photo of Cayo District

Palm trees in the Cayo District. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Cayo District

A visit to the Cayo District takes you into the heart of Belize's jungle. Covering some 2,000 square miles in western Belize, the Cayo's two major towns are San Ignacio in the west, about nine miles from the Guatemalan border, and Belmopan, the area's capital city, about 20 miles east of San Ignacio. The region is rich with mountains, rivers, rainforests, and Maya ruins.

The hilly, verdant terrain hides many caves, places where the Maya both stored goods and, likely, conducted ceremonies. According to Maya belief, caves served as links between the world of the living and the underworld.

On the Caves Branch River, near the Jaguar Paw Lodge and accessible from Belmopan, you float through caverns in an inner tube. The headlamps you wear for illumination make the crystal formations sparkle. At Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Company & Jungle Camp, the glide through the River of Caves swirls you through nearly seven miles of underground waterways (some hiking required).

At Barton Creek Cave, reached from San Ignacio, a guide paddles a canoe along the stream that winds through the 60- to 145-foot-tall cave; at times you have to lean back to glide below low overhangs. You'll see finely fluted stalactites and a ledge where archeologists found the skulls of babies, presumably sacrificed on the spot.

Along with offering excursions to Barton Creek Cave, the Lodge at Chaa Creek, a family-friendly Cayo resort, offers night birding hikes, horseback rides through the jungle, a Maya inspired Rainforest Medicine Trail, and day trips to the 300-square-mile Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Pine trees grow tall along the spine of the reserve's 3,400-foot-high ridge and waterfalls cascade down its cliffs. Hidden Valley Falls, the most famous, tumbles 1,000 feet. The gentle ripples in the Rio On Pools provide a great place to cool off.

From the Mountain Pine Ridge in the dry season continue southwest to Caracol, the largest known Maya site in Belize. In the rainy season the roads may be impassable. Still under excavation, Caracol features several plazas and two ball courts. Caana, or Sky Palace, the center's largest pyramid, rises 143 feet above the jungle, making it the tallest man-made structure in Belize.

Xunantunich, or "Stone Woman," about eight miles west of San Ignacio, is another impressive Mayan site with six plazas and more than 25 palaces and temples, including El Castillo (the castle), a towering 130 feet high.

Tip: Book a guided excursion to Xunantunich both to learn more about the site and to avoid the one-mile walk from the ferry to the site.

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