So you’re not quite ready to don your squirrel suit or pick up your crampons and ice axe, but you’re in need of some adrenaline-inducing adventure?
Belize is the ultimate weekend-warrior adventure hotspot. While lacking the towering volcanoes of its neighbors, Belize is packed with entry-level adventure. Caves, sinkholes, jungles, and barrier reefs. In the heart of Belize’s mountainous region lies San Ignacio, a town of almost 18,000. It’s Belize’s second-largest city, and a great launching pad for all kinds of outdoor activities.
My friend Kachine and I spent three days in San Ignacio in May of 2017, determined to cram in as much as possible. We knew that many of San Ignacio’s adventure activities lay as far as an hour from town, so we rented a Renault SUV from Budget. After driving this marvel of automotive engineering for less than a day, the air conditioning went out in 100-degree heat, the battery died, and the trunk door started sloughing off parts. The real adventure turned out to be taking this pile of French crap on some of Belize’s roughest roads.
RAPPELLING INTO A 300-FOOT SINKHOLE
Armed with the Hindenburg of cars, we set out to Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, an adventure guiding company an hour from San Ignacio, to rappel down the Black Hole Drop.
I’d rappelled before. Kachine had not. However, my rappelling experience paled in comparison to what lay before us.
Our guides led us down a hilly, 45-minute path through the jungle, stopping to crack open coconuts and let us try various jungle herbs that came in varying degrees of delicious. Two quarts of sweat later, we arrived at the edge of an enormous sinkhole, the start of a huge underground cave system. Caves Branch also offers an overnight rappelling/caving adventure in this same cave system, but we’d opted for the day trip, so we threw on helmets, harnesses and webbing, and listened to a short safety briefing.
Then, one by one, we lowered ourselves down, hearts pounding a little, walking horizontally down a 15-foot cliff at the top of the sinkhole. As the cliff gave way into an overhang, we kept descending into nothing, through the tops of 150-foot-tall trees growing out of the sinkhole floor below. Kachine lost a shoe in the process, yet still rocked it like a hurricane.
At the bottom, we had a delicious lunch our guides had packed for us, then began the ascent back to the top via a system of ledges and ladders on the opposite side of the sinkhole. Upon reaching the top, we rested, took some pictures, then hiked back, sweaty, smiling, and satisfied.
BARTON CREEK CAVE
While planning our trip, we’d decided to explore ATM Cave, which doesn’t dispense money but rather stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, and features tight passageways, underwater swimming and archaeological relics. After talking with locals, though, we opted to explore Barton Creek Cave instead, due in part to the fact that it features the most sheer natural beauty, and also due in part to the fact that ATM no longer allows cameras, thanks to a tourist who dropped his on a 2000-year-old skull. Nice work, dimbus.
So, we headed for Barton Creek Cave, driving the last seven miles on an incredibly rough 4WD road to the visitor center, known as Mike’s Place. We bargained with our guide a bit to get the tour cost down to $50 apiece, then donned life jackets, grabbed a canoe at the mouth of the cave, and paddled in. Kachine manned (womanned?) the floodlight while I manned the camera, and our knowledgeable guide pointed out all kinds of interesting geological formations and archaeological relics as we paddled deeper and deeper into the expansive cave system.
Finally, a kilometer deep, we reached a point where an unbelizeably gorgeous organ pipe stalagtites blocked further passage. We turned off all our lights, sitting in the resounding darkness and silence for several minutes, lost in the immensity of this place. Eventually, we turned the canoe around and headed back, in awe of Barton Creek Cave.
So you’ve ziplined before? So had I. I hadn’t, however, had my face brutally lacerated by a giant jungle tree at 30 mph until I ziplined in Belize. Okay, so it was a small scratch. But it bled with a vengeance worthy of a much larger wound.
We chose to zipline at Mayflower Bocawina National Park, with a company called Bocawina Rainforest Resort and Adventures, which boasts a 2,300’ line. Depending on which billboard you believe, this line is either the longest zipline in Belize or the longest in Central America. However, if you’re looking to stay closer to San Ignacio, plenty of more accessible zipline and aerial adventure parks are available, including a course at Mike’s Place. Upon arrival, we met our hilarious guides, both named Victor, who suited us up and led us on a hike up to the first of nine lines. As we progressed through the 2.5-mile course, the lines got faster and longer, and the Victors kept us laughing the entire time. They may or may not have let us try some borderline illegal maneuvers, something which I will neither confirm nor deny.
During the final, record-breaking line, the aforementioned malevolent tree reached out and hurt my moneymaker. Wiping away blood, I stood on the final platform, hoping this cut would scar, because let’s face it, it would make a pretty cool story.
SAN IGNACIO PROPER.
San Ignacio itself is a pretty cool town, boasting a vibe and culture different from Belize’s other major cities. Ignore recommendations to stay away from downtown and head for the casino; we spent two nights on Burns Avenue, a walkable street replete with restaurants, bars and shops, and met amazing locals and tourists alike. The Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech are a mere mile away from the city center and are definitely worth exploring, although they pale in comparison to other, larger ruins nearby, such as Tikal and Xunantunich. We went at sunset and essentially had the ruins to ourselves. You’re allowed to climb to the top of all the pyramids here, so naturally, we did.
Accommodations are plentiful and diverse in San Ignacio. We stayed at Midas Resort, which lies just outside of town and features a variety of cabanas and cottages, for two nights, and at the uber-eco-touristy Black Rock Lodge another. Black Rock, set in the mountains 30 minutes from San Ignacio, boasts an array of attractions itself, and while there we mountain biked and hiked to the small, yet picturesque, Vaca Falls. Black Rock’s location, service, and food are unparalleled in San Ignacio, in my opinion, and you can even flush your toilet paper down the toilet here. If air conditioning is a must-have, though, you won’t find it at this environmentally conscious resort.
Only have three days? Check out my three favorite adventure attractions. Or, follow a different itinerary entirely. Literally hundreds of other attractions are within striking distance of San Ignacio. You can check out several large nature reserves, explore hordes of other caves, visit the Inland Blue Hole and its surrounding national park, and much more.
Or, you could stay home, sit on your couch, and watch Netflix. The choice is yours.