Belmopan was established as the capital of the country in 1970. After Hurricane Hattie destroyed government buildings in Belize City, the capital was relocated on safer grounds inland. It was designed from its inception to become the country’s center; however it never quite caught on and Belize City continues to be the hub of culture and commerce. Driving around Ring Road (a large traffic circle) will take you past most of the capital, including Independence Plaza (a complex of government buildings) and Market Square (the local market). Most travelers simply pass through this area of the country on their way west or south. However, the ecological diversity of the surrounding landscape is what makes central Belize appealing. It forms a biological corridor, termed the Sibun River Watershed, where the Maya Mountains transition into the open coastal planes. These links are important because they connect different ecosystems forming one continuous territory. It harbors 8 protected reserves as well as an extensive underground cave system. There is enough to see and do to merit a 2 or 3 day stop-over during your travels.
Heading towards Belmopan along the Western Highway, you will pass several sights worth exploring. The Belize Zoo is nestled on 29 acres of tropical savanna and exhibits over 125 native animals. It has also been acclaimed internationally for its educational programs and conservation efforts. The Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary covers 1,070 acres of tropical forest, riverine and savanna habitats. It is an environmental education center that offers many field courses in forest, watershed, marine and intercultural ecology. Their popular “Path of the Rain God” course follows water from its origin as rain on the peaks of the Maya Mountains all the way through the land and into the sea and barrier reef. Up ahead, near the “T” junction with the Hummingbird Highway is the Guanacaste National Park. The guanacaste tree, for which the park is named, is more than 25 feet in diameter and host to over 35 species of flora, including orchids, bromeliads and ferns. Nestled along the Belize River is the Banana Bank Lodge. There is no better place to enjoy horseback riding, with one of the best equestrian centers in the country. Miles of jungle trails will take you under dense jungle canopies, along riverbanks and past wildlife. Nearby is the only mainland golf course, Roaring Creek, a well-maintained 9 hole 1,909 yard par 32 course good for a few rounds.
Moving past Belmopan on the Hummingbird Highway will take you into the eastern edges of the Maya Mountains. Easily one of the most scenic roads in the country, it etches through rolling hills and broadleaf jungles. Just off the road is the Blue Hole National Park (the other Blue Hole is on Lighthouse Reef Atoll). Encompassing 575 acres, it gets its name from a collapsed sinkhole fed by an underground tributary of the Sibun River. Also within the park is St. Herman’s Cave with a massive 200 foot entrance. In fact, the entire area is a labyrinth of underground caves and rivers. They range from large cathedral-like chambers to narrow passageways. Many of them have Mayan artifacts, who used them extensively for rituals. The Ian Anderson Jungle Lodge, nestled along the Caves Branch River, is surrounded by 58,000 acres of private estate with 68 known caves. The ever popular “cave tubing” tour follows a river as it heads underground through some of these caves. Actun Lock Tunich (better known as the Black Hole) is a sinkhole that drops 300 feet to the forest-covered basin below. Repelling down the vertical wall is quite an experience. One of the most amazing caves in this area is Actun Tunichil Muknal. It’s geology is fascinating as you hike through water, echoing chambers and climb up ledges. It also is packed with tons of Mayan artifacts including hundreds of ceramic vessels and also skeletons from sacrficial victims. Also in this area is the Indian Creek Trail which can be explored on foot or kayak in 3 days. It’s a beautiful trail passing through amazing jungle rich in wildlife and also several caves.