Belize - Mysterious Mayan Temples, Diving and Fishing Activities
August 13, 2020
Caribbean coast, Mayan culture and plenty of wild nature. Belize, the smaller neighbor of Guatemala and Mexico, primarily fascinates vacationers interested in culture and nature with an attractive mix of tropical forests with a rich range of wildlife, majestic mountains up to 3,700 feet high, mysterious Mayan temples and incomparable diving and fishing activities.
The around 185-mile long reef off the coast, the second largest coral reef in the world, is even competition for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is no wonder, therefore, that many underwater tourists visit Belize. Diving in the caves is particularly thrilling. There is also a wide range of caves on land; with the Chiquibul complex, Belize boasts the largest cave system in the Americas.
Those seeking a change from the isolation of nature will find it in Belize City and some of the smaller colonial towns. The way of life there is far too relaxed for the hectic hustle and bustle of large cities. And no wonder: only 235,000 inhabitants, whose official language is English, currently live in the 8,880-square mile country, once known as British Honduras.
At 185 miles long, the longest coral reef in the northern hemisphere and the second largest in the world, runs along the coast of Belize. Protected by the reef are around 500 islands, the “Cayes”, which are surrounded by numerous small coral banks. Many snorklers and divers delight in more than 50 corals and 400 types of fish. A particular highlight is the Blue Hole, which can be found around 30 miles offshore in the calm lagoon waters of the Lighthouse Reef.
There you will find a deep blue gorge over 330 feet deep and 985 feet in diameter, formed around 10,000 years ago by the collapse of an underwater cave, and which now attracts divers in droves. You can see an immense cave system with giant colorful Caribbean fish and keenly idolized stalactites. The nearby Half Moon Bay Reservation offers a fantastic underwater view and is popular with both divers and snorklers. Despite all its glory, since 1998 the coral has undergone bleaching events which will eventually lead to the death of entire sections of the reef.
Belize City, over 300 years old, is not in fact the capital of the country but is the largest settlement, the most prominent trade center and an important port. Furthermore, Belize City attracts visitors with its Caribbean flair and a range of delightful colonial houses, wooden buildings and cathedrals. St. John's Cathedral, the oldest Anglican cathedral in Central America, and Government House are also worth seeing. This residence of the British governor, built at the beginning of the 19th century and combining Caribbean country and English city architecture, houses a museum today.
At the top of the list of places to visit, however, is the Swing Bridge. This hand-operated swing bridge, dating from 1922, connects the North and South Sides and is the oldest swing bridge in the world. It is even still used today. The Fort George Lighthouse is also still in use. The lighthouse looms still over the entrance to the port.
Blue Hole National Park
15 miles southeast of Belmopan, Blue Hole National Park has been open since 1972 and owes its name to the main attraction – the Blue Hole. This is a collapsed karst cave in which water collects on its way to the Sibun River.
This sinkhole is over 100 feet deep and 330 feet in diameter. The natural pool right at the sinkhole is around 25 feet deep and shimmers in a wonderful sapphire blue. After a short course through the untouched jungle, the flow of water disappears into a huge underground cave system. A 585-acre park radiates from the Blue Hole, which is home to a number of rare animal and plant species and where you can find St. Herman's Cave - an old Mayan cave. This is of huge archaeological significance, since ceramic vessels have been found there which the Mayans used to collect rainwater. Investigators have also stumbled across spears and torches. A wonderful nature trail links Blue Hole and St. Herman’s Cave, running through the upper forest and past a small visitor center.
Caracol is the largest Mayan center in Belize. This Mayan site, situated in the Reservat Mountain Pine Ridge and in the remote upper Chiquibul Rainforest, was once considered the most extensive – even larger than Guatemalan Tikal. Although the excavations in Caracol have not been as extensive as in Tikal and other sites, visitors will be able to appreciate the enormous size of the town on a walking tour. The largest pyramid by volume in the entire Maya region is particularly impressive.
This pyramid, named Caana, is around 140 feet high and is still one of the tallest man-made buildings in all of Belize. Around 20 plazas are situated around it, on which there are a number of temples. With a bit of imagination and thanks to the continual excavations, you can just about imagine Caracol 1,200 years ago with a good 180,000 inhabitants. Moreover: the name Caracol – meaning "snail" – is derived form the access road leading through the dense rainforest, which winds through the countryside and thus resembles the spirals on a snail’s shell.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the south of Belize and comprises around 100,000 acres of tropical rainforest extending from 328 feet to the summit of Victoria Peak at 3,675 feet. What makes this park special is that it is the first jaguar reserve in the world, and is therefore often referred to as the Jaguar Preserve. It is still home to the largest population of jaguars.
Fans of exotic wild cats will delight at the jaguars, ocelots and oncillas but ornithologists will also get their money’s worth. The dense jungle in the basin is a paradise for exotic species of birds - over 300 have been registered to date. Those of particular interest include the scarlet macaw, the great curassow, the keel-billed toucan and the king vulture. A large number of reptiles and amphibians, such as the red-eye frog, boa constrictors and the green iguana, also live in this basin. The forest itself comprises countless types of plants including, wheki, orchids, epiphytes and root-climbing liana. You can wander past the interesting fauna yourself on several jungle paths.
Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
Around 31 miles northwest of Belize City, the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary offers a number of excellent opportunities to observe some of the most fascinating waterfowl populations in the entire country. The region, covering several hundred acres, comprises a network of inland lagoons, swamps and waterways. During the dry season, thousands of birds gather here and exploit the plentiful food supply.
Herons and divers, pelicans and ducks, vultures, falcons and osprey, kingfishers and sea swallows and many other species can be particularly well seen on the around 1-mile long Bird Walk. The Jabiru stalk, the largest flying bird in the western hemisphere with a wingspan of up to 12 feet, is particularly remarkable. However, the variety of landscape also attracts animals such as howler monkeys, coatis, tortoises and crocodiles. Detailed information about the species you may encounter can be found in the visitor center at the edge of the small village Crooked Tree, where you can also rent boats and hire nature guides.
Five Blues Lake National Park
The Five Blues Lake National Park is near the capital of Belmopan. It is ensconced in the wonderful, wooded foothills of the Maya Mountains, and hides a variety of unexplored cave systems plus fascinating fauna and flora. The heart of the around 4,250-acre park opened in 1991 is, however, the Five Blues Lake.
Here, five different shades of blue can be seen in the water, right next to each other. The pleasantly cool water of the Five Blues Lake is around 230 feet deep. The lake, with Orchid Island in the center, covers a total of over 10 acres. A range of other collapsed caves, caverns and underground streams can be found in the chalk hills surrounding the lake. These hills and the large deciduous woodland area are home to all five Belizean wild cats as well as black howler monkeys, Central American tapirs, pacas and armadillos.
The Xunantunich Mayan ceremonial center stands out due to its spectacular location high on a hill above the Mopán River. The view from the ruins over the entire upper valley of the Belize River up to Guatemala is fabulous. Equally exciting is the design of the 1,000-year old cult center: A total of over 25 temples and palaces are grouped around six main squares.
The most eye-catching building is on the southern edge of the excavation - the nearly 130-foot high pyramid of El Castillo. This castle is famous for its stucco frieze, which used to run around the entire building and has been carefully restored by archaeologists. A small museum providing information about this work is worth a visit. 3-D models also show you how the Mayan town used to look. Displays explain the development of Mayan civilization and how Xunantunich is, according to archaeologists, an integral part of this system.© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore