Considering its small size, Belize must rate as one of the most geologically and culturally rich nations on the planet. From the sugarcane fields of Corozal and Orange Walk to the north, the dense rainforests and traditional Maya villages of the Toledo District to the south, the Caribbean Island feel of the east coast, Belize is a celebration of diversity. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the Cayo District, the Caribbean’s truly wild West.
As the largest district in Belize, Cayo is home to some 53,000 people and takes in more than 2,000 square miles (5180kms) of tropical forest, rolling hills, rich pasture land, vibrant rivers and an amazing assortment of Maya archaeological sites. The capital of Belmopan is the gateway to the Hummingbird Highway and Belize’s south, while further west San Ignacio is a one-of-a-kind border town with a unique mix of cultures, influenced by neighbouring Guatemala, but also home to a harmonious mixture of Creole ,Maya ,Mestizo, Garifuna, Chinese, East Indian, European and other ethnic groups.
Known as the breadbasket of Belize, Cayo produces much of the country’s dairy, meat and agricultural products, from the traditional citrus, bananas, maize and vegetables, to newcomers such as mozzarella cheese and pastrami. The Mennonite farming community of Spanish Lookout supplies an abundance of poultry and other produce, and the many small family farms keep local markets and shops supplied.
However, eco-tourism is now a mainstay of the economy, and Cayo is slowly becoming one of the Caribbean/Central American region’s most vibrant tourism destinations.
And no wonder – Belize’s Cayo District contains a trove of attractions and adventures to suit any traveller’s interests and budget.
We began our Cayo adventure with a lazy drive down the Western Highway from Belize International Airport through small villages as we went from coastal mangrove flats to palmetto fringed savannah and then, with the Maya Mountains as a backdrop, through more fertile lands supporting farms and livestock.
The 70 mile drive went quickly, and soon enough we were passing over the historic Hawksworth Bridge linking Santa Elena with San Ignacio Town across the Macal River.
San Ignacio is surrounded by lush broadleaf jungle and rolling hills. What’s not so apparent is that this jungle is sitting on the limestone remains of ancient coral reefs uplifted from the nearby Caribbean Sea millions of years ago. This limestone foundation gives Cayo its unique geological characteristics, and due to millennia of fresh water erosion houses the incredible network of sinkholes and caves that feature so prominently in Maya cosmology and religious belief.
Like most of Belize, Cayo is filled with surprises and unique attractions. For me, it was the Maya Archaeological Sites. In one day we took in three very different but equally amazing sites – beautiful Xunanthunich, with its impressive pyramid temple and views, the royal palace of Cahal Pech, just on the outskirts of San Ignacio, and then spent the afternoon up in the higher altitudes of Mountain Pine Ridge and the sprawling remnants of Caracol, an ancient metropolis covering over 55 sq miles in theChiquibul National Park. The crown jewel of ancient Maya cities, Tikal, was another very pleasant day trip over the border in Guatemala.
The warm weather had us gravitate towards the water, and canoeing down the Macal River from the Lodge at Chaa Creek to San Ignacio town, with a picnic lunch and swimming along the way fit the bill nicely. The birding was fantastic, with parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, kingfishers and dozens of colourful creatures we didn’t recognise. We saw plenty of iguanas and are told that the jungles along the banks contain monkeys, peccary, deer, armadillos and several kinds of cat, including jaguars. For me, it was a lovely mix of the wild and the peaceful.
The four days of the inland portion of our surf and turf holiday at Chaa Creek went very quickly. An unexpected discovery was the Sacred Maya Caves of the Cayo District. Actun Tunichil Muknal, the cave of the Crystal Maiden was simply mind-blowing with its huge cathedral and abundance of Maya artefacts scattered throughout. Barton Creek, Chechem Hah, and wide open Rio Frio were all delightful discoveries.
If you’ve hired a car, which is relatively cheap and easy to do in Belize, a pleasant day can be spent just day tripping around Cayo, and there are enough interesting local resorts, hotels and restaurants around to ensure you’re refreshed and never go hungry. From our base at Chaa Creek we drove up to duPlooys, to wander through its Belize Botanic Gardens, and back up to Mountain Pine Ridge for a swim in the lovely Rio On pools with a stop for drinks and pizza at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge. Throughout the four days we enjoyed horseback riding, canoeing, mountain biking, hiking, swimming and a veritable feast of activities without ever feeling overwhelmed.
Laid back Belize is that kind of place.
Combined with our time on the beautiful Barrier Reef, I can’t think of any Caribbean destination that comes close to Belize for sheer diversity of landscape and experiences. And the Cayo District is a huge part of what makes this unique little country so special.