Pocket-sized Belize may be small in area (second only to El Salvador among Central American nations) but it’s big on adventure. Whether you wish to be Indiana Jones for a day and explore mysterious ancient sites or strap into a fast-paced zipline harness to get your heart racing, the Cayo District is Belize’s undisputed inland adventure hotspot.

A group prepares to enter Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave © Alex Robinson / Getty Images
A group prepares to enter Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave © Alex Robinson / Getty Images

If you can drag yourself away from the reef and the dazzling cayes off Belize’s Caribbean coast, Cayo District rewards you with the opportunity to delve deep into the ‘Wild West’ –  a world of subterranean caves, Maya ruins and jungle adventures, all of which can be explored on foot, horseback, zipline or kayak. Adventure activities in Belize are well organized and some – such as the main caves – can only be visited by guided tour. The best place to base yourself for Cayo excursions is San Ignacio, a vibrant little traveler town not far from the Guatemala border. For activities further east, try the national capital of Belmopan or places along the Hummingbird Highway.

Jungle hiking

Cayo’s lush jungles, low-lying mountains and ecofriendly protected areas are perfect for hiking. Although there are lots of easily accessible short walks from San Ignacio or Belmopan, you’ll need a guide for longer treks to ensure you don’t get lost; plus, they’re adept at pointing out abundant birdlife and jungle critters. Near Belmopan and the Hummingbird Hwy there are excellent short walks at tiny Guanacaste National Park and Blue Hole National Park, where a trail connects St Herman’s Cave and the namesake blue hole. You can explore further into the Maya Mountains and learn jungle survival skills on a multiday trek with experienced guide Marcos Cucul.

The Mountain Pine Ridge area near San Ignacio is a few degrees cooler than the humid lowlands and offers some excellent hikes to waterfalls and caves; highlights include long-drop Thousand Foot Falls, and Rio on Pools, where you can take a dip in a series of waterfall-fed swimming holes.

Rio on Pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge © Gavin Hellier and Robert Harding / Getty Images
Rio on Pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge © Gavin Hellier and Robert Harding / Getty Images

Accessed from the Southern Hwy (and technically located in Stann Creek District), Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary has some superb hikes where you can spot elusive jaguars, tapirs, black howler monkeys and some 290 species of birds.

Caving

Cayo is justifiably renowned for its caves, most of which are formed by underground river systems. Many of these caves have cultural and spiritual significance to the ancient Maya people and it’s for this reason (as well as public safety) that most caves can only be visited with a licensed guide.

Among the most spectacular caving experiences is three-mile-long Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre – which takes you deep into the underworld that the ancient Maya knew as Xibalba. During the full day of exploration you’ll squeeze through blackened holes past walls of calcite flowstone and Maya artifacts, and ultimately arrive at the calcified skeleton of the cave’s namesake ‘Crystal Maiden’.

Not far away, Barton Creek Cave offers an opportunity for underground canoeing as the creek flows right through it. Inside are more Maya artifacts, ceramics and bones.

Closer to Belmopan, the flooded caverns of the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve are popular for cave tubing and kayaking, where you float through darkened caves on an inflatable rubber tube. It’s a bit busy these days – mainly because it’s close enough to Belize City for cruise ship passengers to make a day trip – and tubes are tethered together for safety, but it’s still a beautiful, calming experience. For more adventure, hire a guide and explore deeper into the cave system: the ultimate is the Crystal Cave, with its spectacular limestone formations.

A group of adventure tourists traversing four caves by raft and kayak on Caves Branch River © Henri Georgi / Getty Images
Groups can raft or kayak through the flooded caves of Caves Branch River © Henri Georgi / Getty Images

Ziplining

Flying over the jungle canopy on a zipline is practically an art form in Belize, and Cayo is the best place to do it. Timber platforms are built at varying heights in the treetops and courses have up to nine lines, some stretching over 200 ft. There are two main set-ups: at Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch National Park where Vitalino Reyes is one of the original operators; and at Calico Jack’s near San Ignacio, where adrenaline junkies can add a jungle swing over a canyon.

Horseback riding

There are few better ways of exploring the jungles, riverbanks and Maya mountains than on horseback. Luckily for lovers of the graceful equines, Cayo is well set up for horseback riding regardless of your experience. In the Mountain Pine Ridge area near San Ignacio, Mountain Equestrian Trails is the premier operator where you can saddle up for half or full day rides, but the big news for horseback riders are the five and seven-day mountain and jungle riding packages, featuring birdwatching and Maya ruins and staying at the remote ecolodge.

Central America, Belize, Mountain Pine Ridge, tourists and guide on horseback at Mountain Equestrian Trails © Alex Robinson / Getty Images
Visitors explore the Cayo countryside on horseback with Mountain Equestrian Trails © Alex Robinson / Getty Images

Across the Belize River from Belmopan, Banana Bank Lodge has a stable of more than 100 well cared-for horses. It’s a lovely laid-back retreat with quirky rooms, cabanas and professionally led riding and jungle adventure tours.

Maya ruins

While the majority of indigenous Maya in Belize today live in the Toledo district of Southern Belize, the best reminders of the ancient Maya civilization are here in Cayo. At the top of the heap is Caracol, looming out of remote jungle, a stunning ancient city that many regard as more impressive than Guatemala's famed Tikal. The ruins were first uncovered in 1937 and archaeologists believe it might have once been home to 150,000 people. It’s a rugged 52-mile 4WD convoy journey here from San Ignacio; local tour operators make the trip daily.

The impressive Maya ruins at Caracol © Patrick Endres / Design Pics / Getty Images
The impressive Maya ruins at Caracol © Patrick Endres / Design Pics / Getty Images

More accessible, but equally beguiling, Xunantunich dates back to 700 AD and is notable for the striking friezes wrapped around the main structure, El Castillo. The site is reached via a hand-cranked ferry across the Belize River from the village of San Jose Succotz.

Practicalities

Best Places to Stay

Cayo District is well known for its upscale mountain resorts and ecolodges, but there are some good budget options around too. The best urban base is San Ignacio, where you’ll find a wide range of good value accommodation.

T.R.E.E.S On the Hummingbird Highway, this is a research station and ecofriendly lodge where guests can do field courses, guided activities and yoga.

Trek Stop Backpacker-friendly cabins close to Xunantunich.

Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge On a 90-sq-mile private estate with an incredible range of jungle and caving activities, this is upmarket jungle lodging at its best.

Black Rock Lodge Stunning ecolodge in a remote location on the Macal River.

Lodge at Chaa Creek Tropical gardens, beautifully kept thatched cottages, infinity pool and hilltop spa – this is one for the romantics.

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