The jungles of Belize
Credit: Matt Champlin / Getty Images

The jungles of Belize

Ten miles east of Belmopan, Belize's capital, in the karst country of Cayo district, a Canadian explorer has created a unique multisport training camp. Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge sits on a 90-square-mile private estate and offers a huge array of heart-rate-spiking adventure options: Rappel into a 300-foot sinkhole, tube on an underground stream, climb subterranean waterfalls, hammer jungle singletrack, or paddle serpentine rivers. Caves Branch is also a certified British army adventure-training center; travelers can embark on three-day to weeklong survival courses (sleeping rough out in the jungle) taught by the same guides who instruct special-forces soldiers who are also the backbone of Belize's cave and wilderness rescue team and must recertify twice a year.

"On the survival courses, the only food we take out is a little garlic, salt, pepper, and onion for flavor," says Anderson. "Everything else is acquired from the jungle. More important than fitness is the mental attitude to go and do something outside the box." Anderson also leads "Bad Ass Expeditions,'' weeklong sorties to find new entrances to Mayan ruins, buried by the jungle for almost 1,500 years.

Although the Mayan temples of Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatán get the glory, Belize has many impressive ruins and scores of cave sites from a civilization that flourished for 2,000 years. Avoid the cruise-ship crowds at Altun Ha and head to Xunantunich and Caracol, deep in Cayo district. On a hilltop seven miles outside the backpacker hub of San Ignacio, Xunantunich is reached via a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River and a hike. The ceremonial center, including the 130-foot-tall El Castillo pyramid, has been restored to its eighth-century glory. For a more strenuous outing, trek to the lost city of Caracol. Buried in Chiquibul National Park and only partially excavated, the 15-square-mile complex has the stones (including the 141-foot-high Caana pyramid, still the country's tallest structure) to prove its former might.

"Caracol is a massive and beautiful site,'' says Neil Rogers, who has organized several archaeological tours to Belize. "There's a true sense of the site having just been discovered.''

High-end hideaway Blancaneaux Lodge, one of Francis Ford Coppola's places, is an hour's drive from Caracol and Xunantunich and can arrange visits. At Blancaneaux, travelers can hike or ride horses through the surrounding Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and swim in the Privassion River coursing through the property.

Smart and solitary jungle hunters, jaguars are hard to spot in the wild, but the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's first jaguar preserve, and the Rio Bravo Conservation & Management Area, Belize's largest private reserve, provide the best opportunities. An easy day trip from coastal Dangriga, 200-square-mile Cockscomb is laced with 20 miles of hiking trails, from which travelers often see half-foot-wide paw prints, jaguar scat, and wildlife such as raccoonlike coati, anteaters, and howler monkeys. Stay overnight at the Cockscomb Basin cabins.

The tourist track ends long before southernmost Toledo district, a remote region smack in the middle of the Meso-American Biological Corridor. With a huge diversity of habitats – everything from mountain rain forest to coastal swamp – Toledo teems with wildlife. Travelers might spot tapir, howler monkeys, and gorgeous keel-billed toucans on their way to the Moho Cay Lodge, located on a private island within the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Tourists may be back on the coast, but they're still in the wild.

More information: Various Cave Branch Adventure packages combining meals and activities are available, with lodging options ranging from river-view treehouses to tents.