Occupying most of Belize’s western border with Guatemala, the districts of Cayo and Orange Walk are rich in biodiversity, archeology and culture.
The region was once the heart of the Maya civilization with more than 1,400 recorded sites, many of which are still hidden within the lush growth of the rainforest. Today the entire area is a model for conservation and sustainable tourism, attracting adventurers, naturalists and history buffs alike. Here, the melting pot of diverse cultures including Maya, Mennonite, Mestizo, Chinese and Creole resonates in the traditions, celebrations, and certainly, in the uniquely delectable cuisine of this inland paradise.
The largest district in Belize, Cayo spans more than 2,000 square miles across diverse terrain – from rolling hills and sweeping farmland, to lush river valleys and rugged, jungle covered mountain ridges. Over 60% has been set aside as a Wildlife Sanctuary, National Park, or Forest Reserve. Jungle rivers, hidden waterfalls, mysterious caves, ancient Maya cities, majestic mountains and picturesque villages offer unique opportunities for soft to extreme exploration.
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve
Separated by the scenic Macal River and the tropical Vaca Plateau, the protected forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve conceal miles of nature trails, waterfalls and caves. Hike to the escarpment for a spectacular view of the valley and catch a glimpse of the elusive Orange-Breasted Falcon at the famous 1000 Foot Falls – one of the tallest in the Americas. Play and swim in the pristine Rio On Pools where the smooth granite boulders make natural water slides. Explore the yawning labyrinths of the Rio Frio Caves amid huge stalactites that hang from the massive cathedral-like vault.
Blue Hole National Park
Unique geological features are protected here within 575 acres of forest rich with wildlife. Swim in the sapphire pool at the cenote bottom at the Blue Hole, and follow an easy trail system leading to St. Herman’s Cave.
Journey back through time in the amazing realm of Belize’s cave networks, the most extensive in Central America. Discover the eerie Mayan underworld at Actun Tunichil Muknal (“ATM”), ranked the world’s #1 sacred cave site by the National Geographic Society. Enter the fascinating inner chamber with its sparkling stalactite and stalagmite formations and artifacts of ceramic, stone and skeletons, including “The Crystal Maiden.” Explore the cool, dark caverns of Barton Creek Cave, the scene of macabre ancient Mayan rituals. Float on inner tubes with only your head lamp to light the way in the massive underground system of the Caves Branch River, passing underground waterfalls and swirling around stalagmites jutting from below and stalactites looming from above.
The Orange Walk District is home to Belize’s largest private conservation reserve, Rio Bravo, and the largest contiguous forest north of the Amazon basin, “La Selva Maya.” The rich sights and sounds of nature abound here and along the winding route of the New River on the journey to the famous Mayan ruins of Lamanai. And, with over 400 species of birds recorded in this district, more than anywhere else in the country, Orange Walk is truly a birder’s utopia.
The Maya Heartland
With the greatest concentration of Maya sites in Central America, Belize is firmly established as central to the rise and prosperity of this ancient civilization. Highly evolved mathematicians, the Maya imbued their archaeology with fascinating symbolic meaning. Ceremonial temples, stately structures and fine artwork of jade, stone and clay testify to their incredibly advanced culture. Many spectacular sites have been excavated and are easily accessible for exploration:
Altun Ha : Water of the Rock
Despite its small size, Altun Ha was a major ceremonial center and important trading hub. Many valuable artifacts were uncovered here, including the famous “Jade Head” – the single largest jade object yet discovered in the Maya World.
Cahal PECH : Place of Ticks
Located in lush jungle in northwestern Cayo overlooking the Macal River, Cahal Pech offers visitors easy access to the remnants of a royal palace.
Caracol : The Snail
Caracol was the largest Maya center in Belize, greater in population, size and area than modern day Belize City. Here, the tallest pyramid in Belize rises 140 feet above the jungle floor.
El Pilar : Watering Basin
This huge ceremonial center features more than 25 plazas and hundreds of ancient structures, most of which are unexposed for conservation purposes.
Lamanai : Submerged Crocodile
Lamanai is known for having the longest history of continuous inhabitance in the Maya world. Monumental temples, palaces, and the well-preserved stela of a Maya ruler emerging from a crocodile headdress make Lamanai a major archaeological attraction.
Lubaantun : Place of Fallen Stones
Constructed of cut stones laid and fitted without mortar, Lubaantun was an important center of religious, ceremonial, political and cultural activity. The famous Crystal Skull, perfectly carved from a single quartz crystal, was discovered here.
Xunantunich : Maiden of the Rock
The journey to Xunantunich features passage across the scenic Mopan River via hand cranked ferry. Climb the spectacular 130-foot temple of “El Castillo” for breathtaking views of San Ignacio, Benque Viejo del Carmen and the Guatemalan countryside.