Cayo District is the largest administrative area in the country, measuring more than 2,000 square miles in size that stretches from the Guatemalan border in the west to the outskirts of Belize District in the east. Long a largely undeveloped wilderness of jungle and broad-leafed forest, Cayo District is now the second most populated district in the country.
Belize’s national capital, Belmopan, is located in Cayo District. And San Ignacio Town, the second-largest town in the country, serves as the district capital. Other villages include St. Margaret, Bullet Tree Falls, Blackman Eddy, More Tomorrow, Georgeville, San Jose Succotz, and Spanish Lookout. Cayo District is also home to enormous national parks, nature reserves, the unique inland Blue Hole, and some of the largest ancient Maya sites ever discovered.
For much of Belize’s history, Cayo District was primarily used for chicle farming and hardwood logging. In the modern era, Cayo is now the seat of the national government, a home for diverse faiths and peoples, and a popular staging point for visitors wanting to explore the gorgeous landscapes and natural wonders in the region.
The geography of Cayo District includes thick jungle, broadleaf forests, mountains, scenic valleys, jungle rivers, waterfalls, and a dense network of subterranean rivers and caves carved out of the limestone by the long march of time. The gently rolling hills and flat-bottomed plains are devoted to cattle farming and citrus orchards. Cayo is home to the largest waterfall in Central America (named Thousand Foot Falls although it measures 1,600 feet high), the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, and Guanacaste National Park. Two major rivers crisscross Cayo District, the Macal River and the Mopan River. The district capital San Ignacio lies at the intersection of these two rivers.
Cayo District is the eco-tourism center of Belize. With a population of around 75,000 people thinly spread out between villages and towns, Cayo District is a popular travel destination thanks to its lush landscapes, pristine rivers, limestone caves, waterfalls, and exotic flora and fauna. Many of the top ancient Maya sites in the country, including the city-states of Xunantunich and Caracol that once vied with Tikal (now just over the border in Guatemala) are located in Cayo District.
The largely unspoiled nature throughout Cayo District is home to a vibrant ecosystem of flora and fauna, including hundreds of bird species, all five of Belize’s indigenous big cats, endangered animals like Morelet’s crocodile, and a colorful assortment of enormous amphibians, tapirs, and monkeys.
The rural nature of Cayo District has always drawn an eclectic mix of cultures and people. Today, Cayo District is home to bands of Mestizos, Creole, Guatemalans, Lebanese shopkeepers, East Indian entrepreneurs, Chinese restauranteurs, and Mennonite farmers.
After the historic capital of Belize City was severely battered by a hurricane in 1965, the government of Belize decided to help open up the western part of the country by building a new capital from scratch. Belmopan is located in the geographical center of the country and features a modern design of streets, lovely parks, and cultural centers as well as the parliament building and other government offices. With a population of around 17,000 people, Belmopan is one of the smallest capital cities in the world.
San Ignacio Town
San Ignacio, along with its twin town Santa Elena on the other side of the Macal River, is now the second-biggest municipal area in the country after Belize City. A popular launching point for explorations in the region, San Ignacio is home to a bustling downtown filled with shops and cafes as well as one of the biggest open-air markets in Belize where farmers and artisans meet to sell their wares and trade gossip. San Ignacio connects to Santa Elena with the Hawksworth Bridge, the only suspension bridge in the country. On the bluffs above San Ignacio lie the ancient Maya city of CahalPech, constructed as an elite residence for ruling nobles and royalty.
San Ignacio is approximately 70 miles west of Belize City and nine miles from the Guatemalan border.
Despite its name, Spanish Lookout is home to a strong community of some 3,000 Mennonites. Although they still converse in the old German dialect of their homeland in Europe, the Mennonites are a modern community of farmers and craftsmen, known for their dairy, cattle, and woodworking. Still a conservative people that rely on regular church attendance and traditional clothing, the Mennonites in Spanish Lookout use electricity and modern conveniences.
Petroleum deposits are also located in Spanish Lookout.
The George Price Highway, still widely known as the Western Highway, is a direct connection from Belize to Belmopan (about an hour’s drive) all the way to the border with Guatemala. The Hummingbird Highway connects Belmopan directly to Dangriga on the southeastern coast.