[Editor’s note: Megan Wood was the first writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. Megan spent the spring in Belize, documenting traditions of the country’s diverse cultural groups. Each week, she reported on her experiences for Matador, her personal blog, and for other outlets.]
Guide 1: Cayo District
The landlocked Cayo District is located in western Belize and is best known for adventure travel.
I was in and out of Cayo several times during my three months in-country, doing the following: cave-tubing in the dark, canoeing down the pristine Macal to an outdoor market, climbing the tallest Maya ruins, having a stomach bug treated by a bush doctor, and galloping on horseback through the jungle.
Cayo is where I signed a death waiver, stayed in a hotel only accessible by crossing the Mopan River, and had a Maya abdominal massage. Just hearing the name gets my pulse racing, and not only because I met Josh Bernstein there.
What I’d do again
Starting from Chaa Creek Lodge, the San Ignacio outdoor market is only a six-mile paddle down the Macal River. There’s hardly any development on its banks and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife or jump in the river to cool off.
Once I arrived at the market, I stashed my paddle at a restaurant and had time to wander around sampling food and admiring handicrafts.
What I’d skip
Visiting Belmopan, the capital, is only advisable if you need to go to an embassy, transfer buses, or if you’re a Peace Corps volunteer with mail to pick up. Otherwise, there isn’t much to do or see in the city, which was built this far inland simply to avoid hurricane damage.
Where I slept
Cayo has some gorgeous and unique eco-lodges and resorts.
* Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch requires all guests to sign a death waiver at check-in. I wasn’t afraid I would die while cliff jumping into waterfalls or be bitten by one of the many venomous snakes on the property. But I did think climbing the 362 steps to my luxury treehouse suite (w/ private rooftop jacuzzi) would be the end of me. After four days I had killer calf muscles.
* Chaa Creek hasn’t stopped winning awards since it opened in 1981, including “Hotel of the Year” in 2011. I spent one night in an ecofriendly private tower, but what I really enjoyed was the less well-known luxury camping at Chaa Creek’s River Camp.
The camp has private cabins with gas lanterns, comfortable beds, and verandas with hammocks. Campers have access to everything guests at the hotel do: swimming pool, night hikes, butterfly farm, horseback riding, canoeing, and spa. I’d never received a pedicure while camping before and probably never will again.
* At Cahal Pech Village Resort in San Ignacio, I felt like part of the family — or at least an honorary staff member who wasn’t required to do anything. The property has traditional hotel rooms and comfortable Maya-style thatch houses, built into a hill for beautiful views. Cahal Pech set me up with dinner with a Maya family and a visit to the bush doctor.
* Benque Viejo Resort and Spa on the border of Guatemala is a new resort with one of the few hostel-style dorms in Cayo. My room had a balcony overlooking the river, but I didn’t spend much time indoors. The resort kept me busy — we explored two caves, drove to Caracol, watched belly dancers, visited an outdoor sculpture park, and I had a specialized massage using Maya techniques and a facial.
* Mopan River Resort in Benque Viejo del Carmen is only accessible by crossing the Mopan River, which is usually full of women washing clothes and children swimming. The resort is all-inclusive and each cabana has river views. The owners made sure I learned as much about the town as possible, with visits to the church, house of culture, and Xunantunich Maya site. I interviewed a local Mestizo storyteller, a recording studio owner, and saw how a corn mill operates. To top off all the hard work, I went cave tubing in the Cave Branch river and cave system.
What I ate
Most of my meals were eaten communally at the hotels themselves. I spent more time discussing strangers’ honeymoons than anyone probably should….
* Chinese food at Fortune Restaurant in Benque Viejo del Carmen – Why is it that the Chinese make the best fried chicken in Belize? $3.50USD buys three pieces of chicken, french fries, and a coke.
* A nightly rotation of gourmet cultural meals at Mopan River Resort – My favorite was the Belizean night with stew chicken and plantains.
* Delicious and extensive buffet, but terribly long community meals at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch – Most nights I felt like I was at a wedding where I didn’t know anyone.
* There is a very good restaurant and bar at Chaa Creek but the best food was served at the luxury river camp — three courses of homemade meals made by Senora Juarez. And freshly baked chocolate cake…at a campsite.
* Cahal Pech Hotel and Resort treated me like family, and I even got to eat the staff lunch: Big Ass Burritos. The dinner menu has a nice chicken curry.
* Greedy’s Bar and Restaurant in San Ignacio serves the best cheeseburger I had in Belize.
Most memorable moment
The Caracol Maya Site is only 50 miles from Benque Viejo, but most of the road is unpaved, bumpy, and through the bush. Add a Suzuki with clogged fuel injectors, two military checkpoints, and a fallen tree blocking the road and you’ve got an adventure. Did I mention the pouring rain?
A drive that should have taken a few hours ended up taking until dark, and some of it was done with the car in reverse. I’d do it again.
What Belize would like to promote
Cayo is full of caves, including the famous ATM and Che Chemhah caves. Some are so extensive they have lakes, sinkholes, and giant rooms inside of them.
Many were used by the ancient Maya as sacred spaces to perform rituals or as safe places to store grain. Maya artifacts are still being discovered. Today, visitors can tube through river cave systems, have picnics by candlelight, and even camp overnight.
What Belize would like to forget
The very well developed and large Maya site of Tikal is just across the Guatemala border.
What I wish I knew before I came
I wish I had known that Dr. Panti (deceased), a famous Maya healer and shaman, has a grandson living in San Antonio and practicing Maya medicine. He would have been an amazing person to meet.