The Long Way to Monkey River

San Ignacio and the Mountain Pine Ridge

The only highway that heads south from Belize City is called the Western Highway, a two-hour drive that passes beautiful riverside towns and billowing Guanacaste trees on its way to the border with Guatemala. We are on our way to San Ignacio, a great place to make base camp and head out into subtropical rainforest littered with Mayan ruins.

But instead of opting for town, we turn left onto the Chiquibul Road, a rocky road winding through 300 square miles of an out-of-place ecosystem. The mountain pine ridge—named not for geology, but a forest type—is cooler than the rest of Belize, and it's perfect for camping. First, we get permission to camp from the Department of Forestry officials at the main park headquarters. They offer us a map and send us on our way.

The ridge is filled with cool rivers, waterfalls, and pools. The most famous river, the Río On, is a tributary of the larger Macal River. It winds its way around giant boulders, creating deep pools of pleasant cool water, just what we need before pitching our tents under the pines.

The largest ruins in Belize are called the Caracol Ruins. Getting there means three hours of laborious driving on Chiquibul Road, a pot-holed byway that slows us to a crawl for 46 miles after exiting the Western Highway. But it's worth it—the king of Caracol defeated the equally impressive city of Tikal, which is three hours into Guatemala from the Belize border. Seeing both is a great introduction to the vast and culturally curious Mayan world. Where else did people build civilizations in humid jungles, domesticate turkeys, build astronomical observatories from stone, and turn river passages into vast highways? And they did all this on their own. Old World civilizations had trade routes connecting each other, but the Central American Indians prospered, from 200 to 900 AD, completely alone.

Blue Hole National Park
The next day, we head east on the Western Highway, backtracking towards the capital, Belmopan (which replaced Belize City as the capital in order to protect the government infrastructure from possible hurricane destruction). There, we join the Southern Highway to Blue Hole National Park. With no camping facilities, the park offers a brief taste of jungle before we head farther south. Not to be confused with the more famous Blue Hole off the Belize coast, it takes its name from the sparkling freshwater pool at the edge of the jungle.

The trails in this park are all well maintained and easy to navigate. From the Blue Hole, the main trail snakes 1.5 miles toward giant St. Herman's Cave, a gaping hole in the earth that's hidden under dripping wet rainforest fauna. As we descend into the deepening darkness, we sense the reverential power of a cave used some two thousand years ago. Archaeologists, who have uncovered hundreds of clay pots here, theorize that the site was used by the Mayans to collect "virgin water."

Outside the cave, we join a steep trail flanked by vine-ensnared trees and ferns, and we wind our way slowly upward to a watchtower accessible by a series of ladders. Above the rainforest canopy, we can see hundreds of miles across Belize's rolling Maya Mountains, a dense carpet of jungle layers and patches of citrus farms.

Published: 16 May 2003 | Last Updated: 7 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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