Day 1: Mountain Pine Ridge
The Belizean district of Cayo is an expansive highland stretch of the tiny country’s most rugged and isolated terrain. This largely undiscovered inland landscape, bordering Guatemala’s El Petén Department, is a vast backcountry of rainforest, rivers, waterfalls, cave systems, ranches and Maya ruins. You won’t find any sparkling white sand beaches here, but the opportunity to explore more than 2,000 square miles of pristine natural landscape draws the most adventurous and intrepid travelers to brave the untamed frontier by bike and horseback, via canoe, raft or kayak, by aerial walk and zip line and even on foot. Although the Belizean capital of Belmopan is located here, the funky Colonial city of San Ignacio is the true regional hub with its uber hip shopping, dining and nightlife.
One attraction not to miss while in the Cayo is the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, which you’ll call home base during the jungle-based portion of your surf and turf adventure. Once an abandoned jungle lodge, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola uncovered and restored a once forgotten property in the early ‘80s as a private family home. The original Coppola property in Belize, today the Blancaneaux Lodge is an eco-luxury retreat situated in a wild mountain setting with 20 thatch roofed cabanas of unparalleled luxury. Dotted amongst finely manicured gardens overlooking a river valley from atop a cliff, the one and two-bedroom cabanas are furnished and decorated with local textiles and woods. Although all rooms are lovely, we recommend the luxury cabanas, family cabana, two-bedroom villa, Enchanted Cottage or even the family’s own villa for VIP clients. Luxury cabanas have their own private plunge pools and outdoor showers. There is no air conditioning on the property but ceiling fans ensure a comfortable night’s sleep thanks to the high elevation. The Blancaneaux includes an on-site bar and restaurant, as well as a hot tub, freshwater swimming pool and spa.
Today, you’ll arrive in Belize and check into Blancaneaux Lodge following a private transfer from Belize City to the hotel (private transfer at your discretion; may incur additional fee).
Day 2: Caracol & Rio Frio Cave and Pools OR Xunantunich & Botanical Gardens
After an energizing breakfast at Blancaneaux Lodge, you can choose from one of two archeological adventures, including Caracol or Xunantunich. If Caracol and Rio Frio Cave sounds invigorating, you’ll be greeted by our guides to begin the journey to San Antonio Maya Village and the surrounding subtropical rainforest. Here, you’ll get to know a bit about the Mestizo (a combination of Maya and Spanish) way of life and culture. San Antonio is a famous village containing residents from two tribes, the Mopan and Yucatec Maya, most well-known as the home of one of the last practicing shamans in Belize.
From San Antonio, we’ll begin the journey to the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve— a 106,000-acre protected national park where signs of the disastrous timber industry of the 1950s through the 1970s and pine beetle infestation in the late ‘90s still are prevalent. Reforestation programs are in place today, and your guides will discuss the area’s rich and storied history as the landscape changes from natural pine forest to tropical rainforest entering the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.
Approximately an hour outside of Pine Ridge, the breathtaking Maya site of Caracol appears on the horizon. Caracol (or “snail”) is the biggest Mayan archeological site in Belize, boasting more than 35,000 building, including an astronomical observatory, five plazas and a massive pyramid, and spanning 30 square miles of jungle. Originally called Oxwitza or “sky place” by the ancient Maya, it’s easy to see how the site got its name when you stand at the base of Caana, which rises more than 140 feet from the jungle floor. You’ll get a private guided tour with picnic lunch and entrance fees included.
On the way back to Blancaneaux Lodge, we’ll stop to explore the captivating Rio Frio Cave and then press on to the Rio On Pools, where you’ll finish the day with a relaxing dip in the crystal clear restorative waters of the many languid pools of varying sizes, depths and accessibility.
If you’d prefer to experience an excursion where getting there is part of the fun, you’re in for a treat as we head to the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich before strolling through the 45-acre Belize Botanical Gardens— there is even a hand-crank ferry crossing at the Mopan River along the way.
Once we arrive at Xunantunich or “stone woman,” you’ll find this enchanting terminal classic Maya site to be small yet exceedingly picturesque. You’ll take an informative privately guided tour and enjoy stunning views of the encircling rainforest from the top of the imposing main temple, where you’ll also likely notice that the Mopan River is only a stone’s throw away, as is the Belize-Guatemala border. Be sure to ask your guide to tell you the story of the site’s name (if you’re in the mood for a ghost story, that is). Lunch is served at a nearby rainforest lodge.
Next, a visit to the Belize Botanical Gardens will have you lost in the wonderment and amazing biodiversity of Belizean flora. Here, on the banks of the Macal River surrounded by the Maya Mountain foothills, exotic native plants are showcased to visitors as part informational resource and part conservatory. One visit to this place of unrivaled beauty, and you’ll be inspired to help protect native species and habitats.
All equipment, admission fees and a picnic lunch are included.
Day 3: Mountain Pine Forest Region Free Day
We know our guides have kept you pretty busy to this point, so you may be in the mood to simply lounge around the lodge or you may be invigorated to keep exploring the surrounding jungle from your Blancaneaux home base.
If kicking back for a bit of R&R with friends and family sounds tempting, you can relax in the screened-in porches or take a nap in a comfy hammock or venture onto the well-manicured lodge grounds to enjoy the on-site Waterfall Spa on the banks of the Privassion Creek, the freshwater infinity pool, the hot tub or one of any number deep water swimming holes near the lodge. Even simply grabbing a delectable bite at the poolside restaurant or a cocktail at the Jaguar Bar is an exercise in finding your zen.
For those who can’t wait to get out into the dense jungle for more adventure, the rainforest really can be your playground. Choose from hiking, biking, birding, horseback riding, night treks and more— all of which leave right from the grounds of Blancaneaux.
Day 4: ATM Cave OR Barton Creek & Butterfly Farm
It’s your last day in the jungle before heading to the islands, so you can choose whether you’re up for an archeology and adventure day at one of the most impressive caves in Central America or a more relaxing culture day touring a local Mennonite community and butterfly sanctuary:
If a bit of archeology and adventure gets your motor running, a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) Cave is a world class experience. Globally celebrated as one of the most formidable cave systems in the Mayan lowlands, ATM is nestled in the heart of the rainforest and requires a nearly hour-long trek through the dense Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve jungle and three stream crossings to access. ATM was a sacred site where the ancient Maya held sacrificial ceremonies in the large central cathedral, which can only be accessed via a series of smaller chambers. A living museum of great cultural significance, ATM will give you the chance to imagine what life may have been like during the classic Maya period through witnessing firsthand artifacts in their original context. All required equipment and a picnic lunch is provided on this tour, but you should make note that swimming and climbing is required on this excursion, and you will spend roughly three hours in the cave system itself.
If something a bit lower key sounds more up your alley, select the tour to Barton Creek and the magnificent butterfly farm. Your guide will pick you up from the Lodge before making the first stop at the butterfly farm in Green Hills. Here, you’ll enjoy learning about native Belizean butterflies. From the butterfly farm, we’ll travel through the Mennonite community at Barton Creek before landing at Barton Creek proper for the Barton Creek Cave canoe tour. In comparison to the ATM tour, this tour is low intensity and appropriate for most everyone, including families. Known as Xibalba (or “underworld”), this cave system features magnificent stalagmites, stalactites and calcite crystal formations, as well as archeological magnitude as a burial and ceremonial site for the ancient Maya. All required equipment and a picnic lunch is provided on this tour.
Day 5: Belize City & Ambergris Caye
We know from experience you won’t want to leave just yet, but this will be your last morning in the beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge region of the Cayo District. After your last hours in the Belizean jungle at Blancaneaux Lodge, we’ll transfer to the Belize airport for a quick puddle jumper out to San Pedro and Ambergris Caye— but we’ve got a little extra time, so why not make a stop along the way?!
Launched in 1983 as a do-or-die effort to give former animal film stars a permanent home, the Belize Zoo is a great way to get an introduction to the native animals of Belize— some of which you may already have seen in the Cayo. Today, the 29-acre zoo exhibits more than 125 native animals in a tropical savannah setting, where visitors can get an up-close understanding of the importance of wildlife protection and habitat conservation. All animals at the Belize Zoo were either born at the zoo, orphaned, rehabilitated or sent as gifts from either zoos and institutions.
After your trip to the Belize Zoo, we’ll head for the airport to catch the midday flight to Ambergris Caye. The largest of all the Belizean islands, this popular destination for snorkeling, diving, fishing, kayaking, windsurfing and sailing runs parallel to the second longest barrier reef in the world. But, it wasn’t that very long ago, the island was an undiscovered hideaway where only daring divers and researchers ventured. San Pedro is a formerly sleepy fishing village and the only town on Ambergris Caye. Its sandy waterfront street is lined with hotels, tiki bars, restaurants, art galleries, dive shops and golf carts (the island’s only motorized form of transportation on land). Venture just a few blocks off the main drag for more handcrafted souvenirs, surprisingly tasty street food and even a handful of international banks.
Located on a secluded stretch of white sand beach on the north end of Ambergris Caye, roughly a 20-minute boat ride away from the bustling San Pedro, you’ll find Matachica Resort & Spa, which you’ll call home for the remainder of your journey. The resort includes 30 casitas and villas that are individually designed and carefully decorated to exude an at-once chic yet informal ambiance that will maximize your comfort and well-being. Matachica features an award-winning restaurant, full-service bar, freshwater pool, hot tub and spa. It also is just down the beach from another of the best bar/restaurants on the island— Red’s— and provides the ultimate locale for easy access to all of the main attractions of the area.
All transfers, guides, admission and lunch is included.
Day 6: Ambergris Caye & Hol Chan Marine Reserve
You’ll awaken to the sounds of songbirds, the whispering island winds and the sun glistening off the sea, where the allure of the crystal clear cobalt water beckons. After an American style breakfast at Matachica, you’ll begin a collective tour to the Hol Chan Cut and Shark Ray Alley for a day of snorkeling in one of the world’s most diverse (and famous) underwater ecosystems.
Meaning “little channel” in Maya, the area of Hol Chan where you’ll snorkel is a natural cut in the Belize Barrier Reef where the ocean floor glimmers from only three to almost 30 feet below. However, Hol Chan is, in fact, a much larger marine reserve encompassing four zones, including the reef, the seagrass beds, the mangroves and Shark Ray Alley. The sheer amount and variation of underwater life found here is, simply put, breathtaking. Nearby Shark Ray Alley is a shallow area where southern stingrays and the harmless nurse shark congregate. You’ll be astounded as dive masters of some tours feed and pet them.
Once you’ve experienced the iconic Belize Barrier Reef system and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, you can spend your day exploring San Pedro town, dining on the most delicious conch fritters (in season), grilled lobster (in season) and ceviche for miles around or shopping for handmade souvenirs. A great add-on to this trip also can be a visit to the laid back Caye Caulker for lunch on the pier and a bit of shopping at one of the most artistic islands in the Caribbean, where hand carved masks, hand-weaved fabrics and original art can be found in makeshift tent stalls or more permanent storefronts (Caye Caulker not included in package price).
Day 7: Ambergris Caye
Whether you want to pack another full day of activities into your last day on Ambergris Caye or relax and unwind, you’ll have plenty of time to satiate your every whim with an entire day free to do as you please. Grab a frosty beverage and sunbathe on the beach, grab a friend and head out on a sea kayak, head into San Pedro town for a bit of shopping or request a massage from the Matachica spa. This is the day you can choose from an abundance of offerings (not included). Some of our favorites are:
Spend the day cave tubing and zip lining at Jaguar Paw, where you’ll encounter native wildlife along the Old Belize River, on jungle trails and in limestone and crystal caves where the Maya once worshipped.
Experience the mighty Pre-Classic Lamanai Maya ruins, where nearly 1,000 structures have been mapped. The journey includes trips up the Northern and New Rivers (beware pickpocketing moneys and look out for Mennonites fishing with cane poles) with a brief stopover in Bomba Village. You’re sure to see a wide range of wildlife along the way.
Charter a boat for a snorkeling trip to the Outer Atolls or a bit of sport fishing.
Enjoy a romantic sunset cruise.
Hit the links at Caye Chapel Golf Resort.
Book a helicopter to get an aerial glimpse of the famous Great Blue Hole.
If you happen to be visiting in March, April, May or June, take your chances at the southern tip of Belize near the Guatemala border for whale shark watching and swimming.
Day 8: Departure from Belize City
After your last American style breakfast at Matachica, you’ll bid a fond farewell to the captivating island of Ambergris Caye and take a boat transfer to San Pedro where you’ll board a flight to Belize International Airport for the return flight home.
Comparable accommodations may be substituted depending on availability. Alternative accommodations available in some areas (prices may adjust accordingly).