THE CAYO DISTRICT
Written by: John Acott ©
Considering its small size, Belize must rate as one of the most geologically and culturally rich nations on the planet. Belize is a celebration of diversity. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the Cayo District, the Caribbean’s truly wild West. Cayo is the hub of adventure paradise, where the list of things to do and places to explore is endless.
Geographically the largest and most fertile district in Belize, the Cayo District spans more than 2,000 square miles across diverse terrain – from rolling hills and sweeping farmland devoted to citrus orchards and cattle farming, to lush river valleys and rugged mountain ridges covered in sub-tropical jungle. Easy to reach on the Western (George Price) Highway, the Cayo District is a one-hour drive from Belize City. An intact and relatively undisturbed environment, over 60% of the Cayo District has been set aside as either a Wildlife Sanctuary, National Park, or Forest Reserve. Exotic flora and fauna, incredible wildlife, and the country’s most extensive number of archaeological sites make Cayo the country’s most appealing destination.
Known as the breadbasket of Belize, Cayo produces much of the country’s dairy, meat and agricultural products. There is minimal processing, with a direct farm-to-table approach. Nothing is heavily preserved and everything is cheap.
Belmopan, the “new” capital of Belize, was established in 1965 following devastation to the former capital, Belize City, by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Located in the geographical centre of the country, Belmopan lies 50 miles west of Belize City and 20 miles east of San Ignacio. The central area of Belmopan is comprised mainly of Government buildings, foreign embassies, banks and businesses but Belmopan also contains all of the amenities that you would expect to find in a capital city.
West of Belmopan, the highway begins to climb out of the valley and the air gets noticeably cooler. It is a beautiful drive along rolling green countryside dotted with small, picturesque villages
Spanish Lookout is Belize’s most modern Mennonite community with approximately 3,000 inhabitants, located midway between Belmopan and San Ignacio. The community is spread over open fields with small houses resembling a scene from a rural mid-western town in the United States.
Cradled in a valley carved by the Macal and Mopan rivers, the sister towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena combine to form the country’s second largest population centre with over 20,000 residents. Located along the banks of the rivers on a series of bluffs, San Ignacio and Santa Elena are at an elevation high enough to be noticeably cooler and less humid than the low-lying coastal plains.
The town of San Ignacio is a quaint little town filled with culture and beauty and possessing a unique blend of America’s Old West and tropical backwater with frontier-like wooden shops on narrow streets. Everything in San Ignacio is calmer. No one is in a hurry, the traffic is mild and cars roll gently through the streets and walking is the preferred mode of transportation in the city centre. The atmosphere is tranquil and the air feels clean.
Cayo’s diverse and hospitable residents have long attracted a vast spectrum of people and cultures – Maya and Latino refugees from Mexico and Central America, Lebanese, East-Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, as well as Mennonite farmers and adventure-seekers from North America and Europe. English is the main language but Spanish is also widely spoken in Cayo.
Belizeans from western Belize are fond of boasting that “the west is best!” – and it’s true. Cayo is becoming one of the Caribbean/Central American region’s most vibrant eco-tourism destinations, and no wonder – Cayo contains a trove of attractions and adventures to suit any traveller’s interests and budget. It has some of the most scenic attractions in the country. You will find clear, meandering rivers, lush jungles, green hillsides, vistas of stunning beauty, thundering waterfalls, the spectacular caves which make up the largest cave network in all of Central America, two of the most important Mayan ruins, and the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve.
Cayo is a birdwatcher’s Eden and an eco-tourist’s dream. The wildlife is fantastic with colourful birds; parrots, macaws, toucans, hummingbirds, etc. and, in the jungle; monkeys, peccary, tapir, coatimundi, deer, armadillos, jaguars, and other tropical animals.
Belize is recognized as the centre of the ancient Maya world and it was here in the “central lowlands” of western Belize and the Guatemalan Petén that the ancient Maya flourished during the Classic Period from 300 to 900 AD. Archaeologists now estimate that over 1,000,000 Mayans once lived in this area. Visitors can experience the amazing world of the Mayans through the exploration of the Mayan ruins of Caracol, Xunantunich, El Pilar and Cahal Pech in Cayo.
There are many interesting resorts and hotels to cater for every pocket. The Lodge at Chaa Creek is a famous resort on the Macal River; Blancaneaux Lodge, owned by movie director Francis Ford Coppola, is hidden away in the Mountain Pine Ridge; and DuPlooy’s Place also boasts the famous Belize Botanical Gardens.
Many Belizeans, expats and tourists cross over the Guatemalan border into Melchor de Mencos every day. Melchor offers many shops, boutiques, and a large market. In reverse, several bus loads of Guatemalan children every morning cross the border to attend Cayo schools, for a better education. The Cayo District is also home to the two universities, the University of Belize, and the privately held Galen University affiliated with U.S. based Indianapolis University.
The Cayo District is where you will find the highest amount of expats who have made a new home in Belize, although they are spread throughout the whole district and not concentrated in a small area. With many more open spaces suitable for farming or constructing a dream retirement home, Cayo is the most popular retirement destination in Belize. It has a lower cost of living and has a slow, easy life-style but at the same time offering many things to do and places to visit.