Belize is well known for its barrier reef, and as a diving–beach–fishing holiday destination. Yet, few people realize that mainland Belize offers a vast array of natural habitats, from lagoon, marsh and savannah, to jungle and rainforest…each being home to myriad species of birds and wildlife, as well as human cultures. Eventually, as weary divers ventured inland for a brief change of scenery, tourism discovered this remarkable experience, and now the Cayo District has rapidly become one of the country’s most popular destinations.
Most will agree that although each district has its own charms, Cayo stands out above the others. With an area of over 2000 square miles, it is the largest and the most diverse region of Belize, rich in history, culture and nature. The land begins with green, rolling hills and farmland in the north, and gradually builds up to the crest of the Maya Mountains along its southern perimeter. Though our “official” language is English, the peoples of Belize speak Creole, Spanish, Chinese, German, and three dialects of the Mayan language, in addition to European and central Asian languages. The cultures of the Belize include the modern day Maya, descendants of the original inhabitants of this land, Mestizo people (many immigrants from throughout Central America), Orthodox and Progressive Mennonites, Creole and Garifuna of African descent, many families of Lebanese origin, as well as peoples of India, China, Taiwan…and the list grows.
Among the assets of the Cayo are the fabulous Maya ruins of Caracol, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, El Pilar, Buena Vista and Pacbitun, just to name a few. Presently, over 600 ancient Maya sites have been identified in Belize, with a major portion of them in the Cayo District. If you like to kick old rocks, this is your “cup o’ tea.” Another bonus, is Cayo’s close proximity to the grand ancient city of Tikal, in Guatemala–an easy day trip from your resort.
Belizean caves, some newly discovered, provide real “Indiana Jones” adventure. Most of the Cayo sits atop vast limestone deposits, which have produced quite a collection of caves. Some are dry caves in the hills, others have rivers and streams flowing through them.
The cave of Chechem Hah, located a few miles south of Benque Viejo del Carmen, was recently stumbled upon by two farmers while following their dog, who was giving chase to a gibnut (a small rodent). They found the entrance to a large cave system used by the ancient Maya, and the floor was littered with large, thousand-year old clay pots that were likely used for ceremonial purposes. Some present day Maya consider this cave especially significant with respect to their heritage.
Another popular excursion is Barton Creek Cave, located in the region of Belize’s Orthodox Mennonite community. The tall, narrow channels of this cave are navigated by canoe. As you drift slowly through the darkness, your guide will relate tales of the ancient Maya’s use of caves, and point out unique geological features.
One would be remiss not to mention the clear rivers that cascade through the Cayo. These river habitats are home to numerous species of birds and wildlife. Along the Mopan, near Benque Viejo, you will see the descendants of the Maya still doing their washing on stones that have been worn smooth over the years. Some of the best canoeing and kayaking in Belize is done on the Mopan and the Macal rivers, which join together just below San Ignacio to form the mighty Belize River. Observant kayakers/canoeists will see kingfishers, herons and hawks; many iguana and even a possible glimpse of a monkey or two!
With over 500 species of birds in Belize, many can be spotted at one time or another in Cayo. You don’t have to be a dedicated “birder” to be thrilled at your first sighting of the Keel-billed Toucan (our national bird) free and wild. A good day’s birding will include such beauties as the Emerald Toucanet, the Vermilion Flycatcher and the Blue-grey Tanager. And it’s wonderful to see parrots in their natural habitat. We always say “you don’t need an alarm clock in Belize-the birds wake you up!”
One surprise about the western Cayo is the relative absence of mosquitoes. Some lodges do not even have screens on the windows. (Although, I’ve always thought screens were a good idea, just in case a stray mozzie may have hitched a ride up from one of the other districts.) Another surprise is the climate. While it can be quite warm during the day, the evenings are cool and you will often pull up a blanket during the night, especially in winter.
There’s no question that Mainland Belize can offer visitors a magnificent adventure. Many are finding that her treasures are so rich and vast that the country merits at least two visits; one for diving, and a special trip just to enjoy the richness of inland experience. It goes without saying that you could spend your entire holiday in the Cayo District alone!