I have to say that Belize was a country that surprised us – in a very positive way. The main reason we went to Belize was for the diving (more about that in a coming post), but when I rummage through my memories and pictures, it is the experiences above the surface on the mainland that stands out. Maybe because we had no special expectations or maybe, simply, because mainland Belize really has a great deal to offer the nature lover?

Trip details

Destination: Mountain Pine Ridge, Cayo District, Belize, Central America.

Resort: Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve

When: 6 to 11 August 2011

 

Belize

Belize is a tiny country with a population of around 300,000 squeezed in between Mexico (to the north), Guatemala (west and south) and the Carribbean (east). At least to me, Belize was more well known for its water activities and beaches than for what it offers on the mainland. Mainland Belize offers some stunning scenery coupled with easy and deep access to the remnants of the ancient Maya culture. Distances are never very long in Belize and wherever you want to go, you can almost always reach your destination in one day by car. In this post, I will concentrate on our experiences in the Cayo District and in particular the Mountain Pine Ridge. In addition to the Mountain Pine Ridge, I will also describe two of the most appealing Mayan sites to visit in Belize – the city ruins of Caracol and the cave Actun Tunichil Muknal – both of which are also located in the Cayo District.

One not so positive thing is that Belize is pretty difficult to get to if you travel from Europe (from the US and Canada it is a lot easier). We needed a night’s layover in Miami both ways.

Mountain Pine Ridge

Located in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is a protected area. The reserves is full of little rivers, pools and waterfalls. The change from tropical rainforest to pines when you reach the foothills is quite dramatic and when hiking the reserve you experience this change whenever you climb down to a river (typically surrounded by the broadleaf tropical rainforest) or up again to the pines. The whole area is wild and serene and it is easy to get close to and immerse yourself in nature.

Thousand Foot Falls

Thousand Foot Falls

Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve

Our base for exploring the Cayo District and the Mountain Pine Ridge was the Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve. It was recommended in Lonely Planet. Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve has a private reserve of 7,290 acres with more than 90 miles of trails to explore. We couldn’t have been happier – it was perfect for us. The resort is very nice with comfortable spacious cabins nestled in a garden on top of a hill. The food was great and the staff was extremely helpful and eager to accommodate our wishes.

The main building and garden at Hidden Valley Inn

The main building and garden at Hidden Valley Inn

The reserve is home to a large number of animals and birds and is a favourite for birdwatchers. The elusive jaguar lives here (we didn’t see one). We did see Howler Monkeys, Toucans, Hummingbirds and the rare Stygian Owl. Most spectacular, however, was the pure nature scenery. Waterfalls, secret pools to swim in and great vistas. We spent three days exploring the reserve on our own, bringing just a small backpack with lunch, water and walkie talkies (for emergencies). I got so many beautiful pictures of waterfalls!

The Secret Pools

The Secret Pools

Our favourite spots along the Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve trails were:

  • Thousand Foot Falls – a truly majestic 1000 ft high waterfall.
  • Butterfly Falls – a smaller (but still stunning) waterfall with a nice swimming hole.
  • Secret Pools – a perfect place along a creek with a couple of very nice swimming pools and a small waterfall. Our favourite lunch spot in the reserve.

Caracol

Caracol was once one of the most powerful city states in the Mayan world. It was settled around 600 BC and had approximately 160,000 inhabitants at its peak around 600 AD. Along with the rest of the Mayan empire, it declined after 850 AD. The ruins were discovered by loggers in 1937.

Caracol - Royal family's compound

Caracol – Royal family’s compound

We spent one full day exploring the ruins of Caracol. Compared to many other (more famous) Mayan sites like Tikal (Guatemala) and Chichen Itza (Mexico), Caracol was pretty calm and peaceful. No hordes of tourists.

Caracol temple ruin

Caracol temple ruin

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)

Actun Tunichil Muknal (popularly abbreviated as ATM) is a cave system in the Cayo District. It is believed that the Mayans used the cave for offerings to the rain god in times of drought. The cave is named for its most famous remains – the calcite encrusted remains of a woman. Actun Tunichil Muknal means roughly “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher”.

The remains of a woman in the ATM cave

The remains of a woman in the ATM cave

The full day trip through the cave system was phenomenal. I really liked it. It takes a couple of hours to get into the main chamber. The ancient dwellings have the scattered remains of 22 people and lots of pottery. We thought that the trip was well worth to do and it is probably wise to do it before it gets more limited and protected. As it is right now, you really get close access to everything the cave system has to offer in terms of ancient remnants.

ATM entrance

ATM entrance

Summary

Belize is a great place to visit if you love nature and culture. While other countries in Central America (I am thinking of Costa Rica in particular) may offer better animal encounters, the varied scenery and flora of the Cayo District offers something unique and also offers something for example Costa Rica doesn’t – the multitude of remnants from the Maya culture. It is also very easy to combine beach life and mountain life since when you are in the country, it is quite easy to get around. We are very happy that we took a week to explore mainland Belize and would recommend anyone who goes there because of the diving or beach related activities not to forget the mainland.

Enjoy!