The Cayo District is home to a diverse group of people, from Creoles, Maya, and Mennonites to Lebanese, Chinese and Indian. It is also home to some of the most impressive Maya caves ever discovered, as well as two of Belize’s biggest Maya sites. Located in the western part of the country, it abuts Guatemala and has an area of over 2,000 square miles plus a population of about 91,000 people. Belize’s capital, Belmopan, is also in this district, as is the charming town of San Ignacio, which hosts one of if not the largest farmer’s markets in the country. There are plenty reasons to visit this Belize district, including its natural beauty, artifact-rich historical sites, and diverse communities. Here’s a list of 17 fun things to see and do in Cayo.
1. San Ignacio Market:
Likely the largest farmer’s market in Belize, this is a must-do for foodies. In addition to fresh local and organic produce you will also find vendors cooking traditional foods on-site. Go in the morning to truly experience the cultural and culinary diversity of Belize.
2. Cahal Pech Maya Ruins:
Settled around 1000 BC and abandoned by 800 AD, Cahal Pech consists of over 30 structures and seven plazas. Here, you will find 2 acres rich with Maya history. A royal burial chamber reveals beautiful and practical ornaments, weapons and pottery while temples, ballcourts, and residences give a glimpse into the lives of those who lived here.
3. Xunantunich Maya Ruins:
Located atop a ridge above the Mopan River, Xunantunich is an ancient archaeological site that was once the Maya Empire’s civic ceremonial center.
4. Green Iguana Conservation Project:
The Green Iguana Conservation Project collects and hatches iguana eggs and raises the reptiles until they can be released back into the wild. This conservation effort occurs on the grounds of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. The guided tour allows visitors to interact with the adorable and gentle iguanas, to learn about their life cycle, and to walk the nearby medicinal jungle trails.
5. Barton Creek Cave:
Visitors float through cathedral-like caverns while a guide slowly paddles them deeper into the earth. While the cave is over seven miles deep, tours typically turn around after a mile. However, that gives guests plenty of time to absorb its quiet beauty.
6. Caracol Maya Ruins:
Located within the heart of the rain forests of the Chiquibul Reserve, Caracol’s massive temples peek above the lush jungle canopy. This is the largest Maya city discovered in Belize. Here visitors can see intricately carved stelae, impressively tall towers and a variety of artifacts.
7. ATM Cave:
Considered a sacred space by the ancient Maya, this series of underground chambers is located in the heart of the jungles of Cayo. The Maya used these caverns for spiritual ceremonies, which included human sacrifice to the gods of the Maya underworld.
8. Canoeing on the Macal River:
Here you can slowly paddle downstream while learning about Belize’s diverse wildlife from a guide. You’ll see many creatures, such as the giant iguanas that gaze at you as you float past.
9. Pontoon Tour on Vaca Lake:
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Vaca Lake was created by the Vaca Dam. It’s a six-mile-long body of pristine water. The Pontoon boat allows you to relax and enjoy the colorful birds, monkeys, ocelots, crocodiles and other wildlife in the area. Most tours include a stop at one of the many waterfalls.
10. Birding at El Pilar Maya Ruins:
El Pilar is a 100-acre site that was occupied by the Maya from about 500 BC to 1000 AD. Today, its nature trails allow visitors to discover a variety of native birds. These include many types of falcons such as the Collared Falcon, Bat Falcon and Laughing Falcon as well as Black-crowned Tityras and Green-backed Sparrows. There are also woodpeckers, flycatchers, tanagers, and even hawks.
11. Tour the Spanish Lookout Mennonite Community:
Most of Belize’s Mennonites came here in the mid-20th century. They speak a version of German and maintain traditional ways. At Spanish Lookout you will be able to see their idyllic dairy farms and try some of the cheeses and other products they produce. While there are only a couple of thousand Mennonites in Spanish Lookout, they contribute greatly to the local culture.
12. Big Rock WaterFall:
Big Rock Falls is a magnificent 150-foot waterfall on the Privassion River. It’s located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve which was established in 1944. It covers an area of over 100,000 acres and is well worth a visit by nature lovers. In this enormous reserve, you will find Belize’s national animal, the Baird’s tapir, as well as coatis, ocelots, and perhaps even the elusive jaguar. There are many amphibian species such as the Maya Mountains frog and a variety of birds as well, such as the red-lored parrot and the keel-billed toucan.
13. Rio on Pools:
Also located within the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the Rio on Pools is an incredibly scenic spot. Its granite rocks and ledges form stunning waterfalls and charming fresh-water pools. Visitors can enjoy a swim in these hollows as well as relaxing on the river banks to enjoy a picnic.
14. Thousand Foot Falls:
At nearly 1,600 feet, this is the highest waterfall in Central America. Located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, it’s a marvelous location for taking pictures of the plummeting water and the beautiful mist that rises from the pool below. There are many benches in a viewing area for visitors to relax while they enjoy the falls, or they can hike down the mountain for a closer look.
15. Che Chem Ha Cave:
First discovered in 1989 by a local farmer and his dog, the Che Chem Ha Cave contains many ancient Maya artifacts including hundreds of pottery vessels. It was used for sacred Maya rituals from about 900 BC up to 850 AD. Visitors are only allowed to enter with a tour guide in order to protect this important archaeological site.
16. Belize Botanic Gardens:
This tour is a perfect introduction to the beauty of Belize. Here you will find more than 45 acres of native plants as well as a research center with imports such as mangosteen, litchi and rambutan. An inland lagoon features birds such as whistling ducks and herons and the Orchid House contains over 200 species of native orchids. These include the Black Orchid, which is Belize’s national flower. There are even opportunities to learn about ancient Maya medicine derived from native plants.
17. Chaa Creek Butterfly Farm and Natural History Museum:
The stunning Blue Morpho butterfly is a highlight of the Chaa Creek Butterfly Farm. These butterflies are known for their splendid iridescent wings. After learning about them and other native butterflies, visitors can go to the Natural History Museum where they can learn about Belize through the ages.
As you can see, there is more than enough to keep anyone intrigued and entertained in the beautiful Cayo District of Belize. Now is the time to schedule your visit to this delightful wonderland that was once the heart of the Maya Empire.
Featured Photo courtesy of San Ignacio Resort Hotel
Editor's Note: This article was first published on February 8th, 2021