The Caribbean coast of Belize is known the world over for its spectacular scuba diving and snorkeling. In addition to the 180-mile barrier reef just off the coast and the famous dive spot known as the Blue Hole, the Belizean coast features the backpacker paradise of Caye Caulker, the more upscale San Pedro, and the laid-back one-horse town of Hopkins in the south.
But there’s more to Belize than scuba diving, snorkeling, and catching rays on the beach. Belize, Central America’s only English-speaking country, also has plenty to offer in its often-overlooked western half, including waterfalls and caves that pepper the highlands, ancient Mayan ruins just begging to be explored, and even a pretty, backpacker-friendly town or two.
Here are five reasons you shouldn’t miss the Cayo District, which makes up most of Belize’s other side:
5. Big Rock Falls Located in the heart of the wonderful Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Big Rock Falls (pictured above) is a 150-foot waterfall surrounded by, you guessed it, some pretty big rocks. As nice as the waterfall is to look at, it’s exponentially more fun to climb up to the 35-foot-high perch next to the falls, work up your courage, and take the epic plunge. For the less adventurous, like, um, myself, swim hard against the current to reach the spot where the water comes crashing down on you. It feels like getting punched in the head over and over, but, you know, in a good way.
4. Xunantunich Reached by a ferry crossing about 7 miles west of San Ignacio, Xunantunich (shoo-nahn-too-nich) is the site of Belize’s most impressive Mayan ruins. Though Belize is not usually known for its ruins, Xunantunich stacks up against most other Central American ruins not named Tikal or Copán.
Dating from the as early as the Third Century, these ruins, especially the imposing El Castillo (pictured), are a great place to stop and explore on your way to Guatemala.
3. San Ignacio A town that serves as a jumping-off point for the four other places on this list, San Ignacio is a quiet, backpacker-friendly town that comes alive, just enough, at night. A welcome respite from chaotic Belize City, and a welcome jolt after the tiny, somnolent capital of Belmopan, San Ignacio is home to several affordable hostels and hotels, some imaginative restaurants, and the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech. If you’re spending time in Western Belize to explore the highlands or on your way to Guatemala, San Ignacio makes a worthwhile stop for a few days or more.
The best way to explore Western Belize, incidentally, is by renting an SUV in San Ignacio. The cost is about $60 per day, and the rental agency is located at… well, just ask around– there’s only one.
2. Rio on Pools Small waterfalls flowing over massive granite rocks create dozens of natural waterslides at Rio on Pools. Located about 20 miles southeast of San Ignacio in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Rio on Pools is a great place to swim, slide, or just take in the natural beauty that surrounds you.
Side note: Swimming at Rio on Pools brought my girlfriend and I a special bonus– our first ever experience with leeches. A little gross, to be sure, but great for bringing you and that special someone closer together– there’s nothing like picking leeches off someone’s butt to create a unique and long-lasting bond.
1. Actun Tunichil Muknal Just because you can’t pronounce it doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. The cave system at Actun Tunichil Muknal (mercifully known as the ATM Cave) is reached only after an hour-long nature hike which includes three stream crossings. The hike is worth it, though, for the chance to see what the cave has to offer: ancient burial chambers which display Mayan artifacts and the calcified remains of the dead.
In order to preserve the site, only a few tour operators are allowed to offer tours to the ATM Cave. Though the tour (which is required) is not cheap at around US$75 for a full-day, the ATM Cave is an absolute can’t-miss.
There’s so much more to see and do in Western Belize than what I’ve listed above. If you’ve got a suggestion, question, or idea of your own about what to do in Belize’s lesser-known side, please leave it in the Comments.