Two distinct parts; a distinct Belize: On the flipside of our glorious four days on Belize’s Half Moon Caye, another four glorious days unfolded in its hinterland, with its tumbling waterfalls, dramatic Mayan ruins and wild jungles. Who knows? It’s the kind of place where you might end up going beyond what you thought or could do.
To celebrate my husband Dean’s 60th birthdaye birthday, we booked an active vacation with REI Vacations. The first half of the itinerary gave us a taste of Belizean island life and the last half the mountainous and Maya-rich district of Cayo in the hinterland.
Before I go too far down the road, I want to start with the adventure folks. It all depends on the company you keep.
Note: REI Vacations no longer offers trips to Belize, but you can use these ideas to travel alone or with another outfitter.
1. Be led by the guide of all guides
On these types of trips, the guide can make it or break it. Our lead guide, named Israel, demonstrated his love of Belize, nature, wildlife, culture, history, and outdoor skills at every turn. Prior to earning his tour guide license, he worked with the Belize Audubon Society, served as a nature preserve ranger, and was part of the Belize Search and Rescue Organization. It all adds up to a guide perfectly suited to his role. He was an inexhaustible source of knowledge, humor, ambition and patience. Surely it added to the adventure as much as anything we have done or seen.
Pro tip: Language is not an obstacle since English is the official language of Belize. Belizean Creole is widely spoken; Israel spoke both fluently.
2. Go “All In” with our fellow adventurers
People who take adventure vacations — like spending a week rafting the Grand Canyon or hiking a river in Japan — are a unique breed, and we were in good company on this trip.
Our group was small but fiery! We were joined by a couple in their 60s from California (this was their ninth REI vacation), another from Poland and Jamaica, and the third couple – a father-son combo (son was 16) from Connecticut. These people were marathon runners and experienced divers, made careers in law and architecture, and traveled the world. I loved the father-son couple; they were “all in” on every ounce of adventure offered by the trip.
3. The “Belizian Massage” (from Belize City to Cayo District)
Our adventure began during the van transfer from Belize City to our accommodation at the Hidden Valley Inn. The roads got more and more primitive as we drove the two and a half hours, eventually scrambling and weaving our way over red, rocky clay they call roads. Israel laughed and hoped we enjoyed our “Belizian massage”. No additional cost!
4. Hike through the jungles of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
With Israel and a second guide, Rudy, we explored some of the 90 miles of trails inside the beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Cayo District, Belize’s largest and oldest park. There’s something for everyone: red earth, sandy areas, Caribbean pines, granite outcrops, cascading waterfalls, limestone caves and sinkholes, rolling grasslands and lush rainforest.
Pro tip: Sunscreen and insect repellent are essential in the jungle. Don’t leave without them.
5. Observe the giant trees of Ceiba
When Israel suggested a group photo, we were overshadowed by a ceiba tree (I believe it’s also called kapok), one of the tallest trees in the American tropics. Some can reach up to 200 feet! In the Mayan culture, the ceiba was a versatile tree and a spiritual pillar which they called Waca Chan“the tree of life.”
6. Spot howler monkeys
What was that spooky, almost prehistoric roar? A cacophony of howls, thanks to howler monkeys! Israel told us that on bad days they started throwing things at tourists. At least we didn’t have that problem!
7. Termite tasting — literally!
Among Israel’s many accomplishments, he received extensive training in wilderness survival. He constantly gave us plants to touch, smell and taste. When he approached a large termite mound, said they were edible, and demonstrated it by eating them, we believed him. At his invitation, some believed him more than others and also tried them!
8. Carry a big machete (or at least be guided by someone who is)
Every time we hiked our guides carried machetes. Hailing from Belize, they knew it was essential equipment, as commonplace as us grabbing our cell phones before leaving the house. What exactly do these wild jungles contain? I was wondering. All I could think was, “Speak softly and carry a big machete.”
9. Explore Caracol, the largest Mayan ruin site in Belize
We hiked to the impressive Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize. Located on the Vaca Plateau in the Maya Mountains near the Guatemalan border, its 75 square miles are said to have housed nearly 200,000 residents. We spent half a day here, walking around and climbing the ruins. The largest ruin, Sky Palace, is the tallest man-made structure in Belize and rises approximately 140 feet above the settlement.
Pro tip: You can visit Caracol all year round, but make sure you have a reliable guide and/or vehicle to get you there.
10. Mountain Biking in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve
Our adventure included a 10 mile ride on 21 speed mountain bikes. It wasn’t far, but it was rigorous and demanding. The terrain was rocky red dirt, loose sand and congested roads with what they called “hills” but what I will call rather steep inclines and descents.
11. Swim in the pools of Butterfly Falls
Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know. Butterfly Falls is located inside the Mountain Pine Ridge Public Forest Preserve, but the falls themselves are located on private property operated by the Hidden Valley Inn. Luckily, that’s where we were staying!
The 80-foot-high Butterfly Falls plunge into a magnificent pool that attracts butterflies, including the Blue Morpho. Looks like a movie set! We walked about half an hour to swim in the waterfall pool. The water was perfect; the area was secluded and lush.
12. Explore the cave and pools of Rio Frio
About 3 miles from Butterfly Falls is a cave and waterfall in the public portion of the preserve.
Rio Frio Cave
If you stand in the middle of this half-mile-long cave, you can see the two openings marked by 65-foot arches. Like all good caves, it features giant boulders and large stalactites. A river runs through it, adding reflection and beauty everywhere you look.
Rio on the pools
After exploring the cave, we headed to Rio on Pools, a wide, shallow stream tumbling over large, largely flat granite boulders as it headed downstream. Dean worked up the courage to get in the water and float downstream. The rocks were extremely slippery so caution is advised.
Pro tip: Due to fast moving water and underwater holes, this area is not recommended for children or inexperienced swimmers.
13. Enjoy luxury at the Hidden Valley Inn
The Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve is nestled within the 7,200 acres of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve. It has comfortable lounges with stone fireplaces, a terraced bathing area and lush green gardens. The birds started singing around 5am every morning, a beautiful sound for a Minnesotan in April!
When we entered our cottage (one of 12) we saw fresh flower petals on the bed and in the bathroom and a vase of fresh flowers on the fireplace mantle. The cottages are perfect places to relax as there are no televisions. There is also no air conditioning, but the average year-round temperature is 73°F.
Pro tip: Another reason to love this place: due to the elevation of the hostel, there are hardly any mosquitoes.
This resort offered delicious food, expertly prepared. Dinner started with an amuse-bouche (literally, “mouth to amuse”), and moved on to homemade soup and freshly baked bread. Entrees can be chosen from three, including chicken, duck, seafood, pasta, vegetarian, Mediterranean, etc. Finally, we enjoyed heavenly desserts including a creamy cheesecake with a “veil” filling of spun and caramelized sugar – completely edible and beautiful!
Somewhere during our trip through Belize’s outback, we saw a sign that said “Do not go beyond.” Of course, there was a dangerous fall, so it was there for safety. I don’t think their little fence would do much good!
But sometimes it’s fun, and good for us, to go beyond that. To take advantage of this unique period of pre-retirement or retirement and try new things. Things that might be outside of our comfort zones. So go ahead, go beyond. These amazing outdoor adventures in beautiful Belize are a great place to start!
Pro tip: Traveling to Belize is like traveling to any US destination on Central Standard Time (CST); Belize follows CST year-round and does not observe daylight saving time.