Two distinct parts; one distinct Belize: On the flip side of our four glorious days on Belize’s Half Moon Caye sat another four glorious days in its up-country, with its rushing waterfalls, dramatic Mayan ruins, and wild jungles. Who knows? It’s the kind of place where you just might end up going beyond what you ever thought you would or could.
To celebrate my husband Dean’s 60th birthday, we booked an active vacation with REI Vacations. The first half of the itinerary gave us a taste of Belize’s island life and the last half, the mountainous, Mayan-rich Cayo District in the up-country.
Before we get too far down the road, I want to start with the people on the adventure. It’s all about the company you keep.
Note: REI Vacations no longer offers trips to Belize, but you could use these ideas for travel on your own or with another outfitter.
1. Being Led By The Guide Of All Guides
On these kinds of trips, the guide can make or break it. Our lead guide, named Israel, demonstrated his love of Belize, nature, wildlife, culture, history, and outdoor skills at every turn. Before licensing as a tour guide, he worked with the Belize Audubon Society, was a nature preserve warden, and was part of Belize’s search and rescue organization. All this adds up to a guide perfectly suited to his role. He was an unending source of knowledge, humor, ambition, and patience. Surely, he added to the adventure as much as anything we did or saw.
Pro Tip: Language is not a barrier since English is the official language of Belize. Belizian Creole is widely spoken; Israel spoke both fluently.
2. Going ‘All In’ With Our Fellow Adventurers
Our group was small but spirited! 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 pair — a father-son (son was age 16) combo from Connecticut. These people were marathon runners and experienced divers, held careers in law and architecture, and traveled the world. I loved the father-son pair; they were “all in” on every ounce of adventure the trip offered.
3. The “Belizean Massage’ (Belize City To The Cayo District)
Our adventure started in the passenger van transfer from Belize City to our lodging at the Hidden Valley Inn. The roads got more and more primitive as we drove the two-and-a-half hours, eventually jostling and bumping our way over rocky, red clay they call roads. Israel laughed and hoped we were enjoying our “Belizean massage.” No extra charge!
4. Hiking In The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve Jungles
With Israel and a second guide, Rudy, we explored some of the 90 miles of trails inside the Cayo District’s beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the largest and oldest of Belizean parklands. It has something for everyone: red earth, sandy areas, Caribbean pines, granite outcroppings, cascading waterfalls, limestone caves and sinkholes, rolling grasslands, and lush tropical rainforest.
Pro Tip: Sunscreen and bug spray are jungle essentials. Don’t leave home without them.
5. Witnessing Giant Ceiba Trees
When Israel suggested a group photo, we were dwarfed by a ceiba tree (I believe it’s also called a kapok tree), one of the largest trees in the American tropics. Some can grow up to 200 feet! In Mayan culture, the ceiba was a multi-purpose tree and a spiritual pillar they called Wacah Chan, “the tree of life.”
6. Spotting Howler Monkeys
What was that spooky, almost prehistoric, roaring? A cacophony of howling, courtesy of howler monkeys! Israel told us that on a bad day, they will take to throwing things at the tourists. At least we didn’t have that problem!
7. Tasting Termites — Literally!
Among Israel’s many accomplishments, he had extensive training in wilderness survival. He was constantly giving us plants to touch, smell, and taste. When he stepped up to a large termite mound, said they were edible, and demonstrated by eating some, we believed him. Upon his invitation, some believed him more than others and tried them, too!
8. Carrying A Big Machete (Or At Least Being Guided By Someone Who Is)
Whenever we hiked, our guides carried machetes. Native to Belize, they knew these was essential gear, as common to them as us grabbing our cell phones before we leave the house. What exactly do these wild jungles hold? I wondered. All I could think was, “Speak softly and carry a big machete.”
9. Exploring Caracol, The Largest Mayan Ruin Site In Belize
We hiked at the impressive Caracol, the largest Mayan site in Belize. Situated on the Vaca Plateau in the Maya Mountains near the Guatemalan Border, its 75 square miles are believed to have been home to almost 200,000 residents. We spent half a day here, walking around and climbing the ruins. The largest ruin, Sky Palace, is Belize’s tallest man-made structure and towers about 140 feet above the settlement.
Pro Tip: You can visit Caracol year-round but be sure to have a dependable tour guide and/or vehicle to get you there.
10. Mountain Biking In The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Our adventure included a 10-mile ride on 21-speed mountain bikes. It wasn’t far, but it was rigorous and challenging. The terrain was rocky red earth, loose sand, and packed roads with what they called “rolling hills,” but what I’ll call rather steep inclines and downhills.
11. Swimming In The Pools Of Butterfly Falls
Sometimes, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Butterfly Falls is located inside the public Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, but the falls themselves are located on private property operated by the Hidden Valley Inn. Fortunately, that’s where we were staying!
The 80-foot-high Butterfly Falls plunge into a gorgeous pool that attracts butterflies, including the Blue Morpho. It looks like a movie set! We hiked about half an hour to swim in the cascading pool. The water was perfect; the area was secluded and lush.
12. Exploring The Rio Frio Cave And Pools
About 3 miles from Butterfly Falls are a cave and waterfall in the public section of the reserve.
Rio Frio Cave
If you stand in the middle of this half-a-mile-long cave, you can see both 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 Pools
After cave exploration, we headed to Rio on Pools, a wide shallow stream tumbling over large, largely flat granite rocks as it made its way downstream. Dean was brave enough to get in the water and float downstream. The rocks were extremely slippery, so caution is essential.
Pro Tip: Due to fast-moving water and underwater holes, this area is not recommended for children or inexperienced swimmers.
13. Enjoying The Lap Of Luxury At Hidden Valley Inn
The Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve is nestled in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve’s 7,200 acres. It has comfortable lounges with stone hearths, a terraced swimming area, and verdant gardens. Birds started singing at about 5 o’clock every morning, a beautiful sound to a Minnesotan in April!
When we stepped into 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 mantel. The cottages are perfect places to relax because there are no TVs. There’s also no air conditioning, but the average temperature year-round is 73°F.
Pro Tip: Another reason to love this place: Due to the inn’s elevation, there are virtually no mosquitoes.
This resort had delicious food, expertly prepared. Dinner started with amuse-bouche (literally, “mouth amuser”), and moved to homemade soup and freshly baked bread. Entrees could be a choice of three, including chicken, duck, seafood, pasta, vegetarian, Mediterranean, and more. Lastly, we enjoyed heavenly desserts, including creamy cheesecake with a “veil” garnish of spun, caramelized sugar — completely edible and beautiful!
Somewhere along our journey in up-country Belize, we saw a sign that read “Don’t go beyond.” Of course, there was a dangerous drop-off, 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. To take this unique pre-retirement or retirement season of life and try new things. Things that might be outside our comfort zones. So go ahead, go beyond. These incredible outdoor adventures in beautiful Belize are a great place to start!
Pro Tip: Traveling to Belize is like traveling to any U.S. destination on Central Standard Time (CST); Belize follows CST all year and does not observe daylight saving time.