The plan for our first day in Cayo was to explore the natural attractions in the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve (per one guidebook, it’s a botanical oddity to have pine forest this close to the equator). I’d done a little bit of reading but hadn’t seen any pictures of the three places we decided we’d try to find, so it was all going to be a surprise when we got there.
We missed the first road to the preserve (right out of San Ignacio), so we went on to the next turn at Georgeville to head for Hidden Valley Falls, the furthest east of the three places we wanted to see. All we knew about it was that, at 1,600 feet (despite its nickname Thousand Foot Falls), it’s the tallest waterfall in Central America. And that it was about 12 miles to get there from Georgeville – not a bad ride, right?
Yeah, right. Well, here’s yer first surprise! I thought we’d seen the worst of Belizean roads on the way to Cerros Point, but stretches of this road were much, much worse. Inconsistent pavement that shifted from gravel to clay to sand to dirt, all frequently pitted with potholes and huge cracks. I am pretty sure we significantly realigned our spines with that day’s driving, especially this first go.
I should have taken pictures of the bad stretches, but here’s a few I took for scenery’s sake where they look fine.
Along the way, we alternated between “hey, it’s an adventure!” and having serious doubts about the wisdom of this trip. For a number of reasons – among them, that we’d been going steadily up, and in places could see through the trees that there was a deep valley beside us – so where was the big drop-off going to be, and how bad was that going to be if these upper roads were already this bad? With no 4×4 in the truck, if we got stuck somewhere that far back, how were we going to get back out? We’d seen very little traffic out there with us, and there were few landmarks and lots of confusing twists and turns, and oh yeah, the only food or drink we’d brought with us (duh) were two glasses of water. Quite the Boy Scouts, huh?!
Fortunately, we finally arrived at the entry to the falls – essentially a guide shack / picnic area. Hmm. So the good and bad news was that we weren’t going down after all – unless we wanted to hike down a cliff.
We could hear the falls as we parked and – TA DA! – finally got a first view. Pretty spectacular.
There was a lookout post below where the view got even better.
The surrounding hills were almost as pretty as the falls.
We had to have a YOU ARE HERE moment or two, though I realized later that I should have taken a picture of the logbook after we signed it (I wished everyone a Happy July 4th).
So that was pretty cool – and made the long drive feel worth it. Which was good, since now we had to backtrack half of that ugly stretch before we could head for Rio On Pools. Ugh.
By the time we showed up there, we were hot and tired and more than ready for a swim. First we had to make a short trek through the jungle to the pools, though.
This place was gorgeous.
We’d thought to bring our water shoes which was good since the rocks in most areas were slippery. The water was clear and refreshing, with a deceptively fast current between the pools (Ray actually went over one set of short falls and I almost followed him before he hauled me up onto a rock – my hero).
We met two young couples from Pennsylvania and enjoyed watching the two guys try to navigate the rocks in bare feet – one with an expensive camera in hand. And Ray found a Jacuzzi spot he didn’t want to leave.
It was hard to get out of the water, but we (along with the Pennsylvania couples) decided to try to drive to an picnic area overlook up a steep hill – you were probably supposed to hike it, but both vehicles made it. What an incredible view!
It was hard to tear ourselves away. But eventually we decided we better get going or we’d be in the reserve after dark. On to Rio Frio Cave, not far down the road but a world away in how it felt.
After more bad roads, we reached a place called Douglas de Silva (supposedly part of the forestry service, but it looked like an abandoned summer camp in an overgrown meadow), then rode about five miles into an eerie (or maybe I should say irie*) stretch of overgrown jungle.
* Jamaican term that is also commonly used in Belize, meaning
1: powerful and pleasing; 2: excellent, highest; n 3: the state of feeling great.
This picture of the road doesn’t capture what it felt like – close and hot and oppressive, and the cicada noise was unreal – they were so loud that inside the cave beside a waterfall, you could still hear them.
These images from outside the cave give a little more sense of how dense and humid it was.
The cave entry is more or less heart-shaped and massive. Majestic. Awe-inspiring. Hard to get the scale of this in a photo. And it gets better once you’re inside.
Here’s an unfortunately blurry picture of Ray inside. I also included a photo I stole from the web to show the real scale of that inside.
This is the glorious view from inside looking out.
A half mile back, the cave opens to a similarly breath-taking view…
And toward the front, the Rio Frio (“cold river”) splashes over a small falls on its way out of the cave.
Enough! Time to head for the hotel. Again, unfortunately that meant we had to backtrack a pretty good stretch of bad road in order to get out of the reserve (when we passed Rio On Pools, we thought about taking another quick dip – but didn’t). We found the more direct route back to San Ignacio that we’d missed in the morning, but unfortunately it wasn’t any better than the alternate track out of Georgeville, except that it wound through a lovely village called San Jose where they really, really liked Luke (political banners all over town).
Oh yeah, and then we had to climb four sets of stairs to get to our little parrot perch at Martha’s Guesthouse. We were flat wore out – too wore out to even chase Moe and Curley here off the balcony. But what a fun day!
Postscript: Here’s an idea of the kind of terrain we were navigating. Coulda used this helicopter!