San Ignacio – Cayo District

The Cayo district is the country’s most popular jungle destination, which is easy to understand when you consider its diverse jungle habitats and beautiful scenery, as well as the fact that it has the highest concentration of Mayan ruins and caves in the country. Jungle rivers like the Sibun, Mopan & Macal Rivers originate in the highalnds of the Maya Mountain Range which then merge into the rolling hills and open savanahs of the north. A myriad of old logging trails and new hiking trails wind through the jungle where you can enjoy a variety of plant and animal life. Dozens of waterfalls can be found in the steep river valleys of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. The karst limestone terraine is filled with intricate caves systems, many packed with Mayan artifacts as they used them extensively for sacred rituals. The largest Mayan ruin in Belize, Caraol, can be found in the lush jungles of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. The range of activities, sites and beautiful scenery of the Cayo district make spending a few nights in one of its many jungle lodges, well worth your while.

San Ignacio Town

The district capital is San Ignacio Town, which was originally named Cayo (“island” in Spanish), due to its location between the Mopan and Macal Rivers.  It is connected to its sister town of Santa Elena by the old Hawksworth Bridge, a one lane suspension bridge.  You’ll find a variety of guesthouses, cafes, giftshops and restaurants in this fun town. The main street, Burns Avenue, is always bustling with activity.  The hub of the area’s tourism, dozens of tours leave town each day to explore the nearby sites.

Many Sites & Attractions Around San Ignacio

There are many sights worth exploring around San Igancio. To the east you’ll find Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM for short), one of the country’s most spectacular caves and featured in National Geographic magazine.  The Crystal Maiden, the skeleton of a Maya sacrificial victim glimmering in calcite deposits, lays in one of its chambers.  To the west lays Xunantunich, one of the most impressive Maya ruins in the country.  Standing 135 feet atop the pyramid of El Castillo offers great views of the surrounding jungle.  The Mopan River which winds around this area is great for canoeing or kayaking to enjoy its scenery as well as the wildlife along its banks. Across the Guatemalan border is Tikal, one of the largest and most impressive ruins of the Maya world.  The steep hike to the top of Temple IV will put you 212 feet above the plaza overlooking the jungle canopy and the peaks of the other temples rising above it. To the north of San Ignacio you’ll find the town of Spanish Lookout, with a large Mennonite community. This unique cultural group, of German descent, have preserved many of their traditions and are also some of the best farmers in the country, producing a lot of its meat and dairy products. Nearby is the Aguate Lagoon a great wetland habitat for birding and viewing wildlife.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve

Heading south of San Ignacio town, will take you into the Maya Mountains and towards Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.  This 300-square mile reserve, established in 1944, harbors the only pine forest in Central America and some of its oldest geological formations.  Partially devastated by the pine bark beetle, a massive reforestation project is now restoring the pines.  There are many sights in the broadleaf forests before reaching the reserve’s entrance gates.  Mountain Equestrian Trails offers spectacular horseback rides with over 60 miles of trails.  Barton Creek is a cathedral-like wet cave explored by canoe.  Within the reserve itself you will find some of the country’s most upscale jungle lodges and many sights to explore.  Thousand Foot Falls drops over 1,000 feet into the river valley below and is the largest waterfall in Central America.  Along the Privason River you’ll find 2 popular waterfalls. First is the Big Rock Falls with empasis on the work “big”. Further downstream you’ll find a series of 5 waterfalls, appropriately named Five Sisters Falls. Situated on 7,200 acres of private property, Hidden Valley features over 90 miles of trails with waterfalls and healthy bird habitats.  The Rio On Pools is a series of pools and small waterfalls that is great for swimming and relaxing.  The Macal River marks the western and southern borders of this reserve. Along the upper Macal, you’ll find some of the country’s best white water rapids which make for an exciting kayaking trip.

Chiquibul Forest Reserve

Continuing past Mountain Pine Ridge you’ll enter the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. The abrupt change from pine to broadleaf forests is quite astonishing, literally from one side of the river valley to the other. The Chiquibul is one of the most remote areas of the Maya Mountains. It’s broadleafe forests are teeming with wildlife including howler monkeys and tapirs. The birding is also excellent and include sitings of the rare keel-billed motmot. This reserve is also home to the Chiquibul Cave System, one of the longest in Central America which stretches all the way into Guatemala. This cave systems was featured in National Geographic magazine. However, exploring these caves is not open to visitors as it’s not completely explored. However, the primary attraction of this area is Caraol, Belize’s largest Mayan city.  Standing atop Canna, the tallest pyramid of the site rising 135 feet above the plaza floor, will give you an amzing view over the jungle canopy. The military prowess of this ancient city is noteworthy, as hieroglyphs indicate a defeat of Tikal in AD 562.