Galloping along Central American mountain trails, accompanied only by the thrum of hooves and the occasional flash of a toucan among the trees, might just be one of the world’s top ways to start your morning. But incredibly, in lovely, lush Belize, where eco-slanted adventure travel is king, the day gets even better from here.
This diminutive country of just 330,000 people and 8,800sq miles, sandwiched between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west, proves true the old adage that 'good things come in small packages'. And a stay at Mountain Equestrian Trails, with its hardy steeds, welcoming hosts and collection of cosy, kerosene-lit cabins tucked tight into the stunning rainforest of Belize’s mountainous western Cayo district, provides the perfect base from which to experience this little country’s manifold adventures.
Several hours southwest from the lodge, along heavily rutted roads and past remote Mennonite villages and tumbling waterfalls, are the lofty palaces and plazas of the ancient Mayan city of Caracol, close to the Guatemalan border. Perched high on the Vaca Plateau in the thick of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, this 3,000 year old, 80-sq-mile city is far less frequented than the famous Guatemalan ruins at Tikal. Once a huge city home to more than 100,000 people, Caracol now lies in spectacular mountain solitude, host to just a handful of hardy visitors every day. It is the perfect wish fulfilment for any budding Indiana Jones.
If going underground is more your style, strike out by kayak into the eerie, stalactite-filled caverns of the western Cayo’s Barton Creek river cave, an easy half-day’s journey from Mountain Equestrian Trails. Silent, dripping, illuminated only by flashlight, it is not hard to see why the ancient Mayans believed the cave to be a portal to the underworld, wherein resided Ah Puch, God of Death, a figure whom it was thought wise to appease. The immense cave still holds traces of such appeasement; the remains of at least 28 bodies have been found here and evidence of human sacrifice still exists in the form of the occasional skull tucked on a ledge high overhead.
For a thoroughly modern approach to this grizzly ancient history, however, head to the Caves Branch cave in the Nohoch Che’en Archeological Reserve, around 12 miles south of Belmopan, Belize’s tiny capital city, to sample the burgeoning sport of cave tubing. Here, float for seven miles through shady, relic-filled caverns wondering at the five million year-old crystal formations, or don a hard hat and harness and rappel into the inky depths of the reserve’s Actun Loch Tunich sink hole – both expeditions can be undertaken with the local Caves Branch Adventure Company.
Alternatively, hike, swim and spelunk your way into the heart of the four-mile-long, bat-filled Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, hidden deep within the stunning Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, near the pretty mountain town of San Ignacio. Also known as the 'Cave of the Stone Sepulcher', a journey into Actun Tunichil Muknal will eventually lead to 'the Cathedral', an immense subterranean cavern home to yet more Mayan sacrificial remains, including the 'Crystal Maiden', the skeleton of a teenage Mayan girl whose bones have calcified over the millennia to a crystalline gleam.
Next, head down the gorgeous, green Hummingbird Highway, to explore vast tracts of untouched rainforest. With more than 40% of the country designated as protected land, it is not hard to find a deserted forest trail just ripe for the hiking. Trek out to remote waterfalls at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve (whose shy four-legged inhabitants themselves stay well out of sight), watch for storks and kingfishers in the depths of the beautiful Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary further north, or take a boat trip past dozing crocodiles, to Mayan remains dating as far back as the 16th Century BC at Lamanai in the Orange Walk District.
Finally, go by boat from Belize City, the country’s largest city with a population of around 70,000, to the laid-back, ramshackle charms of Caye Caulker island. From here it is a short ride out to a plethora of pristine reefs, including the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the iconic, Unesco-rated Great Blue Hole underwater sinkhole. Here you can scuba or snorkel the day away in the company of stingrays, nurse sharks, grouper and technicolour tropical fish, before kicking back on deck with a local Belikin beer, as the sun sets on another perfect, adventurous Belizean day.