Plan your activities before your trip
Perhaps the biggest attraction close to Belmopan is the Belize Zoo, Western Highway. The Belize Zoo is located 31 miles west of Belize City and sits on 84 acres and houses more than 100animals indigenous to Belize, many endangered. Unlike most zoos in the world, the animals at the Belize Zoo are not kept in cages or surrounded by bars or barred concrete bunkers but rather housed in large vegetated enclosures of mesh and wood.
The zoo first opened in 1983 when 17 animals were left from the filming of a natural history documentary. On December 7, 1991, the new zoo opened featuring many more animals in new spacious natural exhibits.
Animals currently on exhibit at the zoo are vultures, deer, tapirs, spider monkeys, keel-billed toucans, spectacled owl, ocelot, white lipped peccary, puma, collared peccary, howler monkey (baboon), tayra, agouti, paca, jaguars, margay, snakes, Jabiru stork, aviary, crocodiles, kinkajou, jaguarundi, gray foxes, curassow, parrots, barn owls, coatimundi, raccoon, hawks, collared aracari, falcon, eagle, crested guan, and the scarlet macaw.
Five Blue Lakes National Park
At the 4,000-acre Five Blues Lake National Park, until 2006 you were able to hike 3 mi (5 km) of trails, explore several caves, and canoe and swim in a 10-acre lake with five shades of blue. The lake was a cenote, a collapsed cave in the limestone. In July 2006, despite heavy rains, the water level in the lake began to recede. On July 20, 2006, local residents heard a strange noise "as if the lake were moaning." A giant whirlpool formed, and most of the water in the lake was sucked into the ground. Many of the fish died, and the lake looked like a dry pit. Researchers believe that a sediment "plug" dissolved and the lake drained, like water from a bathtub, into underground sinkholes and caves. The lake has since refilled with water, but the park isn't what it was before 2006. The park entrance is about 3½ mi (5¾ km) from the Hummingbird Highway, via a narrow and very rough dirt road. Bikes can be rented in St. Margaret's village, from which village volunteers manage the park, and homestays and overnight camping in the village also can be arranged.
Guanacaste National Park
Worth a quick visit on the way in or out of Belmopan is Belize's smallest nature reserve, Guanacaste National Park, named for the huge Guanacaste trees that grow here. Also called monkey's ear trees because of their oddly shaped seedpods, the trees tower more than 100 feet. (Unfortunately, the park's tallest Guanacaste tree had to be cut down in 2006, due to safety concerns that it might fall.) The 50-acre park, managed by the Belize Audubon Society, has a rich population of tropical birds, including smoky brown woodpeckers, black-headed trogons, red-lored parrots, and white-breasted wood wrens. You can take one of the eight daily hourly tours, or you can wander around on your own. After, cool off with a refreshing plunge in the Belize River; there's also a small picnic area.
Although there's good birding in many areas around Belmopan, Pook's Hill Lodge, 5½ miles (9 km) off the Western Highway at Mile 52.5, is in a league of its own. The birding list from Pook's Hill includes the Mealy Parrot, Spectacled Owl, Aztec Parakeet, and Keel-billed Toucan.
Canoeing and Kayaking
The Belize River, wide and mostly gentle offers good canoeing and kayaking. It was once used by loggers to transport mahogany to Belize City and hosts the annual La Ruta Maya Mountains to the Sea Canoe Race. The multiday race is held in March during the Baron Bliss holiday. You can also canoe or kayak portions of the Caves Branch River.
Zip Lining and Canopy tours
You may feel a little like Tarzan as you dangle 80 feet above the jungle floor, suspended by a harness, moving from one suspended platform to another.
The folks at Jaguar Paw have set up an "Aerial Trek Canopy Tour," in which visitors get to strap on a climbing harness and glide along steel cables, or zip-lines, from one treetop platform to another, above and through the forest canopy. There are a total of eight different platforms. At its highest, you are some 24m (80 ft.) above the forest floor. This trip can easily be combined with their cave tubing excursion for a full-day adventure outing.
The area around Belmopan, with its karst limestone topography, is a paradise for cavers.
Actun Tunichil Muknal. The Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave system runs some 3 miles (5 km) through the limestone of Cayo, just a few miles from Belmopan. ATM is the resting place of the Crystal Maiden, a Maya girl who was sacrificed here, along with at least 13 others, including seven children, hundreds of years ago. If you visit Actun Tunichil Muknal ("Cave of the Stone Sepulcher" in the Mayan language), you will experience what many say are the most awesome sights in all of Central America. You'll see amazing limestone formations, thousand-year-old human calcified skulls and skeletons, and many Mayan artifacts including well-preserved pottery. As long as you are in adequate physical condition—you have to hike almost an hour, swim in neck-deep water, and clamber through dark, claustrophobic underground chambers—this is sure to be the most memorable tour you'll take in Belize. Cameras are banned from the cave, and the tour is not suitable for young children. Although you can drive on your own to the staging area for ATM, you must have a licensed guide to visit it, as you'll be up close and personal with priceless Maya artifacts. It's easiest to do an all-day tour from San Ignacio or Belmopan.
The ancient Maya believed that caves were a mystical portal between the world of the living and the underworld of spirits and the dead. From their earliest days, there is evidence that the Mayans made extensive use of caves for ritual purposes, as well as for more mundane and rudimentary things such as keeping dry, storing grains, and gathering water. They called this mystical realm Xibalba.
Belize is literally riddled with caves. In almost every explored cave to date, some evidence of use by the Mayans has been uncovered. Fire pits, campsites, burial mounds, and ritual altars have all been found. Numerous pieces of pottery and abundant bones and artifacts have also been encountered. Belize offers many unique and easily accessible opportunities to explore this fascinating world, on foot, by kayak or canoe, or by floating on an inner tube. Don't miss it.
Caves Branch River Cave System -- The Caves Branch River is a gently flowing body of water coming down off the Mountain Pine Ridge. It really should be called a creek in most places. However, what makes the Caves Branch River unique is the fact that it flows in and out of a series of long limestone caves that are easily navigable on inner tubes and in kayaks.
There are two major entry points along the river for visits to the Caves Branch caves: One is at Ian Anderson's Caves Branch jungle lodge, and the other is just above Jaguar Paw, a luxury hotel built on the banks of the river. In general terms, travelers looking for more adventurous and gritty trips into the caves should head to Ian Anderson's place; those seeking a more luxurious excursion into the underworld should head to Jaguar Paw. Still, for anyone looking for some serious cave adventures and explorations, both of the aforementioned lodges offer a host of guided tours to much less commonly explored caves, including the fabulous Crystal Cave, located just off the Jaguar Paw grounds.
By far, most visitors go either directly through Jaguar Paw or use the same section of the river. There's a government-operated parking area about a kilometer (1/2 mile) downriver from Jaguar Paw and a host of operators running the tubing tour from here. Either way, you will have to hike upstream to a put-in. Depending on the tour you choose and the amount of hiking you want to do, you will eventually climb into your inner tube and begin a slow float through anywhere from one to four caves. You will be equipped with a headlamp, and little else. If your group is small enough, I recommend you coordinate and all shut off your headlamps for a period of time. It's quite a spooky sensation to be floating in total darkness, wondering where the walls and ceilings are and whether or not you'll ever emerge into daylight again.
Most of the caves here contain Mayan pottery and artifacts, although you won't see them on the majority of tube trips, unless your guide stops for a short hike.
For the Most Enjoyable Experience -- The Caves Branch River cave system is a very popular tourist attraction, and it can get crowded at times, especially in the three caves closest to Jaguar Paw and the public entrance. When the cruise-ship groups are in the caves, it's downright overcrowded. Whatever tour operator you use, try to time it so that you avoid other large groups if possible. I also highly recommend hiking the extra 15 minutes or so upstream to get to the fourth cave. However, if you choose to do the tour with Ian Anderson's Caves Branch outfit, you are assured of avoiding the crowds. Also, wear plenty of insect repellent, as the mosquitoes can be fierce here (only on the hike -- once you're in the caves there are none).
St. Herman's Blue Hole National Park
Less than a half hour south of Belmopan, the 575-acre St. Herman's Blue Hole National Park has a natural turquoise pool surrounded by mosses and lush vegetation, wonderful for a cool dip. The "inland Blue Hole" is actually part of an underground river system. On the other side of the hill is St. Herman's Cave, once inhabited by the Maya. There's a separate entrance to St. Herman's. A path leads up from the highway, but it's quite steep and difficult to climb unless the ground is dry. To explore St. Herman's cave beyond the first 300 yards or so, you must be accompanied by a guide (available at the park), and no more than five people can enter the cave at one time. With a guide, you also can explore part of another cave system here, the Crystal Cave (sometimes called the Crystalline Cave), which stretches for miles.
Roaring River Golf Course. The only public golf course on the mainland is Roaring River Golf Course. This 9-hole, 1,933-yard, par-32 jungle course (watch out for the crocs in the water traps) with double tees that let you play 3,892 yards at par 64, was the pet project of an expat South African, Paul Martin, who found himself with some extra time and a lot of heavy earth-moving equipment on his hands. Before long, he'd carved out the greens and bunkered fairways.
Banana Bank Jungle Horseback Adventures. The largest equestrian operator in this part of Belize is Banana Bank Lodge, off the George Price Highway near Belmopan. Run by John Carr, a former Montana cowboy and rodeo rider, Banana Bank has more than 90 horses, mostly quarter horses, a large round-pen riding arena, stables, and miles of jungle trails on a 4,000-acre ranch. They offer occasional agricultural tours that introduce visiting farmers or others interested in agriculture to Mennonite and other farm operations in Belize. Daily rental for the use of their pool is also available here too.
Belize Botanic Gardens
The life's work of Ken duPlooy, an ornithologist who died in 2001, the personable Judy duPlooy, and their family, is the 45-acre Belize Botanic Gardens. It's an extensive collection of hundreds of trees, plants, and flowers from all over Central America. Enlightening tours of the gardens, set on a bank of the Macal River at duPlooy's Jungle Lodge, are given by local guides who can tell you the names of the plants in Maya, Spanish, and English as well as explain their varied medicinal uses. An orchid house holds the duPlooys' collection of more than 100 orchid species, and there also is a palm exhibit. The gardens and duPlooy's Lodge in general offer great birding. On some days duPlooy's runs shuttles from San Ignacio.
Caracol Myan Ruin
Caracol was a metropolis with five plazas and 32 large structures covering almost a square mile. In AD 650, the urban area of Caracol had a radius of approximately 6 miles (10 km) around the site's center. It covered an area larger than present-day Belize City. Altogether it is believed there are some 35,000 buildings at the site, though only a handful of them have been excavated. Excavations at Caracol are being carried on by Diane and Arlen Chase of the University of Central Florida. The latest excavations are in an area approximately 500 yards southeast of Caracol's central plaza. Once Caracol has been fully excavated it may dwarf even the great city of Tikal, which is a few dozen miles away (as the toucan flies) in Guatemala. The evidence suggests that Caracol won a crushing victory over Tikal in the mid-6th century, a theory that Guatemalan scholars haven't quite accepted. Until a group ofchicleros (collectors of gum base) stumbled on the site in 1936, Caracol was buried under the jungle of the remote Vaca Plateau. It's hard to believe it could have been lost for centuries, as the great pyramid of Caana, at nearly 140 feet, is still Belize's tallest structure.
The main excavated sections are in four groups, denoted on archaeological maps as A, B, C, and D groups. The most impressive structures are the B Group at the northeast end of the excavated plaza. This includes Caana (sometimes spelled Ca'ana or Ka'ana), or "Sky Palace," listed as Structure B19-2nd, along with a ball court, water reservoir, and several large courtyards. Caana remains the tallest structure in Belize. The A Group, on the west side of the plaza, contains a temple, ball court, and a residential area for the elite. The Temple of the Wooden Lintel (Structure A6) is one of the oldest and longest-used buildings at Caracol, dating back to 300 BC. It was still in use in AD 1100. To the northwest of the A Group is the Northwest Acropolis, primarily a residential area. The third major plaza forming the core of the site is at the point where a causeway enters the "downtown" part of Caracol. The D Group is a group of structures at the South Acropolis.
Near the entrance to Caracol is a small but interesting visitor center. If you have driven here on your own (with a Belize Defence Forces escort, used as insurance against the very rare chance of bandits) instead of with a tour, a guide usually can be hired at the site, but you can also walk around on your own. Seeing all of the excavated area involves several hours of hiking around the site. Wear sturdy shoes and bring insect repellent. Also, watch for anthill mounds and, rarely, snakes. This part of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve is a good place for birding and wildlife spotting. Around the ruins are troops of howler monkeys and flocks of oscellated turkeys, and you may also see deer, coatimundis, foxes, and other wildlife at the site or on the way.
A Private Park & Educational Center
Located just inland from Mile Marker 31 on the Western Highway is Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, a private reserve and environmental education center comprising some 433 hectares (1,070 acres) of varied natural habitat. There's a visitor center, and a range of tours is offered. This place specializes in hosting student groups, but anyone can visit for the day, or even stay in accommodations that range from somewhat plush private rooms to a dormitory-style bunkhouse to camping. In all cases, be forewarned: The showers are cold water only, and the bathrooms are outdoor latrines. Tours include guided hikes, bird-watching expeditions, cave explorations, and canoe outings on the Sibun River. With the recent declaration of the neighboring 911-hectare (2,250-acre) Monkey Bay Nature Reserve, this has become a considerably large protected area, with over 250 recorded bird species.