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San Ignacio is the center for touring in western Belize. Just walk along busy Burns Avenue and you'll see signs for all kinds of tours and find the offices of several tour operators. Individual tour guides, who by law must be Belizean citizens and be licensed by the government, may work for tour operators, for a lodge or hotel, or they may freelance on their own. Some hang out at restaurants in town, especially those on busy Burns Avenue, and post notices at bulletin boards in downtown hotels and restaurants. PACZ Tours and others have offices downtown. You can compare prices and sign up for the next day's tours. Obviously, the more layers of costs involved, the higher the price for you, but on the other hand larger operators and hotel tour companies have more resources, and they have their long-term reputations to protect, so they may be more reliable. Tours from lodges usually are more costly than if booked with an independent tour operator. Also, some lodges try to sell packages of tours rather than individual ones.
Most jungle lodges offer a full range of day trips, using either their own guides or working with independent guides and tour companies. The largest lodge-affiliated tour operations are Chaa Creek Expeditions and Windy Hill Tour Company, but Crystal Paradise, duPlooy's, Maya Mountain, Cahal Pech Village, San Ignacio Resort Hotel, and other hotels and lodges also do many tours and trips.
If you have a rental car, you can visit all of the Mayan sites in the Cayo on your own, along with other attractions such as the butterfly farms, the Belize Botanic Gardens, Rainforest Medicine Trail, and many of the attractions in the Mountain Pine Ridge. However, for most caving tours, notably Actun Tunichil Muknal, you'll need a guide, and for canoe and kayak trips, you'll need drop-off and pickup. Local guides also are critical for nature hikes and birding trips, as many of these guides have remarkable local knowledge and ability to spot things you probably wouldn't see otherwise.
The area around San Ignacio is good for birding because it contains such a variety of habitats—river valleys, foothills, lagoons, agricultural areas, and broadleaf jungle—each of which attracts different types of birds. For example, Aguacate Lagoon near Spanish Lookout attracts waterbirds such as night herons, neotropic cormorants, and whistling ducks. Open land and pastures are good for spotting laughing falcons, vermillion flycatchers, eastern meadowlarks, and white-tailed kites.
There's good birding on the grounds of most of the lodges along the Mopan and Macal rivers, including Chaa Creek, duPlooy's, Crystal Paradise, and Clarissa Falls. In addition, local guides and tour companies run birding trips.
Paradise Expeditions. Paradise Expeditions, based in Cayo and connected with Crystal Paradise Lodge, has five- to 11-night birding trips to various parts of Belize, starting at BZ$2,500 per person for a five-night, six-day birding trip in Central Belize, and ranging up to around BZ$3,000 per person for an 11-night expedition. Crystal Paradise, Cristo Rey Rd. (P. O. Box 106), San Ignacio. 610/5593. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.birdinginbelize.com.
The Cayo's rivers, especially the Mopan and Macal, make it an excellent place for canoeing and kayaking. Most of the larger resorts, like Chaa Creek and duPlooy's, have canoes or inflatable kayaks. Generally you put in the Macal and paddle and float down to the Hawksworth Bridge at San Ignacio, a trip that takes two or three hours depending on your starting point. You'll pay about BZ$50 per person for canoe rental and pickup. You'll see iguanas and birdlife on the banks, and if you dip in for a swim, don't be surprised if tiny (toothless) fish school around you to figure out whether you're food.
Do exercise caution. You won't believe how fast the rivers, especially the Macal, can rise after a heavy rain. Following rains in the Mountain Pine Ridge, it can reach a dangerous flood stage in just a few minutes. Also, in the past there have been a few rare incidents of visitors in canoes being stopped and robbed on the Macal. Watch weather forecasts, and ask locally about safety on the rivers.
River Rat. River Rat arranges canoeing and kayaking trips, both for beginners and experienced river runners, as well as tours to Caracol, ATM, El Pilar, and elsewhere. no physical address for office. 628/6033. www.riverratbelize.com.
Over the millennia, as dozens of swift-flowing rivers bored through the soft limestone, the Maya Mountains became pitted with miles of caves. The Maya used them as burial sites, and, according to one theory, as subterranean waterways that linked the Cayo with communities as far north as the Yucatán. Previously, the caves fell into a 1,000-year slumber, disturbed only by the nightly flutter of bats. In recent years, the caves have been rediscovered by spelunkers.
Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Camp. First on the scene was Ian Anderson of Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Camp. He and his friendly staff of trained guides run exhilarating adventure-theme caving, tubing, and hiking trips from an upscale jungle camp just south of Belmopan. They also run day and overnight kayaking trips in the Cayo District. 12 mi [19½ km] south of Belmopan, Mile 42 1/2, Hummingbird Hwy., Belmopan. 866/357–2698. 610/3451. www.cavesbranch.com.
PACZ Tours. Arguably the best Actun Tunichil Muknal tour operator, PACZ has been operated by Emilo Awe since 1998, with help by Bob Jones, formerly of Eva's, and about eight tour guides. The ATM tour costs around BZ$220 from downtown San Ignacio—including lunch and ATM admission, if you book directly with PACZ. Your hotel or lodge can arrange an ATM or other caving trip but may add an additional fee. 30 Burns Ave., San Ignacio. 824/0536. www.pacztours.net.
Most of the lodges have hiking trails. Black Rock River Lodge, Chaa Creek, Maya Mountain, Crystal Paradise, and duPlooy's all have especially good areas for hiking. If you want even more wide-open spaces, head to the Mountain Pine Ridge, which offers hundreds of miles of hiking trails, mostly old logging roads. For more adventurous hikes and overnight treks, you'll want to go with a guide.
Maya Guide Adventures. Marcos Cucul and son Francis, who run Maya Guide Adventures, are Ket'chi Mayans who are trained in cave and wilderness rescue. They can take you on overnight caving and kayaking trips, or guide you in Elijio Panti National Park, with trips starting at BZ$700 per person (minimum two persons). For the Maya Guide Adventures trips you must be physically fit. Yaxche Jungle Camp, Belmopan. 600/3116. www.mayaguide.bz.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek. The Lodge at Chaa Creek has a stable of riding horses. Two- to three-hour guided horseback trips, with morning or afternoon options, cost BZ$90 per person, plus 12.5% tax. Rides cover about 5 miles (8 km). A horseback tour to Chaa Creek's Maya organic farm also is BZ$90. Chial Rd., San Ignacio. 824/2037; 877/709–8708 in U.S. and Canada. www.chaacreek.com.
Mountain Equestrian Trails. When it comes to horseback-riding adventures, whether on the old logging roads of the Mountain Pine Ridge or on trails in the Slate Creek Preserve, the local experts are found at Mountain Equestrian Trails. Full-day rides range from BZ$166 to BZ$180. Five-night riding packages including accommodations are BZ$4,880 double in-season. Mile 8, Mountain Pine Ridge Rd., aka Georgeville Rd., San Ignacio. 669/1124 or 800/838–3918. www.metbelize.com.