We had planned to go to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, but the flight logistics were horrendous, so it was quite late in the day that we discovered Belize. Flying into Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport, we picked up the world’s oldest 4×4 rental from Budget and headed west to the authentic town of San Ignacio. Based at the wonderful La Casa del Caballo Blanco eco-lodge (http://casacaballoblanco.com) we spent a couple of enthralling days exploring both the local town and the surrounding Mayan cultural sites of the Cayo District.
A scenically spectacular two-hour drive through the wild Chiquibul Forest brought us to Caracol (www.mayan-ruins.org/caracol/). Hidden deep in the jungle – right on the Guatemala border – lies the largest and most impressive Mayan site in all of Belize. Ancient Caracol was occupied as early as 1200 BC, but its greatest construction and development occurred during the Maya Classic period between 600 and 900 AD. At its peak, the sophisticated city was believed to house more than 200,000 residents in over 35,000 buildings. The most impressive structure is undoubtedly the Sky Palace – also known as ‘Caana’ – which also happens to be the tallest manmade structure in all of Belize!
Its off-the-beaten-track location meant that we had four hours roaming through an almost completely deserted Caracol; and the boys loved exploring the forgotten city and climbing the huge staircases of the impressive ruins. I can honestly say that Caracol was an experience that way exceeded my wildest expectations.
The second Mayan site we visited was Cahal Pech. Located on an imposing hill above the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, Cahal Pech was inhabited from 1000 B.C. to around 800 AD. Comprising 34 structures, including temple pyramids, two ball courts and an alter; the central part of the ruins affords visitors a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
We chose Xunantunich (shoo-nan-toon-ich) as our third and final Mayan cultural site to explore. After having the previous two sites all to ourselves, it came as quite a shock to have to share this place with lots of other tourists. Xunantunich means ‘maiden of the rock’ or ‘stone woman’ in Maya, and its location just a mile across the Mopan River from San Jose Succotz on the Western Highway means that it is far more accessible and consequently much busier than isolated Caracol.
Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial centre with six major plazas and more than 25 temples and palaces. The primary attraction is the main palace building with its astronomical carved frieze. At over 40 metres high, this is the second tallest temple in all of Belize and well worth a visit.
Find out more about the best Mayan cultural sites in Belize: https://www.belize.com/top-ten-maya-sites-in-belize/
After our cultural extravaganza, we drove the picturesque hummingbird highway to the coast, spending a couple of rainy days in Hopkins before moving on to Maya Beach Hotel in Placencia. The perfectly adequate hotel was in need of some maintenance and upkeep, but the attached bistro restaurant was excellent – if a little pricey.
The highlight of the south coast of Belize was a day spent scuba diving off the two tiny islands the make up the idyllic Silke Cayes – AKA Queen Cayes. This fifty metre long sand-spit has a few palm trees on one end, a white-sand beach at the other, and pristine reefs encircling this piece of paradise. Staghorn, fire and elkhorn corrals abound with steep walls dropping away into the deep blue beyond. Inquisitive nurse sharks and loggerhead turtles were highlights, along with a final snorkelling stop where fishermen clean their catch, attracting more sharks and rays than you could shake a stick at!
The final stop on our Belize sojourn was Caye Caulker (http://www.gocayecaulker.com). We traded our old 4×4 in for a water taxi and took the 45 minute boat ride out to this small Caribbean island. To the south is the island’s only settlement, Staying at self-catering Caye Reef (www.cayereef.com) on the northern side of Caye Caulker Village, we were only a few steps from the narrow channel called ‘the Split’ where the island’s best swimming spot is located. Caye Caulker was a very chilled little island with a great vibe, but it was the marine reserves and underwater world surrounding the island that stole the show.
An epic day of scuba diving saw me take a three-tank dive trip to the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Starting with the deepest of our dives, I was not disappointed by the much talked about Blue Hole, which proved much more than a bucket list dive. We dropped down to 42 metres and swam under an overhand, zigzagging between overhanging stalactites, while big Caribbean reef sharks circled just below. Nitrogen narcosis fuelled the surreal experience. The Blue Hole is not a reef dive and colours are limited, but it is an exciting and different underwater experience for more advanced divers.
Our second dive of the morning was at Half Moon Caye wall. Half Moon Caye is located at the southwest corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll and the wall disappears into an abyss. The wall and neighbouring reef are home to large numbers of jacks, groupers, snappers, hogfish, stingrays and garden eels. The visibility on this dive was sublime, and the Caribbean reef sharks were friendly which made for a highly memorable dive despite my dive buddy running out of air towards the end! We finished off with a final immersion at the Aquarium where we were accompanied by a giant green moray for most of the dive.
Our last day in Belize was spent with the Caye Caulker-based Stressless Eco Tours (https://www.stresslessecofriendlytours.com) enjoying a six-hour snorkelling smorgasbord where we got to sample all the best sites on the surrounding Belizean Barrier Reef. Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley were the pick of our snorkelling stops. My two little boys were amazing snorkelers and loved every minute in the water, chalking up quality sightings of over 20 nurse sharks, stingrays, an eagle ray, loggerhead turtle, barracuda, horse-eyed jacks, groupers and even a West Indian manatee!