Exploring inland Belize

Inland Belize is where the adventurer in you comes to the fore. In the company of expert guides from local Maya and Mestizo communities, you sail along rivers where crocodiles lazily float to the ruins of long-lost civilisations poking out of the jungle, explore vast cave systems where sacrificial rites were once held, and wander trails through dense rainforest where elusive jaguars prowl in the shadows. You’ll stay in rainforest lodges that take care to reduce their environmental footprint, and visit wildlife sanctuaries helping to conserve some of Belize’s most endangered species.

Just a short journey west from Belize’s stunning Caribbean coastline with its cayes and coral reef, brings you to ancient Maya archaeological sites, busy local markets and a wealth of activities ranging from river tubing to zip lining. All set against a spectacular backdrop of mountains, rainforest and nature reserves.

Because you’re travelling inland with Maya and Mestizo guides, they can introduce you to their communities and centuries-old cultures as you go. “This is their land,” says Laurenne Mansbridge of our partner Pioneer Expeditions. “They are the masters of the jungle, with a wealth of knowledge of all things that live in the tropical rainforest. And one of the big highlights here is learning from them about the Maya gift to the world – chocolate!”

Where to go in inland Belize

The most significant inland areas include the Cayo District, where you’ll find Caracol and the Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves (immensely important due to their role in Maya ceremonial rites), plus the Orange Walk District. Here thick jungle and forests teeming with wildlife surround the enigmatic Maya site of Lamanai.

Culturally, perhaps the most interesting of all is the Toledo District, which is often described as the heartland of the country’s Maya community. This is the least-developed part of Belize and the Maya communities here usually practise traditional ways of life such as subsistence farming, tending small fields of crops such as cacao. Due to its remoteness and numerous protected nature reserves, Toledo is also a haven for bird watching.

But foreign investment into industries such as forestry is a developing threat to Toledo and there are growing calls for a sizeable territory to be protected, enabling people who have stewarded the land for thousands of years to continue doing so. Responsible tourism in this area can provide economic benefits to Maya communities without causing harm to the environment.
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What to do in inland Belize

Both small group and tailor made tours of Belize typically combine exploring inland with time relaxing on the coast. As Belize is such a small country, you can get from place to place quite quickly overland, or occasionally on a small plane (note: as of 2022 we no longer sell holidays that feature domestic jet flights shorter than one hour long).

You’ll stay in a succession of rainforest and river lodges chosen by our partners for their sustainability measures, such as using solar heating. These lodges also employ a lot of local people, so your holiday in inland Belize directly benefits areas and organisations such as wildlife reserves that depend on tourism. Accommodation is comfortable, although you don’t generally find the luxuries and conveniences that are more common on the coast.

Maya ruins

Belize is thought to have been the stronghold of Maya civilisation, which was at its height from around 250AD. And while there are many notable archaeological sites that inland tours visit, such as Xunantunich, Altun Ha and Caracol, it’s believed that hundreds more remain undiscovered, still hidden by jungle. Maya guides show you around ancient ruins once inhabited by their ancestors, sharing knowledge passed down between generations and showing you how to help preserve them, such as by not touching fragile structures and by sticking to designated paths.
Lamanai is a really exciting place to visit... you have to get a boat upriver through the jungle, which is an adventure in itself.
Xunantunich is one of the most accessible Maya sites, located close to the town of San Ignacio, a base for many adventurous outdoor pursuits. Xunantunich means ‘Maiden of the Rock’ – a modern name, related to beliefs that the site is haunted by a woman in white with glowing red eyes, who walks through a wall.

Further south, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, is the largest Maya site in Belize, Caracol. Some 180,000 people are thought to have lived here, and from atop the Caana (sky palace) you can enjoy panoramas across the surrounding rainforest canopy.

Close to the former capital, Belize City, are the ruins of Altun Ha, a compact site with pyramids and temples that is reached by a hand-winched ferry across the Mopan River. Climb the El Castillo pyramid for views of mountains to the south and the lowlands of Guatemala to the west.

Lamanai is a really exciting place to visit,” enthuses Carmel Hendry, from our partner Explore. “You have to get a boat upriver, which is an adventure in itself going past the jungle. Lamanai means submerged crocodile, and there are loads of carvings of crocs.”

The site is reached by rough trails and is yet to be properly cleared. The overgrown, mysterious ruins clad in humid air give off strong Indiana Jones vibes.

The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in the Cayo District is one of the best-known and most significant Maya archaeological sites – a vast underground labyrinth that holds many preserved artefacts and once served as a ceremonial burial chamber. A 45-minute hike through rainforest leads you to a subterranean maze of tunnels and chambers where skilled guides point out Maya pottery and skeletal remains.

Wildlife sanctuaries

Belize is ecologically diverse, although as an ecotourism destination it is not that well-known still; meaning far fewer visitors. Deforestation driven by logging and agriculture is a growing concern, however, and occurs even in protected areas, damaging valuable ecosystems and reducing wildlife habitats.

Our partners frequently visit wildlife reserves and sanctuaries on their inland Belize holidays, which helps fund these vital organisations and also financially benefits the communities around them, such as by using locally owned lodges and restaurants, encouraging interest in conservation.

The Crooked Tree Wildlife Reserve near Belize City is a major birding destination – a set of interconnected wetlands that can be explored by boat. Here, you might see kingfishers, vultures and the rare jabiru stork, the tallest flying bird in the Americas.

“It’s a community-protected area that trains young people to work as rangers,” says Carmel Hendry. “A few years ago it was flooded, and now visitor income is essential to rebuild flood protections and maintain the habitats. There has been some conflict with local villagers about the way it’s run, initiatives to control fishing, but generally most locals are invested in it and crucially lots of young people learn about it.”
The Community Baboon Sanctuary is amazing. Since its inception, howler monkey populations have increased in the range of 450 to 500 percent – a huge conservation win.
Another popular destination is the Community Baboon Sanctuary, which is spread across several Creole villages in the Belize River valley, and driven by a women’s conservation group. Emma Fry, founder of our partner Vegan Adventure Holidays, regularly brings her groups here.

“This place is amazing,” says Emma. “Since its inception, howler monkey populations have increased in the range of 450 to 500 percent – a huge conservation win.”

Funnily enough, there are no baboons in Belize. You’ll see black howler monkeys and cute capuchins in these forested corridors strung along the river instead, with seven villages pledged to preserve the habitat.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s first jaguar reserve, located in an undisturbed tract of tropical forest. Jaguars are now protected and no longer hunted, but they’re still wisely shy of humans and unlikely to be spotted. However, while tracking them here you might encounter wild pigs, white-tailed deer and tapirs – the national animal of Belize.
Belize is coral reefs, ruins and rainforest. Adventurous activities inland and relaxation on the coast afterwards.

Outdoor adventures

Walking along trails through the rainforest, often in the Maya Mountains, affords an introduction not only to the precious ecosystems at play, but also how they have fed into the culture and belief systems of the Maya people for centuries. So as well as leading the way and pointing out birds, reptiles and bugs as you trek, your guides will show you medicinal plants and herbs, and how communities in the forest hunt, farm and protect their homes.

The Orange Walk District is renowned as the best place in Belize for jaguar spotting, particularly in the pristine La Selva Maya region. Here, you can take hikes or cruises at dawn and sunset, when wildlife tends to be at its most active.

Close to San Ignacio, the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve is a paradise for adventurers – 100,000 acres of pine forest and wetlands teeming with wildlife.

“But you have to be an early riser to be in with a good chance of seeing things like the scarlet macaw, tapirs, ocelots and howler monkeys,” advises Emma. You can also ride horses and mountain bikes here.

“A canoe trip on the serene Macal River is a terrific experience and a good opportunity to spot wildlife,” says Laura Rendell-Dunn, from our partner Journey Latin America. “Birdlife and butterflies are particularly abundant, and there are numerous other rivers with plunging waterfalls and swimming holes to enjoy.”

Belize is reefs, ruins and rainforest. And it is adventurous activities inland and relaxation on the coast afterwards (although sea kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling certainly offer their own share of excitement).

Other popular activities included on tours that explore inland Belize include tubing along the river, abseiling down waterfalls, and zip lining, with a lot of the fun based in San Ignacio in the west, close to the ATM Caves and Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. San Ignacio also hosts a lively market on Saturdays, when people come down from villages on the hillsides to sell their wares, giving you a colourful cross-section of local produce.
The longest zip line in Belize is in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, close to the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve. It takes over two hours to complete.

“There are a mind-boggling 14 platforms connecting nine runs,” says Laura. “You glide through and above dense rainforest within touching distance of foliage populated with exotic birds and flowers. And unusually, there is the opportunity to ride at night with a head torch: a totally different experience where the jungle seems to come alive with bats, owls and kinkajou.”

Another major highlight of inland Belize is the chance to visit a small-scale, family-run chocolate manufacturer or a Maya cocoa farm. The Maya people consider chocolate a gift from the gods, and once you’ve had your fill of tastings, you’ll probably feel similar yourself.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Belize for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Belize Tourism Board] [Intro: Belize Tourism Board] [Maya ruins: Belize Tourism Board] [Wildlife sanctuaries: Belize Tourism Board] [Outdoor adventures: Belize Tourism Board] [Zipline: Belize Tourism Board]