Mountain Pine Ridge
The Mountain Pine Ridge region of Belize is a huge area that stretches south from the Western Highway and encompasses an assortment of national parks, reserves and archeological zones. San Ignacio is the nearest town of any size (as it is the only town of any size in western Belize). We stayed in Martha's guesthouse, and since we were mostly only around in the evenings, we don't have a lot of decent pictures of the town. It seems like a nice enough place though and was always lively when we wandered out for food and groceries around dusk.
We had our own rental car during our days in the Cayo District of Belize. There are plenty of tours that cover the Mountain Pine Ridge region but it's also not very difficult to do it on your own. The roads are very rugged and travel is pretty slow but any 4 WD vehicle with decent clearance can manage it. Traveling south from the Western Highway on either road is particularly bad. Once you reach the protected areas, the road gets noticeably better. There is a ranger station at the north end where they basically give you a survey to fill out. There is no fee. Another hour further on there is a military checkpoint which requires entering your vehicle info. This is mostly to ensure you don't spend the night past this point. Somewhere after that is this crossing of the Macal River. This stretch of bridge is the only paved segment in the forest.
When it comes to visiting Caracol, getting there really is half the fun. It took us about 2 1/2 hours from San Ignacio. We were the first visitors to arrive for the day and we didn't get there until about 10:30 AM. Caracol basically consists of two main monument groups and a couple residential areas. This is the view from above Group B.
Group B is dominated by Caana, the sky pyramid. It's actually a giant flat-topped pyramid with three temples around a plaza on top. In the previous picture the upper plaza can be seen as well as a portion of the lower plaza far below.
The upper portion of Caana was the home of Caracol's rulers and royal family. The ruins in the bottom portion of this picture are part of those residences. Caracol played a major role in the great rivalry between Calakmul (now in Mexico) and Tikal (now in Guatemala). Caracol allied with Calakmul which enabled both city-states to defeat Tikal during the height of the Mayan empire. In declining years Tikal regained the upper hand and eventually defeated Caracol.
This is one of Caracol's ball courts. Apart from the two main groups, most of Caracol is still partially claimed by the jungle. From the edges of any clearing, mounds can be seen stretching away into the trees. At the same time it's an active archeological site (as will be quite obvious in the vicinity of Group A). There are only a handful of Stelae that have survived at Caracol. Replicas of several are on display. Information about the site is fairly limited so if you don't have a guide, we'd recommend getting a good guide book. Or maybe copying the relevant pages if you don't want to lug your 800 page Mayan encyclopedia through the jungle (you don't).
Most tours to the Mountain Pine ridge visit three main sites. The second of those is the Rio Frio cave. If you're going to skip one, this is definitely the one to miss. The Rio Frio River enters a giant cave, flows through it for maybe a quarter mile (400 meters) and then comes back out into the jungle. A trail which involves scrambling runs through the cave with it. From the parking area you can hike up the road to a trailhead, connect down to the river, come through the cave and then hike back up to the parking lot. If you're visiting this on your own you'll definitely want flashlights or headlamps.
If you don't want to scramble through it, just hike down to the picnic area and climb up to this general vicinity. From here, several waterfalls are visible along with the cave's best stalactites and there's access to the 'beach' in the center of the cave. The temperature in the cave is cooler than the surrounding jungle but still quite warm.
The third major tourist spot is the Rio On pools. We were a bit doubtful about them before we actually saw them. Also, hiking around Caracol in the tropical heat and humidity will definitely increase the attractiveness of these pools. There are several access points. When we arrived there were just a couple people at an upper pool. When we left, there were probably four or five tours (a 'tour' in Belize is rarely more than 6 people) and the majority of a British Army squadron from the nearby military camp.
There's a wide variety of places to swim amongst the pools ranging from ankle-deep sandy beaches to bona fide swimming holes and water slides. We brought snacks with us and spent a couple hours here.
That's Melanie over there on the left side under the waterfall. We'd have a closer picture than this if David wasn't afraid to cross the wet rocks with Melanie's camera (which was not in its waterproof case). This valley of pools actually extends well past the main swimming area. From the end of the parking road, stairs go down to the lower waterfalls. From here you can travel the hard way (over the rocks) further downstream.
There are more than just the three main attractions in the Mountain Pine Ridge region. There are a half dozen other major waterfalls. Trails to most of them start at or near one of the jungle lodges in the region. We spent a little time hiking near Big Rock Falls which is in the unpronounceable national park called Nojkaaxmen Eligio Panti (really). The highlight of this trail was actually the birds, the butterflies and the lizards on the trail which were thicker and more varied than anyplace else we went in Belize. In a rarity for the trips pages, we actually have a picture of an interesting tropical bird AND we know what it is! This is a golden hooded tanager.