El Pilar Archaeological Reserve:
Just 7 miles up into the Maya Mountains are the massive ruins of an ancient Maya city named El Pilar (“water basin” in Spanish). It is approximately 5 times the size of Xunantunich (half of it lies in Guatemala). It is believed that at around 700-1000 A.D. approximately 18,000 people lived in the area. Excavations have been ongoing and have left exposed parts of the architecture for visitors to see. El Pilar is the product of a unique management plan that seeks to keep the buildings largely unexposed in order to preserve both the jungle canopy and the monuments themselves. El Pilar retains the aura of a lost ancient city that one might discover as it is intact in its natural surroundings, replete with howler monkeys, toucans and jaguars. Walking around the site requires a minimum of 2 hours but there are also many side trails that could keep you there for a full day. El Pilar can be reached by private car, taxi, horseback, bicycle or even on foot.
Xunantunich (The Stone Maiden):
About 8 miles from San Ignacio along the Western Highway, Xunantunich (pronounced tzoo – nan- too- neech) is another Classic period Maya site well worth visiting. Unlike El Pilar, the major monuments have been excavated and reconsolidated, offering a good glimpse of what the Mayan temples might have looked like at one time. The largest structure, El Castillo, stands 130 ft. high and offers an excellent view of the whole surrounding area. Visiting Xunantunich usually takes a morning or an afternoon and is best coupled with another half-day activity.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
South of San Ignacio, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve offers many attractions. The mountain range is made of some of the oldest rock in Central America, with intrusions of the granite bedrock exposed on the surface with the limestone. There is a choice of mountain streams, waterfalls, and caves to visit. You can also visit a butterfly farm, a Mayan art center, and canoe back into Barton Creek Cave underneath the huge stalactites overhead. The furthest of all attractions but perhaps the most interesting is Caracol, the largest known Maya site in Belize, with a population estimated at 150,000 with over 30,000 structures. You can easily spend a full day in the Mountain Pine Ridge area. Visiting Caracol is a full-day trip and includes stops at the Rio Frio Cave and the Rio On Pools while Barton Creek Cave can be done as a half day if no other stops are made.
Tikal is one of the most monumental and famous of the Mayan sites and is easily visited as a day trip or overnight from Belize. Tikal was the dominant Maya site in the Peten for about 500 years beginning in 378 AD when Tikal won a war over Uaxactun. There are many organized tours from town although it can also be visited independently. The site is open from 9am –4pm so it is recommended that you leave San Ignacio early to enjoy a full day there.
Actun Tunichil Muknal:
This adventure, made famous by National Geographic, is not for the faint of heart. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a cave full of Mayan artifacts – whole pots and skeletons laid ceremonially to rest – that is now open to the public, albeit in small groups. It is a physically active day, hiking and then swimming and sometimes trudging through water that can be chest deep inside the cave.
Glance at any book on Belize and you will notice that there is much more to do than what is mentioned here. If you would like any advice or help in arranging excursions or recommendations on things to do or places to stay, please do not hesitate to ask.