Adventures in the Jungle, ATM Cave and Maya in San Ignacio
If you are planning a trip to Belize be sure to book a week’s stay inland in the jungle and another by the Caribbean Sea. The best way to start your vacation is in the exciting Cayo district and to end it with some serious beach activities in San Pedro/Ambergris Caye and snorkeling/scuba diving in the Great Blue Hole.
Belize Map • The Cayo District • Mystic River Resort • The stables and the horses at the Mystic River Resort • Jungle hike • Canoeing on the Macal River • San Ignacio • Big Rock Falls • Maya in Belize • Actun Tunichil Muknan • Xunantunich and Cahal Pech • Belize Facts
Map over Belize
Cayo is the largest district in Belize and consists of 5180 km rainforest. The forest is full of beautiful hikes, mountains, pasture, waterfalls and archeological finds. The largest Maya ruins and sacred sites with amazing temples, such as Xunantunich and Caracol, are found in the Cayo district.
We stayed a week at the Mystic River Resort and made excursions to Maya ruins, caves and other interesting attractions from there. Everything was organised by the Mystic River Resort staff.
Mystic River Resort, a 5 star resort along the Macal River, is located in the middle of the jungle close to the Guatemalan border. You will not find any shops or anything else here – instead, you will find calmness and serenity.
So, what will you do when there is no TV and the wifi is bad? Well, you might want to:
- Go canoeing along the Macal River, maybe as long as to the closest town San Ignacio.
- Try some tubing on the Macal River. It is surprisingly fun to float with the current while watching birds and all the amazing greenery on the riverbank.
- Yoga. There is a yoga deck at the Mystic River Resort and it really is magical to salute the sun in the morning at that spot, listening to all the sounds as the nature comes alive.
- Horseback riding. There are beautiful horses at the Mystic River Resort.
- Make excursions to Maya ruins, waterfalls, and the Actun Tunichil Muknan cave.
- Admire the green iguanas. San Ignacio Hotel in San Ignacio works to conserve the endangered Green Iguana species and the visitors may pet and hold the exciting and beautiful reptiles. The Belizians like to catch and eat them and they are called “tree chicken”. Did you know that iguanas are descendants of dinosaurs?
- Enjoy the nature.
- Watch birds. There are c. 200 different species of birds in the area.
- Or just relax in a lounge chair with a drink in your hand and socialize with your friends.
We booked a one bedroom suite and this how our little lodge looked like.
You take all your meals in the open air restaurant La Ranita and your aperitifs in the La Palapa bar.
The table is set for breakfast not only for the house guests but also for the birds.
Even the tiny hummingbird has a nectar feeder of her own. They are called hummingbirds because of the sound their wings make when they hover in the air – a hummingbird is able to beat her wings up to 80 times a second. This means also that they have a fast metabolism and need to eat often.
Most of the food is grown locally and delicious.
The interior design is well-thought-out and beautiful and the owner Nadege Thomas and her husband will be sure to make your stay as comfortable as possible. The ambience is personal, luxurius and relaxed.
I really liked the Mystic River Resort a lot and truly recommend the place.
Since there are no restaurants around you will be taking all your meals at the Mystic River Resort. The food is good, all the vegetables and fruit are locally grown and organic.
The guests are mainly couples in the ages between 30 and 60 years.
It is good to know that the temperature here in the highlands is much lower than on the coast – so pack a cardigan and a longsleeved shirt in your suitcase.
Something else to think about is that in the highlands generally, and especially if you are close to the water, there are many mosquitos. And I mean a lot. The staff at the Mystic River Resort work preventively to minimize the number of these nasty beasts and actually, they don’t come in great numbers here. However, when we visited the Big Rock Falls in Blancaneaux (keep reading for more) and walked through the woods to get there, there were so many mosquitos it was unbearable.
In fact, we first meant to book at the Francis Ford Coppolas Blancaneaux Resort which is close by, but fell for the Mystic River Resort and did not regret it.
The stables and the horses at the Mystic River Resort
Hike in the jungle
There are several hiking trails to choose from and it is really easy to follow the track and there are signs everywhere so you won’t get lost. And, you might get lucky and get a glimpse of a cougar, ocelot or a jaguar. Actually just kidding, it is not dangerous but you never know.
Canoeing along the Macal River
The Macal River is 320 km long and runs through the entire Cayo district.
The two-hour canoe ride on the Macal River to the nearby village San Ignacio feels like a real adventure and is truly a memorable moment. It is so exciting to glide slowly through the jungle, to be in the middle of the beautiful rainforest and watch the birds living in it. You might even see some Howler Monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
You have arrived to the destination!
San Ignacio is a nice small village and well worth a visit. Stroll around, soak up the atmosphere, visit the local market and sit down at the Guava Limb Café (79 Burns Ave) for some Gado Gado prepared Belizian style.
Big Rock Falls
We sat down in a mega four-wheeler one day and headed towards the Big Rock Falls at full speed. The falls are located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and to get there you walk through a magical pine forest for about 20 minutes and descend a few steep steps down to a beautiful oasis with a waterfall and a pool you can plunge into.
Or you can just soak up the sun on the cliffs and enjoy life.
On your way, don’t miss the hard working ants aka leafcutter ants (youtube), such interesting creatures marching in long lines with small green leaves on their backs. They are so beautiful!
Maya in Belize
Belize is called the cradle of the Mayan civilization (as well as the cradle of chocolate).
Archeologic finds show that the Maya Indians lived here already around 2500 (BC).
The Mayan civilization reached its peak AD 300 and 900 – during this period there were more than one million Maya living in various city-states and kingdoms in Belize – the country had thus more inhabitants then than today.
They built great temples and pyramids, developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing.
In the 11th century, the Mayan culture started to dissolve. The Spanish conquistadors who came to Belize in the 16th century forced the Maya to convert to Christianity. The blooming Mayan era was over.
The rich cultural heritage thrives on in Belize, especially through Mayan descendants who make up approximately 11 % of the Belize population. Today’s Maya are aware of democratic processes and value education highly while wanting to preserve their traditions at the same time.
The giant limestone cave Actun Tunichil Muknan tops National Geographics list of the ten most interesting sacred caves in the world. The cave is approximately five kilometers long and has several amazing cathedral-like halls with a roof filled with limestone stalactites. There is just one word to describe to whole thing: Magical!
Archeological finds show that the ATM cave was probably a sacrificial site. Ceramic jars with holes on the bottom and other Mayan objects have also been found, indicating that they were used in religious ceremonies. C. 1,6 kilometers into the cave you will find the “Crystal maiden” – an intact skeleton of a 18-year old woman who is believed to have been sacrificed to the gods.
Actun Tunichil Muknan is in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. To get to the cave you follow a jungle trail that crosses rivers; after a c. 45 minutes hike you glimpse a tiny lagoon and an opening to the cave a bit further away.
You then throw yourself into the water with your clothes and shoes on and start swimming towards the cave opening while you hear screaming coming out of the cave – if you think Indiana Jones was exciting you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Once inside the cave you either wade or swim to get further and further in. You crawl through narrow passages and climb steep stone steps up (well, steps might be an overstatement) to get to all the small halls where you see traces of the Mayans.
To take the trip you have to be in a relatively good shape and – most likely – not claustrophobic. I tend to panic in confined spaces and didn’t actually think I could enter but believe it or not, once you get over your first fears you kind of forget that you are in a cave. It is so huge and it gets bright because people are wearing headlights.
Back where you started outside the cave, you devour the packed lunch and don’t even notice that your wet T-shirt sticks to your skin and that your pants are dripping. You are euphoric and completely satisfied.
Bring change and a towel, maybe a swimsuit and another pair of shoes so that you can change into dry ones afterwards. Just keep in mind that there is no storage so whatever you take with you will have to leave behind a bush unprotected. In addition, you may not bring your camera inside the cave.
Don’t miss Actun Tunichil Muknan for anything in the world, I have never, ever experienced anything like this and it is absolutely the coolest thing I have ever done in my whole life.
Xunantunich and Cahal Pech
We were supposed to visit Caracol – the largest ancient Maya archeological site in Belize – but it had been raining so much that it was not possible to drive there. It is just one of those things you have to take into consideration when you visit Central America, but then again, it is the charm of it all.
Xunantunich ceremonial centre consists of six large plazas surrounded by huge temples and pyramids. Xunantunich means “stone woman” and it is said that there is a beautiful, young woman, all dressed in white, lingering around the area.
Xunantunich was the place where the Mayan nobility resided and it was also a ceremonial center for religious rites. The peasants cultivated land on the outskirts of the city. Xunantunich was abandoned in the 11th century AD.
El Castillo is the highest pyramid in Xunantunich, rising 40 meters above the sea level. El Castillo’s stucco represents astronomical figures such as the sun god, the moon and the planet Venus.
Those who don’t have a fear of heights have a fantastic view at the top of the El Castillo.
The ball game Pok a Tok was played everywhere. The game had a great symbolic value and described the battle between the sun and the moon and the stars, i.e., the battle of light and darkness, the good and the evil.
It is believed that the game was similar to volleyball, the players trying to keep the big, hard rubber ball up in the air as long as possible.
The game was dangerous, of course, because the ball weighed up to 3,5 kg and when it hit a player at high speed it caused a lot of damage. If Pok a Tok was played in conjunction with religious rites, the losing team was sacrificed to gods.
in San Ignacio was built around 1200 (BC) and is the oldest Mayan archeological site in Belize. Cahal Pech was more like a residential area where people worked and lived.
Both Cahal Pech and Xanantunich are well worth a visit.
- Formerly known as British Honduras. Belize was a British colony till 1973 but didn’t become independent until 1981. Belize is a member of the commonwealth realm and has Elizabeth II as the head of state. She is represented by a Belizian Governor-General.
- Inhabitants: 387 879 (2017)
- Currency: Belizian dollar (BZD). USD is accepted almost everywhere as well as credit cards. You will find plenty of ATMs in cities and in Ambergris Caye.
- Temperature: Rainy season between May and November. The best time to go is from the end of November till April when temperature rises to 28 celsius during the day. The temperature in the Higlands is a little lower.
- Language: English, Spanish, Belizian Creole, Maya.
- Time zone: UTC/GMT -6 hrs
- Belize has the second-largest coral reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef). The coral grows only c. 5 cm a year – be sure not to harm it.
- Shopping: Not so much.
- Mennonites. There are a few Mennonite communities in Belize you can visit, inter alia, in the Spanish Lookout. The Mennonites are known for their old-fashioned lifestyle and they have their own church, school, financial institutions and agriculture. You see men driving horse-drawn buggies wearing an overall and women performing household chores wearing long dresses with aprons and hats.
- The jaguar is the largest cat in Western Hemisphere and is a regular in the lowland woods and the coast. She hunts during the night so if you are interested in making her acquaintance plan a trip into the forest after sunset.
- Conch is served in almost every restaurant and at least I didn’t know what it was before. It is the sea snale that resides in the large sized, beautiful shells you want to bring home with you. I did not try, however, my husband did and he was not too impressed.
- Skip Belize City. Generally speaking, it is quite safe in Belize but not in the biggest city in Belize, especially certain areas. I remember while we were waiting our ferry to leave for Ambergris Caye I wanted to explore and photograph the area but was adviced not to do so. Be sure to lock the car doors if you are driving in the area.