Belizeans from western Belize are fond of boasting that “the west is best!” And they sure have a lot to be proud about. Besides being home to the nation’s Capital, the City of Belmopan, the Cayo District, covering some two thousand square miles of verdant landscape, has some of the most scenic attractions in the country. You will find clear, meandering rivers, lush jungles, green hillsides, thundering waterfalls, huge cave systems, two of the most important Mayan ruins in the country, and a pine ridge forest just waiting for you to explore and experience. It’s rich with wildlife and a favored destination for eco tourists.
The Cayo district is the Belizean frontier (you’ll be able to do more horseback riding than in any other part of the country). It is reached via the Western Highway , which begins on the outskirts of Belize City at the intersection of Central American Boulevard and Cemetery Road. A one-hour drive from Belize City gets you to Belmopan , where the downtown market area is a pulsating, thriving hub with bus terminal and taxi stands offering connections to every part of Belize. Located in this area are the Belize Bank, The Bank of Nova Scotia and Heritage Bank, formerly RBC First Caribbean Bank, restaurants, fast food and snack shops, the central produce market, internet cafes and shops.
On your way from Belmopan to San Ignacio, you will pass the entrance to the modern-day Mennonite settlement of Spanish Lookout. If you want to get a look at what may appear to be a neat town in mid America. The run into Spanish Lookout is but 15 minutes from the highway. Spanish Lookout is a thriving agriculture community with two big supermarkets, major grain production and storage facilities, mechanical and milling facilities, pre-fabricated home factories and several hardware stores.
Both English and Spanish are widely spoken in Cayo, which is home to large populations of Latinos, Creoles, Chinese, Lebanese, Guatemalans, Mennonites and Mayas. As with almost every town here, smaller groups of all other ethnic groups live there, like the Garifuna and East Indians. It is the country’s second largest district, with a population of some sixty thousand people.
West of Belmopan, the highway begins to climb out of the valley and the air gets noticeably cooler. It is a beautiful drive along rolling green countryside dotted with small, picturesque villages, with intriguing names such as Ontario, Tea Kettle, Central Farm and Esperanza (Hope), and, as you get further west, large tracts of cultivated farmland, many of which belong to the Mennonite community. You will also see fields of cattle grazing and several orange orchards. The Cayo District provides most of the livestock, poultry and grain consumed here.
Seventy-two miles from Belize city are the twin towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio , separated by the Macal River and crossed via the country’s ‘s only suspension bridge, the Hawksworth Bridge. A new two lane concrete bridge is now finished a mile downriver. Several bus companies make return trips to San Ignacio and Santa Elena. The area is the gateway to the western border and surrounded by several villages. Saturdays will find the twin towns area bustling with shoppers and visitors. The area is very popular with tourists and you can find many hotels, guest houses and backpacker hostels. The towns have an excellent nightlife, stores, restaurants and cafes and is a staging ground for those planning to visit Tikal and other areas in Guatemala. An airstrip is located at Central Farm not far from San Ignacio and Santa Elena and this in itself has become a small tourist stop for those wishing to view the area by regular small aircraft or ultra lights.
About twelve miles further West you will find the Maya Village of Succotz with easy access to the impressive Xunantunich Maya ruin. On your way west, the ferry to cross the river going to Xunantunich is on the right. Succotz is a quiet village with not much to do, but it has a couple restaurants that serve typical Yucatec-Maya cuisine. Another three miles or so you are in Benque Viejo del Carmen town practically within walking distance of Belize’s western border with Guatemala at Melchor de Mencos. Benque is very easy going as most folks going in that direction are headed to or returning from Guatemala. Both Succotz and Benque make up for their staid atmosphere by hosting annual summer fairs that attract thousands of visitors from all over the country.
Things To Do Around San Ignacio and Santa Elena
Cradled in a valley carved by the Macal and Mopan rivers the sister towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena combine to form the country’s second largest population center. Drivers arrive at San Ignacio on the Western Highway 70 miles from Belize City in approximately 90 minutes. Towering over the Macal River, the colonial era Hawksworth Bridge is a one-lane suspension bridge built in 1949 and carries traffic east from Santa Elena to San Ignacio. Video above is of the very popular San Ian Ignacio Market Day that attracts lots of local, expats and tourists on weekends.
Benque Viejo del Carmen, a mestizo village two miles shy of the Guatemalan border, comes alive during its July fiesta, which honors the village’s patron saint with shows, food, and games. On Good Friday, Christians from around the country come for the dramatic Passion of Christ procession. More annual events include the San Ignacio Easter Fair, the San Jose Succotz Festival in March, and Cayo Expo in May.
San Ignacio visitors can actually walk to the impressive Maya site of Cahal Pech. But it is a hard walk uphill. Perched atop a hill just a mile from town, it rewards the 15-minute hike with a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley. A museum and visitors center displays Maya artifacts, open 8 am. to 5 p.m.
Bullet Tree Road leads to the 100 acre, archaeological reserve of El Pilar, which means “Water Basin” the site of an annual celebration of Maya culture each April. Hike or ride horseback to a pair of fascinating sinkholes. Resorts on the Benque Viejo Road, offers guided night jungle walks to observe nocturnal plants and animals. Maya guides demonstrate how sap is extracted from the sapodilla tree, source of chicle.
The grand Maya city of Xunantunich,which means “Maiden of the Rock” towers 130 feet tall, eight miles west of San Ignacio. Fit climbers reach the top of El Castillo, adorned by an impressive architectural frieze, for a sweeping view of Cayo to the east and Guatemala to the west. To reach Xunantunich from the village of San Jose Succotz, a hand-cranked ferry carries vehicles across the Mopan River. The archaeological site has a refreshment stand, gift shop, and visitor center, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To see remains of the first Spanish mission in Belize, take Chial Road (off Western Highway mile 75) to Negroman and the overgrown site of Tipu. At the end of the road at Black Rock River, a leisurely 40 minute hike past interesting black slate formations and 800 foot cliffs ends up at Vaca Falls. Spelunking expeditions combine history and adventure for healthy hikers with professional guides and the right equipment. Che Chem Ha Cave (Chumpiate Cave), in the Vaca Plateau area, houses one of the largest caches of intact pots in the ancient Maya world. Go on horseback to discover more pots, tools, and burial sites at nearby Flour Camp Cave (U’chen Tzub). The nearby Waterhole Cavern (Actun Chapat), harbors rare bats.
Cayo Is Expat Friendly
The Cayo District is where you will find the highest concentration of expats outside of the Corozal and Ambergris Caye areas. Cayo has a lower cost of living compared to the pricey island life of Ambergris Caye by far. And many more open spaces suitable for farming, constructing a dream retirement home and access by road to all areas of Belize including the fabulous Peten and Livingston departments of neighboring Guatemala. The district lends itself to many activities you cannot find on an island – golf and horseback riding for example.
There is a small golf course located near Belmopan that is under constant development by golf fanatics and has even begun to host tournaments with competitors from Central America. Pebble Beach it is not but it will fuel your thirst for golf.
The Cayo District is also home to the two universities, the University of Belize, and the privately held Galen University affiliated with U.S. based Indianapolis university.