Belmopan is the 1960s-created capital of Belize. It was designed to be hurricane-proof, or at least more hurricane-proof than low-lying coastal Belize City. Not many Belizeans have moved to Belmopan. There's about 6,000 residents nowadays. Apart from that, it is quite frankly one of the ugliest cities we have ever seen. The whole central area of government buildings is nicely arranged but the buildings themselves cover the spectrum of architecture that can be achieved using nothing but giant concrete rectangles. The few foreign embassies that have relocated here from Belize City are equally ugly. There is however a small but lively market area near the bus station which is what we've chosen to present as our picture of Belmopan. It's not much but it's the best one we have. There's a great collection of food stalls here too, mostly run by immigrants from elsewhere in Central America.
The main reasons to spend time in Belmopan are the attractions nearby. It also has a relatively central location and two highways meet here. (Since there are only four highways in all of Belize, this is a notable occurrence).
Just east of Belmopan on the Western Highway is the Belize Zoo. This is by far one of the best zoos we've been to outside of the US and Canada. It actually started as a movie set. When filming ended there were assorted semi-tame animals around and thus the zoo was founded.
The zoo exhibits are spaced out along a maze of jungle paths. The map is pretty much necessary if you want to find anything in particular (like say, the way back to the front gate). Animals have a good deal of space and since everything here is Belizean, it's not hard to recreate their natural habitats. This, incidentally, is a tree full of coati.
It takes many fewer jaguars to fill a tree than it does coati. Realistically, this is your best bet to see any of the wild cats of Belize, and they have all five species in the zoo. Many of the zoo's animals are found injured or semi-domesticated before they end up here.
Oh look, an otter picture on our web pages. Imagine that. Well, for one, we like to include at least one otter picture from every country we visit (Liechtenstein was tough). Also, we don't often see an otter climb up a fence and stick its head through it. Apparently it was near feeding time, and much to this otter's disappointment we were not arriving with food.
The number 1 cruise ship attraction in Belize is also near Belmopan (and not very near the cruise ships). That would be the Caves Branch River (which also has an unpronounceable Mayan reserve name). The attraction here is not just river tubing, but river tubing through caves. It was highly recommended to us and we had our doubts when we arrived and two buses from the cruise port were unloading. The good news - the cruise passengers all arrive together and they take the 'short trip'. There is absolutely no reason to ever take the short trip. The short trip covers "three" caves which is really one cave with a couple extra access points and costs US $30. The long trip covers "five" caves which is really three caves, takes twice as long, includes a nice mile or so hike through the jungle and costs US $40. This is the end of our hike. The put-in is inside the cave mouth that can be seen in this picture. That's our guide Fernando in the front. One guide and the two of us make for a nice flexible trip.
The hike itself is entertaining as well. You pass some interesting rock formations, orchids, butterflies, possibly wild boar and we even came across this tarantula.
Tubing through a nice cold cave is a very relaxing experience. If you happen to be away from large tour groups (and unless you're in a hurry, you will be) it's peaceful and quiet. Headlights and tubes are provided by the guides. If you're traveling on your own, a guide will greet you after you pay the entrance fee to the reserve. The guides work sort of like a taxi stand on a first-come first-serve basis. The parking area is one of the nicest in Belize (or maybe all of Central America) with changing rooms and bathrooms.
This is a view of the short opening between two of the caves.
The river level will vary depending on the time of the year but it is generally quite shallow. There are no real rapids to speak of. On the long trip, probably about 70% of the trip is spent inside caves with the only real long outdoor stretch coming at the very end.
We spent a little time on the beach outside of this cave. We actually wanted to warm up a bit before heading back into the next cave. The largest cave has a confluence of side streams and a waterfall inside of it.
There are other several other parks and reserves near Belmopan including Guanacaste and Blue Hole (not to be confused with the marine Blue Hole). We however had run out of the time we allocated to the interior of Belize. From here we drove back to Belize City (about an hour away) and returned our rental car to head out to the islands.