The natives of western Belize like to brag that the ‘the west is the best’, and for good reason since they do indeed have a great deal to brag about. In addition to being home to the country’s new capital, the Cayo District covers approximately 2,000 square miles of rich, lush landscape and also has a few of the most charming attractions found anywhere throughout the country. Visitors will discover crystal clear winding rivers, green hillsides, lush jungles, enormous cave systems, thundering waterfalls, and two very important Mayan ruins as well as a majestic pine forest that’s just waiting to be explored. The entire area is teeming with interesting wildlife and a favorite destination for eco-conscious tourists everywhere.
Geographically speaking, Cayo District is the largest district in all of Belize and spans over 2,000 square miles across a diverse landscape, including gently rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see devoted to cattle farming, and miles of citrus orchards along with rocky mountain ridges enveloped in sub-tropical jungles and fertile river valleys.
The majority of Cayo includes broad-leaf jungle with interesting limestone formations. These key formations are the result of ancient coral beds developing over the last 20 million years. Continuous water flow progressively dissolved the limestone over time and created underwater rivers, sinkholes, and eventually formed the Spectacular Caves, which draws thousands of tourists each year.
Elevated 2,500 above sea level, solid granite rock developed from molten intrusions to form a huge landscape of valleys, canyons, and panoramic views of stunning beauty, which is exactly how the Mountain Pine Ridge was developed over time.
Once an area rich with chicle farming and tree logging, today Cayo relies on cattle ranching, citrus groves, and tourism as their primary sources of income. Cayo’s agriculture is focused on the Belize River Valley, whereby the rich soil is kept fertile due to flood waters stemming from the highlands. Most of Cayo District’s settlements were founded in these key areas since the fertile soils generated abundant harvests and the waterways created a viable way to transport goods and travel.
One of Cayo’s main industries and livelihood’s is eco-tourism, with an approximate population of around 75,000. In addition to the country’s many numerous archeological sites and natural wonders, such as limestone caves and cascading waterfalls, Cayo provides the unique opportunity to discover its abundant flora and fauna in a somewhat unspoiled environment.
People and Towns
Cayo District’s friendly and diverse residents have always drawn a vast array of both people and various cultures. Besides long time resident and cultural-savvy Creoles, Cayo District is home to numerous Mayan refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, Lebanese, Chinese and East-Indian entrepreneurs, along with Mennonite adventure-seekers, farmers, and retirees from Europe and North America.
Deemed the new capital of Belize, Belmopan originated in 1965 after the previous capitol, Belize City, was devastated by Hurricane Hattie. Belmopan is the country’s geographical center and lies close to the eastern side of Cayo District, 20 miles east of the city San Ignacio, and 50 miles to the west of Belize City.
With a modest population of just 20,000, Belmopan is one of the smallest capitols worldwide and makes everything quite accessible. You can actually walk from your hotel to local government buildings in only a matter of minutes.
San Ignacio is the epicenter of booming tourism and commerce for western Belize, and combined with its neighboring town Santa Elena, together they constitute the biggest populated region in Cayo District with more than 20,000 residents. Situated on the banks of the beautiful Macal River on a sequence of bluffs, both Santa Elena and San Ignacio are elevated high enough in order to be noticeably less humid and cooler than other low-lying plains along the coast.
The Macal River and the only suspension bridge in Belize built in 1949, the single-lane Hawksworth Bridge, separates the two towns. San Ignacio sits along Western Highway just 70 miles west and around a 90 minute drive from the nostalgic Belize City, and only 9 miles from the border of Guatemala.
Belize’s most modernized community of Mennonites with around 3,000 local residents is found halfway between Belmopan and San Ignacio. The community itself is spread across wide open fields, residing in humble homes that closely resemble past scenes from yesteryears of rural mid-west. Mennonites are a very self-relying society who successfully manage their own little church-based community. True to past traditions, they wear modest clothing that reflects very conservative and simple tastes.
In between the sultry hardwood forests and wild rivers lives a care-free group of people dwelling in numerous humble villages that traditionally have made a living from simply working the land. Today, however, it’s not uncommon to see the village dwellers out along the banks of the river doing laundry, bathing, or just swimming and having a good time.
Cayo District is simple to get to on the Western Highway, located about an hour east from Belize City.