The Belizean jungle is rich with color and a haven for wildlife, including jaguar, puma, ocelot, tapir, a variety of monkeys and hundreds of bird species. The jungle is also home to 4,000 species of tropical flowers, including a wide variety of orchids.
We decided to spend a few days in the rainforest, which was filled with adventure that included caving, zip-lining and climbing Maya ruins. We planted ourselves at one of the country’s many jungle lodges, Banana Bank, which was in the middle of the rainforest just outside of Belmopan, Belize’s capital city.
Following each day of activities, we came back to a serene surrounding – Banana Bank is nestled on the river and equipped with an art museum and swimming pool. Plus there are lots of animals on the property – horses, parrots, a rescued jaguar, and of course, a few dogs and a cat. Each night, we enjoyed a delicious family style meal with the handful of other guests and spent the evening chatting about the various activities we each participated in.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves
The ATM cave is a famous Maya archaeological site that provides a glimpse into the Mayan underworld. The cave itself is several kilometers long with many chambers. It is like a natural museum, with the main chamber left intact, and filled with calcified skeletons, ceramics and stoneware left by the Maya.
We started the trip with a 45-minute hike through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, where we crossed the river three times to get to the cave entrance. Once we arrived at the cave, we swam through the first pool and then continued twisting and turning our way through the darkness of the cave.
The journey is gorgeous – when we pointed our headlamps along the cave walls, there were shimmering rock formations and thick calcium-carbonate stalactites dripping from the ceiling, sometimes creating columns with the stalagmites growing from the cave floor.
About an hour in, we climbed up a large rock and had arrived at the main chamber. At this point, we were asked to remove our shoes and continue through the chamber in our socks. Throughout the chamber, there are skeletal remains and pottery, but the most notable is the “The Crystal Maiden”, a fully intact skeleton of an 18-year old girl, possibly a sacrifice victim, whose bones are calcified to a sparkling, crystalized appearance.
Xunantunich Maya Ruins
After ferrying across the Mopan River on one of the country’s last two-hand cranked river ferries, we arrived at Xunantunich (Mayan for Maiden of the Rock).
Once a prosperous city state during the Classical Maya era, the site was home to 200,000 people. The center was composed of several major plazas surrounded by temples and palaces. It was abandoned by the Maya about a 1,000 years ago, and started excavation in the mid-1890s. The ruins are most famously known for El Castillo, the largest temple on the site, standing about 42 meters high, and on a clear day, offering a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the border of Guatemala.
This site was first settled between 1500 and 1000 BC during the Preclassic period, and the ceremonial center includes temples, palaces, and a ball court. It was a significant Mayan settlement for more than 2000 years, and while it hasn’t been fully excavated, it is interesting to visit given all the rooms that you can enter.
The zip line allows you to fly over the forest, soaring from tree to tree and getting a bird’s-eye view of the jungle. It was on the way to the airport, so a perfect way to fit in a little bit of adventure before leaving.
Sharon Matola arrived in Belize in 1982 to do a documentary film on the rainforest but stepped in when the project was stopped. Therefore, she ended up being left to care for 20 animals who were mostly tame. She decided the animals could be used in educating the Belizean people and started a zoo. The zoo now houses rescued animals and is dedicated to the conservation of the local wildlife.