicleros and loggers worked the forest. At one time, Benque Viejo (“Old Bank”; riverside logging camps were referred to as “banks”) was a logging camp. This was the gathering place for chicle workers, and logs were floated down the river from here for shipment to England. After this industry waned in the 1940s, many deserted the town, and the area never quite recovered from this decline.

Today, Benque remains a quiet village between the road and the river, with a handful of shops and Chinese restaurants, but it is slowly coming out of its lull: Efforts are under way to revive the community and use the area’s historical and cultural significance to attract more visitors. Renovations have taken place, including George Street and the main drag; parks are being cleaned up; and a couple of banks have opened, including Belize Bank.


On one side of town, behind the central Centennial Park, a Mayan mound was discovered and the National Institute of Culture and History’s Archeology Department is considering ways to excavate it in the future. Don’t miss seeing the beautiful Catholic church, built in 1907, and make sure you stop by the Benque House of Culture (64 St. Joseph St., tel. 501/823-2697,, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.), established in 2001 and now one of the most active in the country, for museum displays on mestizo culture, the latest exhibits, and more information on the town itself.


Catholic church, Benque Viejo del Carmen

Besides cultural experiences, it’s only right that folks should pass through this charming town, if only to get a slice of the old Cayo. Music aficionados will want to arrange a visit of the country’s famous recording studio, Stonetree Records (35 Elizabeth St., tel. 501/823-2241, The country’s sole and excellent publisher, Cubola Books (Elizabeth St.), is also based in Benque.

Festivals and Events

Easter remains Benque’s most vibrant and meaningful time of the year, when the village celebrates Holy Week or Semana Santa—complete with a reenactment of the Passion of Christ and beautiful alfombras (colorful carpets of dyed sawdust) all over the village streets; this spiritual experience is a sight to behold. Christmas is the culmination of the celebration called Las Posadas. Benque Viejo del Carmen remains the only area of Belize to celebrate this Latin tradition, a nine-day (Dec. 16-24) reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s biblical journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of an inn. I experienced the first posada night in December 2012, and it was a unique experience worth the short night drive from San Ignacio. Summer sees Benque’s second-liveliest celebration of the year, and one of the most popular ones in the Cayo District: The Benque Fiesta celebrates the village’s patron saint, Nuestra Señora de Monte Carmelo, with live marimba bands, food, drink, amusement park rides, and, of course, plenty of dancing late into the night.

Getting There and Around

Buses from Belize City to Benque and the Guatemalan border run daily, starting at ungodly morning hours on both ends. Most bus service to and from San Ignacio also serves Benque and the border. The most efficient way to travel to the border from San Ignacio is by colectivo taxi, which run in a constant and steady flow roughly 6am-7pm daily; the ride should cost approximately US$2, but you take the chance of sharing your cab with as many people as your driver can fit. By private taxi, expect to pay about US$10 for the same trip.


Look for the left-hand turn in the middle of Benque Viejo, at the top of the hill. The Hydro Road leads south to a few unique attractions and accommodations, all well off the beaten path. The road is equipped with mile markers on small white posts. A few miles in, a right turn leads to the border village of Arenal, where a few milpero (corn farmer) families scrape a life from the soils of the Mopan River Valley. The road continues south for 11 miles, where it dead-ends at the Mollejon Dam.

Poustinia Land Art Park

This 60-acre reclaimed cattle ranch is now devoted to the nurturing of art and nature, where foreign and Belizean artists can stay and contribute to the ongoing project and visitors can come take a look and soak it all in. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-ordinary sight, this would be it. The lush grounds are part of a 270-acre second-growth forest. Visiting the unique Poustinia Land Art Park (, admission US$10) is by appointment only and can be arranged at the Benque Viejo House of Culture (tel. 501/823-2697). If you are an artist, ask Luis Alberto (tel. 501/822-3532) how you may be able to contribute.

Chechem Ha Cave and the Vaca Plateau

At Mile 8, you’ll find a turnoff to the left for Chechem Ha Farm (tel. 501/660-4714), a mile or so down a rutted road; it belongs to the Morales family. The place is designed to give nature-loving travelers the chance to enjoy the Chechem Ha Spring, Chechem Ha Falls (a 175-foot cascade with a treacherous trail down to its misty bottom), and Chechem Ha Cave, a dry cave except for the dripping water that has created all the formations over the years. The pottery inside is estimated to be as old as 2,000 years. You can climb and explore various ledges and passageways, but the highlight is a deep ceremonial chamber in the heart of the hill. In some places, you need a rope to help you get around. While those of average physical abilities can enjoy Chechem Ha Cave, take care when moving amid the pottery.

Stay at the farm in one of several simple cabins made of clay, rock, wood, and thatch; they are well constructed and comfy-looking. For US$41 pp, you get a night’s stay and three meals. There’s no electricity, and the toilets are outhouses. Camping is US$5 pp; bring your own tent. Individual meals are available (US$5-10), as is an inexpensive transfer from Benque.

Martz Farm

Less than a mile beyond the Chechem Ha road, another left turn will take you to Martz Farm (Mile 8½, Hydro Rd., tel. 501/834-4646,, US$65-75), a unique and relaxed homestead built and maintained by the hardworking Martinez family. A combination of an open-air tree house, a cabin, and garden rooms—ideal for families, with king and double beds and en suite baths—make up this rainforest escape. Newly renovated are the garden rooms, with balconies and living and dining areas. Family-style meals are made over a traditional fire hearth in a quaint kitchen, and farm animals wander the grounds with the guests. Home-cooked meal plans and free transfers from San Ignacio or Benque are available. Ask about their unique pontoon boat trip, for an excursion on Vaca Lake and nearby waterfalls.

The Mountain Pine Ridge

Some of Belize’s most breathtaking natural and archaeological treasures are found within this vast crinkle of mountains and wildlands, as are a few of the country’s remotest and most charming accommodations. Despite bark beetle damage to vast tracts of pine trees in the Mountain Pine Ridge (MPR) Forest Reserve, the forests are rebounding, and MPR’s waterfalls, swimming holes, and vistas are well worth enduring the rutted roads. My first drive through this area left me speechless, and it reminds me why I fell in love with Belize.



The Chiquibul Road begins at Georgeville (Mile 63, Western Hwy.) and heads south over the Mountain Pine Ridge, terminating 30-some miles later at Caracol. You’ll pass through tropical foothills, citrus farms, and cattle ranches before the terrain rises, gradually changing to sand, rocky soil, red clay, and finally groves of sweet-smelling pines. The road is notorious for becoming a slushy mud bed when it rains and a dusty back-breaker when it’s dry. Once you start driving, there are few services besides those offered at the resorts, but if you need a drink, beer, a meal, supplies, or emergency gasoline, look for the Junction Store, a wooden building right where the San Antonio Road meets the Chiquibul Road.

S Barton Creek Cave

This unique cathedral-like wet cave was once used for ceremonial purposes and human sacrifices by the Maya. A pair of Peace Corps volunteers stumbled on the cave in 1970 and found that it had been looted but still contained an enormous amount of pottery and artifacts. Archaeologists didn’t study the cave until 1998; they found large ceramics on high ledges, plus evidence of 20 sets of human remains, including a necklace made of finger bones.


Barton Creek Cave can only be explored by canoe.

The tall, cavernous, and low ceilings of Barton Creek Cave are fascinating, and in my opinion it is one of the top two must-see caves in Belize. The experience is impressive and available to anybody physically able enough to step into a canoe—but a heads up: The ceiling is so low through many parts of the cave that you’ll occasionally have to lean all way back in the canoe to save your skull. Still, it’s well worth the experience of gliding across, contemplating the quiet as your guide slowly paddles you deeper into the earth, the watery sound of the paddle echoing on the limestone. The cave is at least seven miles deep, but tours only go in about a mile or so before turning around.

Barton Creek is protected and managed by government archaeologists and is accessed by turning off the Chiquibul Road around Mile 4, then driving 20-30 minutes on a bumpy road through orange groves and a beautiful small Mennonite settlement. You’ll need to have someone with you who knows the way, as there are many roads and no signs. The visitors center charges US$10 pp, then you’ll have to rent canoes (US$7.50), lights, and a guide, all available at Mike’s Place (tel. 501/670-0441,, right at the cave’s entrance. If you come as part of a prepaid tour, you won’t need to worry about such details. And if you sign up to tour with Pacz Tours (San Ignacio, tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536,, you’ll experience awesome pit stop along the way to Karina’s fruit tree-filled farm, located within the Mennonite community of Barton Creek.

Calico Jack’s Village

Located on 365 acres in El Progreso (Mile 7), Calico Jack’s Village (just off Chiquibul Rd., El Progreso, tel. 501/832-2478,, US$140) is a small, customized, Belizean-owned authentic adventure resort. Calico Jack’s top offerings include an excellent medicinal hiking trail, caving in two unique caves, and a fantastic (and safe) zip line, one of the longest in Belize. Climb and zip among 15 platforms high in the trees and travel through the rainforest in an impressive hydraulic lift, designed by Chester Williams, the owner’s spouse and a former engineer. Tours range from a 20-minute “express” experience to the full two-hour “extremo” exploration (US$40-85). Or try the massive “columpio,” a one-of-a-kind rainforest swing, which will send you 200 feet in the air after you are hoisted above the top of a recreated Mayan pyramid.

The two Jungle Villas have one- and two-bedroom units, built in Mayan temple style, with kitchenettes, living rooms, and air-conditioning; all have access to a bar, a restaurant, and a pool.

Green Hills Butterfly Ranch and Botanical Collections

The beautiful Green Hills Butterfly Ranch and Botanical Collections (Mile 8, Chiquibul Rd., tel. 501/834-4017,, 7am-4pm daily, last tour 3:30pm, US$10 pp) is a butterfly breeding, education, and interpretive center run by Dutch biologists Jan Meerman and Tineke Boomsma. The standard tour of the center takes about an hour. There’s also a walk into the forest to see Mayan artifacts and the impressive mahogany reforestation project. Your entrance fee (family discounts available) grants you access to the 3,000-square-foot butterfly house, blue morpho breeding facilities, botanical garden (with over 100 labeled species), hummingbird observation spot, and a display on the life cycle of a butterfly (egg-caterpillar-pupa-butterfly). Between 25 and 30 different species are raised at the center, including the tiny glass-winged butterfly, the banana owl (the largest butterfly in Belize), and, of course, the magnificent blue morpho. Arrive early enough in the morning to watch a butterfly emerge from a pupa right before your eyes. Or time your visit with “Caligo hour”—a unique event that begins one hour before sunset (in December around 4:45pm; in summer about 5:45pm) when the owl butterflies become very active and synchronize their flight; owl butterflies can have wing spans of up to seven inches, so it’s quite impressive. Jan literally wrote the book on Belizean butterflies (Lepidoptera of Belize, Gainesville, FL: ATL Books, 2000), and both he and Tineke can be available to give lectures to student groups. Green Hills is a worthwhile stop for anyone traveling to and from other sites on the Chiquibul Road, not least for the hummingbird garden, where you can watch an amazingly active assortment of hummers buzz in and out all day long. Picnic facilities are available.

Slate Creek Preserve

A group of local landowners and lodge operators have set aside 3,000 acres as the private Slate Creek Preserve (closed to the public). The purpose of the preserve is to protect the watershed, plants, and animals of a valley called the Vega, one of several valleys in the area. The unique limestone karst ecosystem, which borders the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, teems with life. Mahogany, Santa Maria, ceiba, cedar, and cohune palms tower above. Orchids, ferns, and bromeliads are common. Birds such as the aracari, emerald toucanet, keel-billed toucan, keel-billed motmot, king vulture, and various parrots and hummingbirds are to be found here. Pumas, ocelots, coatis, pacas, and anteaters roam the forests.

Mountain Equestrian Trails

At Mountain Equestrian Trails (Mile 8, Chiquibul Rd., tel. 501/669-1124, U.S. tel. 800/838-3918,, packages from US$1,381), the Bevis family keeps 27 sturdy steeds with Endurance saddles. Visitors have a choice of gentle or spirited horses to carry them over 60 miles of trails to waterfalls, swimming holes, Mayan caves, and other sites. Beginners and experienced riders are welcome—children at least 10 years old with previous riding experience are welcome. Riders are required to sign a liability waiver.

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations at S Mountain Equestrian Trails (MET, Mile 8, Chiquibul Rd., tel. 501/669-1124, U.S. tel. 800/838-3918,, US$132) range from 10 “safari-style” cabanas of thatch and stucco with exotic wood interiors and private baths with hot and cold water (no electricity—yet). Meals are served in the cozy cantina-restaurant, which offers excellent food (breakfast US$8, lunch US$11, dinner US$20, plus tax). Even though MET’s small cantina is a 20-minute drive from San Ignacio, it still attracts visitors and locals from all around for drinks, dinner, and good conversation. All-inclusive, multiday packages are available; riding fees are extra.


Heading south from the Western Highway at Santa Elena, this road winds through the villages of Cristo Rey and San Antonio before joining the Chiquibul Road and the Mountain Pine Ridge. It is usually better maintained than the alternative route along the Chiquibul Road, and there are a handful of interesting stops along the way. Village buses that travel the road leave the center of San Ignacio daily, and shared taxis should be available for reasonable rates as well. Most tour operators who travel this road will stop at any of the following places, depending on group size and desires.

Slate Carving Art Galleries

About six miles south on Cristo Rey Road, look for the Sak Tunich Art Gallery (9am-6pm daily), home of the Magana brothers, Jose and Javier. This indoor-outdoor display is built into the hillside on your left and is worth a look for anyone interested in Mayan crafts. These industrious guys are recreating a Mayan temple and cave by carving them into the limestone for the steep hillside next to the road and their home.

A couple of miles farther, you’ll find more art at The Garcia Sisters (tel. 501/820-4023,, These six siblings made a nationwide name for themselves in 1981, when they turned to their Mayan heritage and began recreating slate carvings reminiscent of those done by their ancestors at Caracol. Their Mayan art gallery, shop, and museum are called the Tanah Mayan Art Museum and Community Collection (tel. 501/669-4023, 8am-6pm daily), located on the Cristo Rey Road just north of San Antonio. The Tanah Museum is an echoey one-room affair with long shelves full of fascinating artifacts. The sisters, nieces of the famed healer Elijio Panti, are charming and determined ambassadors of San Antonio village. They’re also clever artists who make Belizean dolls, native jewelry, and hand-drawn art cards. Ask about the Itzamna Society, a community-based NGO of which Maria is the chairperson, which works to protect the forest and community. They also sometimes offer language lessons in the Yucatec Mayan language or cooking classes and can perform blessings, healings, and other ceremonies. The Garcias were instrumental in organizing a big December 21, 2012, Hawk Fire Ceremony, held at Caracol with elders from the various Mayan groups in Belize.

San Antonio Village

With a population of 3,500 descendants of the Maya, mostly milpa farmers and, increasingly, youth and employees of nearby lodges, San Antonio is approximately 10 miles from San Ignacio on the way to the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. It has the potential to serve as a low-key gateway to the surrounding wilderness, but as of yet, there are few visitor services in town (there is a gas station—better fill up before the drive to Caracol). There are horse and hiking trails nearby, as well as several caves, waterfalls, and ruins. You’ll also notice plenty of farmland and men harvesting as you drive through, as San Antonio Village is one of the main sources of vegetables for all of Belize, producing carrots, sweet peppers, potatoes, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, corn, red beans, and more.

A women’s group has a palapa-roofed shop (tel. 501/669-4023, just off the main road with some nice ceramics for sale. On the way out of town is a little-visited Mayan site called Pac Bitun, at the end of an unmarked side road, a mile or so before the T-junction.

Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park

This 13,000-acre reserve ( of mountains surrounding the village of San Antonio is filled with trails, waterfalls, and peaks, but there is not much access or tourism development. Ask at the Tanah Museum (tel. 501/669-4023, 8am-6pm daily) or the Women’s Center (tel. 501/669-4023, if there are any licensed guides taking people into the park.

Accommodations and Food

Only one mile south of the Western Highway, Maya Mountain Lodge (Mile ¾, Cristo Rey Rd., tel. 501/824-2164,, US$69-129) feels remote enough to warrant a listing outside of town; it’s a US$5 taxi ride from San Ignacio. This is one of the most moderately priced rainforest hideaways. The property is 108 acres and it’s about a 20-minute walk to the river’s edge. A meandering trail through the gardens has signs identifying plants, trees, and birds; there’s a nice pool for after your hike. Accommodations range from six simple guest rooms in a raised wooden building to family cottages and a two-bedroom suite with tiled floors, air-conditioning, extra bunks, and wood furniture. The restaurant features theme nights, homemade bread, and buckets of freshly squeezed orange juice (their Baha’i faith prevents them from selling liquor for profit, but you are welcome to bring your own). Breakfast costs US$6-10, and dinner is US$20. Ask about workshops on biodiversity and multiculturalism. This is a great place for families, with discounted or free lodging and tours for children and teens.

Before the advent of tourism, the Tut family (Victor and Teresa and their 10 children) grew fruit and vegetables and then transported them by canoe to the town market in San Ignacio. Today, they are the proud owners and operators of S Crystal Paradise Resort (tel. 501/834-4016,, US$75-125, breakfast US$10 pp, dinner US$15 pp), a low-key lodge that attracts many satisfied repeat customers. The 21-acre property near Cristo Rey village is a few hundred yards from the river, and it’s an easy walk to a canoe. The Tuts’ sons, who are avid bird-watchers and nature lovers, maintain the beautiful grounds and serve as your guides on a variety of tours, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and bird-watching. Find them at Paradise Expeditions (tel. 501/610-5593 or 501/834-4016, cell 501/610-5593,, which is based at the resort. Teresa and her daughters keep the guest rooms clean and comfortable and also cook up the best in traditional Belizean and international cuisine. Near the property’s wide, open dining palapa, the accommodations come in several styles; there are 17 units in all, including simple thatched cabanas with cement walls, tiled floors, hot and cold showers, and shaded verandas with hammocks for relaxing. Other units are clean and comfortable but more of a clapboard style; all offer ceiling fans and electricity. Additions include a pool and four canopy-level luxury guest rooms. The Tuts also offer bird-watching (ask about the birding platform), nature walks, and tours. There’s an on-site medicinal trail.

Table Rock Jungle Lodge (tel. 501/834-4040,, US$145-215, riverside camping US$30) is an eco-friendly touch of class on a 100-acre preserve. Five gorgeous cabanas (four-poster king and queen beds, private baths with hot water, ceiling fans, and private porches) are designed to stay cool the natural way, using adobe construction. There is a beautiful trail leading down a series of stone steps to the Macal River, where guests can go birding, canoeing, swimming, or tubing, all included in the room rates for guests. You can also tour the on-site fruit farm, growing all sorts of goodies from star fruit to craboo. The food is excellent, with unexpected dishes like pan-seared jack with chipotle papaya coconut sauce, cooked in cohune palm oil and served with couscous and okra. The palm-lined entrance through an orange grove is at Mile 5 on Cristo Rey Road.

The Southern Pine Bark Beetle

Shortly after the creation of the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, the Pine Ridge experienced a huge forest fire; combined with the cycles of logging, the forest was left with an unnaturally uniform population of trees, making it more susceptible to disease and insects. In the 1990s, a three-year drought helped establish a disastrous infestation of the southern pine bark beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis), which has wreaked havoc throughout Central and North America.

Today, the forest is coming back wonderfully—thanks both to naturally rich seed sets and to a massive replanting campaign (24 million seedlings are required for reforestation of 70,000 acres over four years). It will be another 10 to 15 years before the new generation of pines fully matures, however. Check out for an update and to find out how you can help.

At Mystic River Resort (tel. 501/834-4100,, all-inclusive packages US$1,300-2,030 and up, includes transfers and tours), “it’s all about the river,” say proprietors Tom and Nadege Thomas in their open-air restaurant on a point above the Macal. Guests like to hike or ride upstream, then float back to the lodge in a canoe or on a tube. The six units (so far) are spacious and well furnished, with local tile floors, nice verandas, and fireplaces for cool December nights. The place is a model of sustainable living. They have an on-site stable and an organic garden, and they raise their own chickens; plans are underway to make cheese on-site as well. Tom is still cutting trails and discovering archaeological sites on his property, which you can explore—either by foot or on Tom’s ATV. The lodge now has its very own BushDog Adventures tour company, offering off-the-beaten-track adventures in the area and accommodations packages tailored to your activity of preference, although room-only bookings are considered on request (US$250-275). Be sure to make it to Dancing Tree Lookout for sunset views of Guatemala. At the campsite atop this housing mound, you’ll admire the same view that Mayan families saw 1,000 years ago. By car, Mystic River Resort is accessed at Mile 6 on the Cristo Rey Road.

Macaw Bank Jungle Lodge (tel. 501/665-7241,, US$145-175) occupies an isolated, peaceful clearing in the forest. There are five miles of nature trails on the 50-acre property, many birds and other wildlife, and you can go swimming at a sandy bend on the Macal River, a 5-10-minute walk away. The five comfortable units have wooden bunks and furniture, private baths, hot and cold water, some solar power, and kerosene lanterns. There is a nice restaurant palapa with wireless Internet. Campers (US$12.50 pp) are welcome.

Moonracer Farm (Mile 9, Mountain Pine Ridge Rd.,, US$75-140) gets rave reviews, providing a pair of comfortable wooden cabins in the forest in one of the best deals in the Mountain Pine Ridge. The cabins are fairly large, with private screened porches. Meals are available for US$30 per day and include the fresh homemade cooking of owners Marge and Tom. This property used to be the home of a feline rescue center, and the new owners have creatively repurposed some of the hardware. Hiking trails explore their 50 acres and connect to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Elijio Panti National Park.


Prepare for a treat: This is one of Belize’s most beautiful landscapes. After you steadily ascend along the Chiquibul (Pine Ridge) Road for 21 miles, a gate across the road marks your entrance to The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Belize’s largest and oldest protected area, established in 1944. The 300-square-mile area features Caribbean pine and bracken ferns instead of the typical tropical vegetation found in the rest of Belize. It also features a massive granite uplifting; the exposed rocks are some of the oldest formations in the Americas, and they make for amazing swimming holes and waterfalls. In fact, some geologists think that the Mountain Pine Ridge, whose highest point is 3,336 feet above sea level at Baldy Beacon, was one of the few exposed islands when the rest of Central America was underwater.

Most San Ignacio tour operators offer day trips to the Pine Ridge’s attractions, often combined with a trip to Caracol ruins. There are way more sights than can fit into a day, but a number of lodges can put you right in the thick of it all.

Thousand Foot Falls

Occasionally referred to as Hidden Valley Falls, this torrent of Roaring Creek is probably a good deal taller than 1,000 feet and is considered the highest waterfall in Central America. The turnoff to a viewpoint of the falls is a couple of miles beyond the forest reserve gate and is well signed. It’s quite a little drive to get all the way there, and though the view is magical, you don’t get the reward of being able to jump in. From the turnoff, the road continues down for about four miles and brings you to Thousand Foot Falls (US$2 pp) and a picnic area. View the falls from across the gorge and through breaks in the mist. A small store (7am-5pm daily) and picnic tables can be found at the viewpoint.

S Big Rock Falls

A hand-painted sign on the dirt road to Gaia Lodge is the only indicator to the trailhead for Big Rock Falls. You can park and hike down a trail with steps leading down to a series of spectacular jade pools, and to the left, a loud, gushing waterfall: Big Rock. The entire scenery—from pine trees towering over the water to giant rocks and verdant forest—is worth the stop and a swim. Use the grey rocks to follow the path as close to the water as possible. There’s no clear entry point so step carefully until you reach the bigger pool by Big Rock Falls. Sneakers are a must. After a refreshing dip, brace yourself for a steep hike back.


Big Rock Falls

Río On Pools and Río Frio Cave

Most Caracol packages try to squeeze in an afternoon stopover at these lovely sites. Heading south on Chiquibul Road toward Augustine, you will cross the Río On Pools. It’s well worth the climb over an assortment of worn boulders and rocks to waterfalls and several warm-water pools. There’s a parking area just off the road. Turn right at Douglas de Silva ranger station (the western division of the Forestry Department) and continue for about five miles to reach Río Frio Cave. Follow the signs to the parking lot. From here, visitors have a choice of exploring nature trails and two small caves on the road or continuing to Río Frio Cave, with an enormous arched entryway into the 0.5-mile-long cave. Filtered light highlights ferns, mosses, stalactites, and geometric patterns of striations on rocks. Watch for sinkholes. At times, a military escort is necessary to Río Frio. Ask at the Douglas de Silva ranger station on Chiquibul Road.

Accommodations and Food

Situated on 7,200 acres of private property in the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Hidden Valley Inn (4 Cooma Cairn Rd., tel. 501/822-3320, U.S. tel. 866/443-3364,, about US$151-205, meals not included) is a quiet paradise for hikers and bird-watchers, who have a blast exploring the resort’s 90-plus miles of walking trails and old logging roads. Later, after dining under the stars, they cozy up in front of their cottage’s fireplace. The property encompasses lush broadleaf forest and pine tree habitat, and two diverse ecosystems are divided by a geological fault line that marks the edge of a towering 1,000-foot escarpment. Birders, be prepared to check off orange-breasted falcons, king vultures, stygian owls, azure-crowned hummingbirds, green jays, and golden-hooded tanagers. Picnic lunches are provided for the myriad day trips available. The main house, built of local hardwoods, feels more like a ski lodge than a tropical resort, with several spacious common rooms, including a fireside lounge, a card room, a bar, a library, and the restaurant. The cottages have Saltillo tile floors, vaulted ceilings, cypress-paneled walls, fireplaces, ceiling fans, screened louvered windows, comfy beds, and private baths with hot and cold water, some with waterfall orchid showers in a private outdoor bath. Hidden Valley Inn is three miles in from the Mile 14 turnoff onto Cooma Cairn Road—just follow the signs.

Francis Ford Coppola first came to Belize just after the country gained independence in 1981; he tried and failed to persuade the new government to apply for a satellite license in order to become a hub of world communications. He did, however, succeed in finding an abandoned lodge on a pine-carpeted bluff overlooking the rocks and falls of Privassion Creek. It served as a private retreat for the film producer until 1993, when he “tricked it open” by flying a group of family and friends down for his 54th birthday. Today, Blancaneaux Lodge (tel. 501/824-4914, U.S. tel. 888/861-7336,, from US$250) remains one of Central America’s premier resorts, featuring the design of Mexican architect Manolo Mestre. Splashes of color, dark hardwoods, Central American lines, and soaring thatched ceilings mark Blancaneaux’s 20 guest rooms, consisting of luxurious cabanas and villas. There is a U-shaped hot pool above the river and a spa built in an Indonesian rice house with Thai massage therapists.

Blancaneaux’s Ristorante Montagna offers an Italian-centric menu with a range of salads, pastas (US$14), seafood, sandwiches, pizzas (US$18), and, of course, a selection of wines from Coppola’s Napa Valley vineyards—smooth and costly. Two honeymoon cabanas with their own private infinity pools and choice of two views (US$420) and the Enchanted Cottage kick things up a notch in luxury. The Enchanted Cottage is also available for a small group of friends looking to celebrate a special event who can afford US$1,470 per night. An on-site hydroelectric dam powers the entire operation, and a 3.5-acre organic herb and vegetable garden supplies many of the restaurant’s needs (and those of Turtle Inn). They have a stable with 29 healthy horses and a number of guided trail trips. The lodge is at Mile 14½ and has its own airstrip, which many guests prefer to the 2.5-hour drive from Belize City.

Originally built in 1991, Gaia River Lodge (tel. 501/834-4024,, US$200-395) sits high atop the stunning Privassion Creek in the Pine Ridge, above the Five Sisters Falls. Cabanas are located on the top of the steep canyon; they include beautifully thatched, garden, mountain view, or waterfall view cabanas—16 in all—as well as an exclusive riverside villa. The waterfall view suite is ideal for honeymooners, with two levels, a living room with an open deck, mosquito netting, and complete privacy. Various activity packages are offered. Have a beer or a meal on the outdoor restaurant’s deck, and enjoy the commanding view above the river and the constant, gushing sound of the falls. The hardy can walk the 300 steps down to the river and Five Sisters; if you’re too tired after splashing around, not to worry—the hydro-powered rainforest tram will carry you back up the hill, at least between 8am and 5pm. Gaia is one of nine Green Globe Certified resorts in Belize, and is the sister resort to Matachica in San Pedro, equally upscale yet laid-back.


Archaeologists Diane and Arlen Chase believe that Caracol (, one of the largest sites in Belize, is the Mayan city-state that toppled mighty Tikal, just to the northwest, effectively shutting it down for 130 years. Located within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Caracol is out there, offering both natural wonders and Mayan mystery. To date, only a small percentage of the 177 square kilometers that make up the site has even been mapped, identifying only 5,000 of the estimated 36,000 structures lying beneath the forest canopy.


The centerpiece is no doubt the pyramid of Canaa, rising 136 feet above the plaza floor (about a foot taller than El Castillo at Xunantunich), one of the tallest structures—ancient or modern—in Belize. Canaa was only completely cleared of vegetation in 2005 by the Tourism Development Project (TDP), whose work has unveiled most of the structures you see. The vistas from the top of Canaa are extensive and memorable.

In addition to the aforementioned superlatives, Caracol, a Classic Period site, is noted for its large masks and giant date glyphs on circular stone altars. There is also a fine display of the Maya’s engineering skills, with extensive reservoirs, agricultural terraces, and several mysterious ramps. Caracol has been studied for more than 20 years by the Chases and their assistants, student interns from Tulane University in New Orleans and the University of Central Florida. According to John Morris, an archaeologist with Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, a lifetime of exploration remains to be done for six to nine miles in every direction of the excavated part of Caracol. It’s proving to have been a powerful site that controlled a very large area, possibly once home to over 100,000 inhabitants. The rainforest you see now would have been totally absent in those days, as the wood was cleared to provide fuel and agricultural land to support so many people.

Many carvings date from AD 500-800, and ceramic evidence indicates that Caracol was settled around AD 300 and continued to flourish when other Mayan sites were in decline. Carvings at the site also indicate that Caracol and Tikal engaged in ongoing conflicts, each defeating the other on various occasions. After the war in AD 562, Caracol flourished for more than a century in the mountains and valleys surrounding the site. A former archaeological commissioner named the site Caracol (“snail” in Spanish) because of the winding logging road to reach it, although some contend it was because of all the snail shells found during initial excavations.

Visiting the Site

Entrance to Caracol is US$15. The small visitors center presents a scale model and interesting information based mostly on the work of the Chases over the last two decades. A planned Monument Museum will allow visitors to view a range of artifacts and stelae from the site and will be based on the work of the Tourism Development Project. There are no official guides on-site, as most groups arrive with their own. However, the caretakers know Caracol well and will be glad to walk you through and explain the site for a few dollars. Most tours start with the Raleigh Group, move by the enormous ceiba trees, then circle through the archaeologists’ camp, and end with a bang by climbing Canaa.

Getting There

Most tour operators offer Caracol day trips, often involving stops at various caves and swimming holes on the way back through the Mountain Pine Ridge. The ride should take two to three hours, depending on both the weather and the progress made by road improvement crews, who hopefully will not run out of money before you read this. If you’re driving, a 4WD vehicle is a must; gas is not available along the 50-mile road, so carry ample fuel. Camping is not allowed in the area without permission from the Institute of Archaeology in Belmopan. The closest accommodations are those along the Pine Ridge Road.

At times, a military escort is necessary to visit Caracol. Be sure to ask at your lodge. Tour operators know to show up at 9:30am at the Augustine (Douglas de Silva) gate to convoy to the ruins.

Into Guatemala

The western frontera into Guatemala is only 11 miles from San Ignacio. Be prepared to pay a US$19 pp exit fee on the Belizean side, which includes the PACT fee (they will ask for exact change); the rest of the money goes to the private Border Management company, a point of contention for local tour providers and would-be Guatemalan day-trippers. Expect the usual throng of moneychangers to greet you on both sides of the border—they’re fine to use as long as you know what rate you should be getting—or you can use the official Casas de Cambio on either side.

Bus and Taxi

The trip from San Ignacio can be made for around US$3 pp in a colectivo taxi, less in a passing bus bound for Benque Viejo. A private taxi from San Ignacio should cost about US$15 total.


If you’re driving your own car, make sure you have all the necessary papers of ownership and attendant photocopies of all your documents, including your driver’s license and passport, which they will want to see. You are required by law to have your tires fumigated when entering/exiting Belize and Guatemala, which costs a dollar or two. If driving a private or rental vehicle into Guatemala, you will have to pay a toll to cross the bridge going over the Mopan into Melchor. If your car has Belizean tags, the fee can be as low as 5 quetzales (US$0.65). If your tags are from far away, like Canada or the United States, be prepared to pay 50 quetzales (US$6.50) and not one peso more. Save the receipt if you are returning to Belize, as it is good for a two-way crossing. In addition, based on some reports, travelers have to ensure that they have received a proper exit stamp when leaving Belize for both themselves and their vehicle. Double-check your passport before continuing on to Guatemala.


After clearing Guatemalan immigration and shaking off the sometimes aggressive taxistas, you’ll find yourself on the edge of the Mopan River, across which begins the town of Melchor de Mencos. Before crossing the bridge, you’ll find the Río Mopan Lodge (tel. 502/7926-5196,, US$20) on your left, a nice riverside hotel and restaurant whose proprietors (a Swiss-Spanish couple) are a wealth of information on remote ruins in the area. There are other places in Melchor if you get stranded in town for some reason or are embarking on your own rainforest expedition to unexplored ruins. Otherwise, head on toward the most popular place to visit in Guatemala from the western border of Belize: Tikal National Park.


Guatemala’s most-visited attraction opened to the public in 1955 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. One of the most magnificent of all Mayan sites, the 222-square-mile Tikal National Park is located in northern Guatemala, in the heart of El Petén, Guatemala’s largest department. The park also belongs to the 21,000-square mile Reserva de Biosfera Maya (Mayan Biosphere Reserve), considered the most biodiverse region in the country, with the largest area of tropical rainforest in Central America. Much of the reserve still consists of dense forests with more than 300 species of commercially useful trees, such as cedar, mahogany, and chicle, as well as abundant wildlife.

Amid El Petén’s stunning canopy of green sit several Mayan archeological sites, including Uaxactún and El Mirador. But the most unique of all is Tikal. No visitor forgets that first glance at Tikal’s gigantic pyramids dominating the park’s green skyline. Temple I and Temple IV, at commanding heights of over 100 to 200-plus feet, are sheer masterpieces. Visitors can climb up some of these temples, while others are considered too steep and remain closed.

Even more mind-boggling is that only about 15 percent of Tikal has been uncovered thus far. Under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, the site was excavated and studied over a period of 13 years from 1956-1969. An estimated 4,000 structures were located, including temples, palaces, ball courts, a marketplace, and residential compounds. Restored areas include the Great Plaza, the North Acropolis, the Lost World, the Twin Pyramid complexes, and Temples I, II, IV, and V. Stelae, burials, ceramics, and other offerings were discovered during this time, and causeways connecting the various areas of Tikal were restored. Thousands more structures continue to lie buried under thick rainforest, covered up for the past thousands of years since the ancient Maya deserted this city around AD 900 for reasons that remain unknown.

Coupled with its natural and historical significance, and a host of affordable accommodations options in the nearby charming lakeside village of El Remate, or the neighboring island town of Flores, capital of El Petén, Tikal is a must-see if you have a day to spare during your stay in western Belize.


Tikal, commonly translated from Mayan as “City of Spiritual Voices,” was first inhabited in 600 BC, although its first structures weren’t erected until at least 100 years later, around 500 BC. The Pre-Classic Period saw the erection of several structures, including the North Acropolis’s ceremonial buildings and the Pyramid at El Mundo Perdido.

By the Early Classic Period, circa AD 250, the Great Plaza began to emerge as Tikal became a key city, with its growing commerce, population, and culture. Its first ruler was King Yax Ehb’ Xook, who established the Tikal lineage; Tikal’s history and the evolution of its architecture is closely tied to its rulers—33 of them presided over 800 years, and the most important of them all was Ruler 26, Hasaw Chan K’awil, from the Late Classic Period (682-734).

There are signs that Tikal’s history was linked to Teotihuacán, a non-Mayan city 630 miles away, northeast of Mexico City, which reached its peak AD 150-650. One example is that the designs at the Lost World Complex and other designs found on ceramics seem to replicate signs of the Teotihuacán, including its god Tlaloc. Moreover, in the fourth century AD, the Mexican city sent over one of its warriors to aid Tikal in a war against neighboring Uaxactún, and helped elevate Tikal to where it dominated the Petén region for centuries to come.

Five hundred years later, as Teotihuacán’s influence waned, Tikal faced the threat of regional dominance by the powerful city of Calakmul, in northern Guatemala and present-day Mexico. Unfortunately for Tikal, Calakmul forged an alliance with Caracol, currently Belize’s largest Mayan site. A preemptive strike on Caracol eventually backfired: Archeologists believe that during one counterattack against Tikal in AD 562, Caracol toppled Tikal, shutting down the city for 130 years, during which time no monuments were erected or inscribed and many of Tikal’s stelae were desecrated; although it was discovered recently that Temple V was built during this period.


Eventually rebounding, in AD 682 Tikal entered a golden period when Ruler Ah-Cacao (Hasaw Chan K’awil, or Lord Chocolate) took over and began the construction of Tikal’s most impressive structures, erecting them at a dizzying pace. Other significant achievements of his reign, which lasted until 723, were his two successive and successful attacks against Calakmul, capturing and executing its two kings, first Jaguar Paw (Ich’ak K’ak) and, a year later, Split Earth, thus weakening any further alliance against Tikal and reclaiming its position as the greatest city in Petén.

Hasaw Chan K’awil thereby reinstated a powerful dynasty at Tikal. During this Classic Period, AD 250-900, a time recognized as the peak in Mayan art, architecture, and intellectual achievements across the Mundo Maya, Tikal’s five main temples were built. At the city’s height, an estimated 100,000 Maya lived in Tikal, covering an area of about 12 square miles.


What caused the rapid decline of the Mayan civilization in the Late Classic Period, AD 800-900, remains a great mystery. At the start of the 10th century, Mayan sites were slowly deserted, with the collapse of authority and the abandonment of cities. Similarly, by the late 10th century, Tikal was abandoned. Archeologists and scholars have suggested that a combination of climate change, overpopulation, deforestation, and disease may have led to the demise of this ancient civilization.


In 1848 the Guatemalan government commissioned Ambrosio Tut and Modesto Méndez to explore the site, and Méndez produced a first official report on Tikal after a week’s visit. Several other scientists passed through after viewing this report, including Gustav Bernoulli of Switzerland and British archeologist Alfred Maudslay in 1881, who was the first to draw a map of the area. He was also the first to obtain and take photographs of the site after the vegetation was removed after thousands of years of burial. It wasn’t until an airstrip was built in the 1950s that the real study began, with the help of the University of Pennsylvania, which carried out excavations from 1956 to 1969.

The latest discoveries date to 1996, mainly including the inscriptions on Temple V that indicate that the site was built during the 130 years Tikal was previously believed to have shut down after a defeat by Caracol and Calakmul.

Visiting the Site

Tickets to Tikal National Park (, 6am-6pm daily, US$20 per day) are sold at the main entrance gate, and you can also purchase an official site map (US$10). From the gate, there’s a 15-20 minute drive to the parking lot and visitors center. Be sure to purchase your entrance ticket at the first gate and not at the second. Once on-site, there’s a large parking lot, two museums, souvenir vendors, and a handful of restaurants and lodges.

Tickets are valid only for the day of purchase, regardless of what time you arrive. It is possible to stay past sunset (up to 9pm) or to watch the sunrise only if you are a guest of one of the park lodges and are accompanied by a certified tour guide. Tickets for sunset or sunrise (additional US$10 fee) are not available at the main gate entrance but rather at the ticket booth by the parking lot after you reach the entrance site. Bring cash and small bills while visiting; credit cards are not accepted.

There’ a lot to see and learn at Tikal. If you only have half a day, explore the Grand Plaza and climb up Temple IV. Don’t forget to look for monkeys and coatimundis on the way.



Start your tour by walking toward the entrance of the site from the parking lot. Soon you’ll see a giant ceiba tree not far from which is a map indicating the various trails. The middle trail leads to Group F and the Great Plaza.


If you only have a couple of hours at Tikal, this is where you want to be. The central plaza of Tikal is most impressive architecturally, with four temples towering over the gigantic plaza. The Great Plaza buildings—North Acropolis, Temple I, Temple II, and the Central Acropolis—took more than 1,000 years to construct. The sheer city-like size of this courtyard—as well as the 70 stelae carved with images and hieroglyphs—is sure to impress.


Temple I is one of three temples towering around the Great Plaza, the heart of what was once the great city of Tikal. Temple I, known as the Big Jaguar, was built by Hasaw Chan K’awil (Lord Chocolate) in AD 700. His tomb was later found under the 151-foot-high temple, his remains surrounded by jade, pearls, and other symbols of human sacrifice (you can see a replica of his tomb and his remains at the Museo Tikal).


Temple II rises 125 feet directly opposite Temple I. This temple was also built by Hasaw Chan K’awil, to honor his wife. It was initially intended to be of identical height with Temple I.

Both Temple I and Temple II are roped off. This is in part due to insufficient climbing infrastructure, but also due to the death of two visitors in 1992 as they attempted to climb back down the steep steps. Use extreme care when exploring the temples.


The North Acropolis lies along on the entire north side of the Great Plaza. This enormous, complex maze of structures includes a section housing smooth, engraved stelae that describe the history of Tikal’s rulers as well as underground masks.

On the opposite side, the Central Acropolis is said to have been the site of palaces with interconnecting chambers and stairways centered around a courtyard.


Along the Tozzer Causeway is Temple III, or the Great Priest Temple, at 196 feet high. Temple III is unrestored and remains closed to the public. You can spot the temple’s tip jutting out of the rainforest, while the remainder sits buried under foliage.

From Temple III, the Tozzer Causeway continues west to Complex N, the Bat Palace, and Temple IV. Another trail leads south to Mundo Perdido.


Located behind Temple III is a large palace complex, which includes the restored Bat Palace. Also known as the Palacio de las Venatas (Palace of Windows), thanks to the numerous openings at the back of the structure, the two-story building consists of several rows of rooms.


Another significant part of the site is El Mundo Perdido (Lost World), named as such for having a varying architecture from the rest of the buildings at Tikal. Stand at the top of the Great Pyramid, at 105 feet high, for stunning views of the Great Plaza and Temple IV in the distance.


At the end of the Tozzer Causeway lies one of the site’s most significant structures: Temple IV, the highest and most impressive of Tikal’s temples. Temple IV was erected about AD 741 and stands at a dizzying height of 212 feet. This is the most popular temple to climb; look for parallel wooden staircases (one for those going up, another for returning). Take your time getting to the top, hold on to the railing, and take deep breaths. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking canopy view: The rainforest extends endlessly in every direction, and you’ll spot other temples in the distance. Find a spot on the steps and take it all in.


The view from Temple IV at Tikal is spectacular

At Temple IV, the Maudslay Causeway leads north to Complex P, then curves back south, passing by Complex Q and R.


Complex P is believed to have been built by Yax Kin, son of the ruler Hasaw Chan K’awil, in celebration of the end of a k’atun. Jaguars and frogs, symbols of power and fertility, are carved on the structure.


Complexes Q and R are sets of seven twin pyramids, found at Tikal and nearby Yaxhá. They were built to celebrate cyclical events, such as the end of a 20-year cycle, or k’atun, in the Mayan Long Count calendar. On the eastern side of Complex Q, facing one of the pyramids, are nine smooth steles and altars. On the south side is a building with nine doorways, believed to have been a ceremonial palace. Of note here is Stela 22, portraying Yax Ain II in his full costume; he took the throne in AD 768.


There are two museums at Tikal, located at opposite ends. The open-air Museo Lítico (9am-noon and 1pm-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., closes earlier Sat.-Sun., free) is located at the visitors center, set around a courtyard close to the entrance. Exhibits include a large-scale model of the site, showing the city as estimated around AD 800. There are also photographs of Tikal as it was first being excavated by a team from the University of Pennsylvania.

Save some time for a stop at the second museum, Museo Tikal (also called Museo Sylvanus G. Morley, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., closes earlier Sat.-Sun., US$5), just past the Jaguar Inn. The museum houses a replica burial chamber with the remains of Hasaw Chan K’awil (Lord Chocolate), whose skeleton was found beneath Temple I. Also on display are ceramics, bloodletting instruments, and incense burners, all found in burial sites. Another exhibit showcases jade necklaces, amulets, and elaborate incense burners found beneath Temple V as well as stelae found buried under the North Acropolis.

To get the most out of these museums, ask a guide to explain the significance of these artifacts (there isn’t much labeled).

Birding and Wildlife-Watching

Tikal’s surrounding rainforest makes it an ideal wildlife-watching destination. More than 50 species of mammals and 400 species of birds have been spotted here. Look for toucans, oropendolas, spider and howler monkeys, coatimundis, deer, and more. Jaguars, whose symbolic faces were carved into the stelae at Tikal, still inhabit the park. There are also crocodiles and reptiles, including a resident alligator, and poisonous snakes, although these are known to be nocturnal.

Arrange for special bird-watching tours with La Casa de Don David (El Remate, tel. 502/5306-2190,, who have excellent English-speaking birding guides that are knowledgeable about the park. Another excellent tour company is outfitter Cayaya Birding (tel. 502/5308-5160,, based in Guatemala City.

Canopy Tour

Canopy Tikal Tours (tel. 502/5819-7766,,, 7am-5pm daily, US$30) offers a zip line across the park either before or after you tour the site (I recommend after). There are 11 platforms at heights of up to 80 feet above the forest canopy. A second, higher zip line is also available (if you dare). Pickups are free from within the park; you can also arrange to be picked up from Flores for an extra fee. Canopy Tikal Tours also offers horseback riding at Tikal.


There are three hotel options and a campground within Tikal National Park, all surrounded by lush tropical forest. Note that you’re paying for the location and a unique experience at a World Heritage Site, and perhaps not so much for comfort or service. This is a protected reserve, so conservation is a high priority: Electricity is available only during certain hours of the day (usually 2-3 hours at a time both in the morning and the evening), and none of the hotels have air-conditioning (you might consider bringing a small battery-operated fan, but the temperature is usually bearable). For more “comfort” with less “creature,” stay in nearby Flores and El Remate, although you won’t get the spectacular rainforest surroundings.

Originally built to house archeologists working on Tikal, the guest rooms at Jungle Lodge (tel. 502/2477-0570,, US$40-80) are set around a lovely tropical garden and swimming pool. The hotel is located close to the park entrance and offers bungalows and junior suites, as well as cheaper guest rooms with shared baths. There’s a restaurant on-site (US$5-10) serving three meals a day; tour groups are often brought here at lunchtime. There’s also Wi-Fi, although it’s spotty.

The Jaguar Inn (tel. 502/7926-0002,, US$80) is close to the Tikal Museum and just a couple minutes from the site entrance. They have 13 comfy bungalows with private baths, hot and cold water, fans, and 24-hour electricity. There’s an on-site restaurant serving decent meals daily. Transfers or tours can be arranged. Although unadvertised, camping (US$3.50) is available, as well as hammocks with netting (US$5)—just bring your bug spray and a flashlight.

Next door, Tikal Inn (tel. 502/3038-9373,, US$100-145, includes dinner and breakfast) gets rave reviews for service, location, and value. Choose among spacious standard hotel rooms, poolside bungalows, and junior suites. Electricity runs 6am-8am and 6pm-9pm daily. Both Jaguar and Tikal Inn are solid options if you plan to experience sunrise from the top of nearby Temple IV.

Looking to sleep even closer to nature? The Tikal campground area (US$4 pp) is opposite the visitors center and has shared shower and restroom facilities.


All the hotels inside Tikal National Park have restaurants, the most popular of which is the one at the Jungle Lodge. However, there are also independent restaurants (comedores) clustered near the entrance, offering Central American fare as well as burgers for about US$5-10. These include: Comedor Tikal (the better one), Restaurant Imperio Maya, and Restaurant Café Tikal. All comedores open early for breakfast and serve food until 9pm daily.

For better menu options, don’t hesitate to try the hotel restaurants. If you are a guest, your host may offer to-go lunch sandwiches for purchase.

Getting There and Around

If you’re planning to visit Tikal on your own, have a strong dose of patience and be prepared. If traveling from the Belize border, bring your passport, exit tax (US$15), and the PACT conservation fee (US$3.75).


Tropic Air (tel. 501/226-2012, U.S. tel. 800/422-3435, offers flights from Belize City’s Phillip Goldson International Airport (BZE, 10 miles west of Belize City, tel. 501/225-2045, to Flores (US$303 round-trip). Vehicles head to Tikal from the Flores airport, but be sure to reserve a reliable driver or tour operator ahead of time.


There are no direct buses to Tikal from Benque Viejo del Carmen on the Belize border. There are chicken buses that will pick up from the Guatemala side and head to Flores as well as taxis (US$20 pp, depending on the number of people). You’d then have to find your way to Tikal from Flores.

Another option is to catch the bus to Flores, get off at the crossroads in Ixlu, and then wait for another bus heading north to El Remate or all the way to Tikal. However, the wait could be long as the schedules are not published. It’s also generally safer to arrange a ride with a recognized guide than going it alone.

It’s possible to catch the bus all the way to the Cayo District, then all the way to Benque Viejo del Carmen and the border, and then wing it once you make it past immigration. But if you’re not fluent in Spanish, or would rather play it safe (recommended), there are several tour companies with buses heading directly to Flores and Tikal from Belize City’s Water Taxi Terminal (by the Swing Bridge), as well as by the San Pedro Belize Express terminal, a couple of blocks farther down.

First try S&L Travel Tours (91 N. Front St., Belize City, tel. 501/227-7593,, a very reliable company, or contact Atlanta Tour Express Bus Service (inside the San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi Terminal, Belize City), with direct service to Tikal and Flores via the Guatemalan Línea Dorada buses ( The journey to the border takes about 4.5 hours. If you’re lucky, crossing the border will be smooth and painless, although lines can occasionally get long.


If you decide to rent a car, check out Crystal Auto Rental (Mile 5, Northern Hwy., Belize City, tel. 501/223-1600,, from US$65 per day), one of the only companies that allow you to take a rental vehicle into Guatemala (be sure to inquire about insurance).


Most tour guides in San Ignacio offer regular trips to Tikal, almost daily during the busy tourist season (Dec.-Apr.). If you opt for a tour, you won’t have to worry about anything except bringing your passport, paying for the tour, and hopping in a van—the rest is taken care of, from border crossing to entrance fees. I highly recommend Pacz Tours (tel. 501/604-6921 or 501/824-0536,, full-day US$145, all-inclusive overnight US$400 with hotel, meals, guide, taxes, and fees), with its own resident Tikal expert.


The lakeside village of El Remate is the closest town to Tikal National Park. Located just 22 miles away, it is 0.5 miles north of “El Cruce,” the main traffic circle with signs to Tikal. El Remate has become a favorite for overnight stays among travelers heading to the Mayan site who want to avoid the more distant Flores area and the expense of an overnight in the national park. There are plenty of transportation options in El Remate, making it easier to find shared rides with fellow travelers, and the lake is clean and safe to swim in. Hotels, restaurants, and recreation are also plentiful.

There’s plenty to do in El Remate if Tikal isn’t enough for you. Half- or full-day birding tours with local guides are available through La Casa de Don David (tel. 502/5306-2190,, US$40-75). La Casa de Don David can help arrange all kinds of other activities.

Kayaking is available at Casa de Dona Tonita (tel. 502/5701-7114, US$2 per hour), as is and mountain biking (US$5 per day). The best swimming is in front of the Biotopo Cerro Cahui Nature Reserve or at El Muelle Restaurant.

Accommodations and Food


A clean budget place that gets rave reviews is the Sun Breeze Hotel (Calle del Lago, tel. 502/7928-8044 or 502/5898-2665, US$10). The colorful double rooms have private baths, fans, porches, hammocks, and a working shower (the hot water is temperamental). For the price, you can’t beat the quiet location within a minute’s walk of the lake. The hotel can arrange for transportation to Tikal and even to Belize City.


Not far along on your route, S La Casa de Don David (off the main road, tel. 502/5306-2190,, US$23-28, includes either breakfast of dinner) is the preferred choice of many. This is a cozy, simple, and safe place to stay with standard or premium guest rooms set in a lush garden, with private baths, balconies, fans or air-conditioning, and hot water. There’s an on-site restaurant serving home cooked Guatemalan specialties as well as wireless Internet access. The hotel owners have a wealth of information on the area and can arrange for all kinds of tours.

The rustic and charming lakeside S Posada del Cerro (tel. 502/5376-8722 or 502/5305-1717,, US$40-56) offers simple but charming accommodations, including cottages with a thatched roofs, a patio, and a serene environment. Posada del Cerro is located right next to the entrance of the Biotopo Cerro Cahui Reserve, hence the lovely lake views and freshwater swimming. There’s an on-site restaurant and lounge area for guests to enjoy.


Located right on the main road, the Western-inspired Palomino Ranch Hotel (tel. 502/7928-8419,, US$50) offers eight double rooms, each equipped with air-conditioning, a TV, and hot water, in a large villa with a swimming pool. The hotel also offers horseback riding trips and gets rave reviews for its service.


Peten’s ultimate in luxury is S La Lancha (tel. 502/7928-8331, U.S. tel. 855/670-4817,, US$160-240, breakfast included), Francis Ford Coppola’s 10-room lodge in Guatemala. The lakeshore views may be its best feature, as its location in the village of Jobompiche is somewhat more remote than the other hotels. Choose from lake-view casitas or rainforest casitas, all tastefully decorated with Guatemalan fabrics, Balinese wood, and beautiful decks where you can laze in a hammock. The on-site restaurant serves Guatemalan specialties (lunch and dinner US$20 pp) and there’s a lovely pool below the restaurant.


Flores is a small island town located in Lake Petén Itzá, with cobblestone streets and lakeside bistros. It is connected to its twin town on the mainland, Santa Elena (although they are often collectively referred to as Flores) by a causeway. Santa Elena itself is a noisy commercial center, and few visitors choose to stay here. Flores, once a popular stopover, is now slowly being replaced by the up-and-coming El Remate, mostly because the accommodations there offer better value, the lake is clean and safe to swim in, and its location is closer to both Tikal National Park and Belize.

Still, a couple of sights worth checking out in Flores include the Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo Natural Monument (8am-5pm daily, US$10), home to several Mayan sites, the most prominent of which is Yaxhá, made even more famous when the TV show Survivor Guatemala was filmed here in 2005.

Accommodations and Food

Eco Lodge El Sombrero (tel. 502/4147-6380 or 502/5320-7091,, US$20-35) offers basic guest rooms in thatched-roof lakefront bungalows. While there’s a dock, it isn’t safe to swim here, unless you want to be chased by crocodiles. There’s an on-site restaurant with decent food. The upside is the location, right next to the Yaxhá site and surrounded by rainforest, lakes, and the occasional visiting howler monkey.


snorkeling trip via Splash Dive Center