Belize: Beyond the Reef

Newsflash! You don't have to scuba dive or snorkel to enjoy Belize.

This Central American country, known for its world-class diving, is developing some new adventure options where you get away from the beach and head into the jungle. Now instead of spending your time underwater searching for tropical fish, you can travel around the rainforests, where you can still find jaguars, monkeys and crocodiles.

Bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is on the east coast of Central America on the Caribbean Sea, covering close to 9,000 square miles. Up until recently, the country primarily marketed its outstanding coral reef, the second largest in the world, but the tides are turning as more travelers are looking for affordable, eco-friendly adventure trips off the beaten path.

Hiking Mayan Ruins

One of the most interesting places to explore Mayan ruins is deep in the jungles of Belize, about 10 miles west of the town of San Ignacio, near the Guatemala/Belize border. The Cayo Region was the heart of the Mayan Empire until the civilization disappeared around A.D. 1000-1500. The region is now home to more than 600 documented Mayan sites.

A favorite is called Xunantunich. This area use to be a huge ceremonial site. To get to these ruins, you have to cross the Mopan River by a hand-cranked ferry that only fits one vehicle. If you're traveling with a tour operator after you cross the river, they will drive you right up to the entrance site, but if you're exploring alone, no private cars are allowed, so you'll have to walk the mile up to the entrance. It's smart to go early to beat the heat.

One of the great draws to visiting these ruins is that you can walk right up to ancient temples and even climb on them for a bird's-eye view of the area. Don't miss hiking up the largest pyramid, El Castillo, and checking out the west side of the pyramid, which is covered with impressive hieroglyph carvings.

Insider Tip: Once you're done exploring the area and cross back over the Mopan River, keep an eye out for local artists who are selling their beautiful slate carvings by the ferry. They love to bargain and offer some of the best prices you'll find in Belize.

Zip-Line Adventure

If you want to explore the jungle, it just makes sense to head for the treetops. Not far from Belize's famous barrier reef, there's a 200-plus-acre resort called Jaguar Paw that's known for its zip-lining. You don't have to stay at the resort to sign up for this high-flying adventure, you only need to call ahead and make sure you reserve a space.

Zip-Line Adventure at Jaguar Paw, Belize. Photo© Karen Schaler

After getting fitted with a special safety harness, you hike up to the first of eight zip-line platforms. The name of the game here is clipping onto the different zip-lines and screaming across the treetops. The highest platform is 85 feet off the ground and the longest ride is 300 feet. News about this exciting adventure option is spreading fast so be sure to sign up early so you don't miss out.

Inside Tip: Your best days to visit are during the week to avoid the cruise ship crowds that come on the weekends.

Cave Tubing

After playing Tarzan, swinging from tree to tree, a great way to cool off is to grab an inner tube at Jaguar Paw and take an easy 20-minute hike through the rain forest to the Caves Branch River.

Cave Tubing on Caves Branch River, Belize. Photo© Karen Schaler

What you're in store for is no ordinary float trip. For this unique adventure you'll actually be floating down the river and going inside underground cave systems. Welcome to Cave Tubing in Belize!

On this tour, your guide gives you a miniheadlamp strapped to a headband explaining it's the only light you'll have when you get into the pitch-black caves. Once everyone's on the river and situated on their inner tubes, the guide leads the way by hooking his foot onto the inner tube behind him and everyone's instructed to do the same so you're all connected and no one gets lost.

At the beginning of the trip, you float peacefully down the river into a huge cave, but a few minute later, inside the cave, the rapids pick up and you get moving pretty fast. You spend about an hour on the river going through five different cave systems that are full of stalagmites and stalactites. It's a fantastic way to spend the afternoon exploring a part of Belize few know about.

Insider Tip: If you want to bring a camera, bring one that's waterproof or have it in a waterproof bag. Things get wet fast, especially going down the rapids.

Where to Stay

For your jungle adventure, there are several places you can stay that offer affordable prices. If you want to stay close to your zip-line and cave tubing experience, you can check out the rooms at Jaguar Paw. The resort offers different specials throughout the year.

Ka'ana Boutique Resort near San Ignacio, Belize. Photo© Karen Schaler

If you're interested in staying close to the Mayan ruins outside of San Ignacio, there's a new property offering a $300 airline credit called Ka'ana Boutique Resort, where you'll find 10 jungle-chic villas and five standard rooms. This unique property is the brainchild of two young Irish brothers, Colin and Ronan Hannan, who wanted to create a luxurious place for travelers to relax after exploring the nearby Mayan ruins, rivers, rain forests, caves and waterfalls.

"Belize is so well-known for its diving and coastal areas, but my brother and I think the interior holds the most adventure options," Colin Hannan says. "We built Ka'ana in the Cayo District where the majority of Mayan ruins are so guests can get to know this side of Belize as well."

To find out more about other jungle resorts in Belize, check out the country's Tourism Bureau Web site at .

View from Mayan Ruin Site in Belize. Photo© Karen Schaler

Getting There

From the U.S., you can fly into Belize City, Belize, on a number of different airlines, including American Airlines, Continental, Delta and US Airways. Flying time to Belize City on nonstop flights is about two hours from Miami and Atlanta; two-and-a-half hours from Dallas, Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

What to Pack

To explore the jungles of Belize you want to be sure to bring the following:

  • Bug spray/Benadryl for bites
  • Sunscreen, at least 15spf
  • Hat/sunglasses
  • Bathing suit
  • Walking shoes that can get wet
  • Camera, extra batteries, dry-pack carrying case for water adventures
  • Small backpack
  • Resort casual clothes for evenings
  • Don't forget your passport!

    For more unique adventure destinations, check out Karen Schaler's Travel Therapy Web site at

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