Perched on the banks of the Macal River in the exuberant tropical jungle of Belize, the Mystic River Resort is an excellent base for unforgettable adventures in the Cayo District’s natural and archeological attractions. Waterfalls, sacred caves, ancient Mayan ruins, hiking, kayaking, chocolate-making experience, and an infinity of wildlife: it’s all within reach! In early June, as the low season (rainy season) began, I spent a week alone in this Central American country celebrating the end of my career break. I was surrounded by iguanas, toucans, and howler monkeys, but enjoyed various modern amenities despite the remote location.
In this travel guide, I share my experiences at the Mystic River Resort and outline the unforgettable day trips where I indulged my senses and channeled my wild woman. Feel inspired and build your own itinerary.
Table of contents – Click to read
- Why you should consider Belize for your next adventure
- The Mystic River: a luxury jungle resort lodge
- Perfect, serene location in the heart of the jungle
- Spacious and comfortable suites, but be aware: no A/C and limited Wi-Fi
- Quiet swimming pool
- Free canoes, kayaks, and river tubing
- Free guided bird-watching
- Free marshmallow roasting under a full moon and stars
- Hiking trails
- Nice bar with daily happy hour specials
- Decent food, but there’s room for improvement
- Sustainable and completely off-the-grid
- Friendly and professional staff
- My top Jungle Adventures in Belize
- ATM Cave
- Caracol Mayan Ruins
- Rio Frio Cave at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
- Rio on Pools at Mountain Ridge Pine Forest Reserve
- Big Rock Waterfalls at Mountain Ridge Pine Forest Reserve
- San Ignacio Saturday Farmer’s Market
- Green Iguana Conservation Project at the San Ignacio Hotel
- AJAW Chocolate Experience in San Ignacio
- Frequently Asked Questions
- 1. How many days should I plan to stay in the Cayo District and in the Mystic River Resort?
- 2. Are there direct flights from the US?
- 3. Do I need to rent a car in Belize?
- 4. How do I arrange an airport transfer to/from the Mystic River Resort?
- 5. Are the Mystic River and Belize expensive?
- 6. What is the local currency?
- 7. Is Belize safe for solo female travelers?
Why you should consider Belize for your next adventure
This small country of roughly 400,000 people has a vast rainforest with dense canopies, rich fauna, flora, and archeological sites. While my exploration was limited to the jungle, Caribbean blue beaches were a 3.5-hour drive from the Mystic River Resort.
If you’re into wildlife, the jungle will gift you monkeys, iguanas, toucans, and an infinity of other species. Surprisingly, my encounters with bugs and mosquitoes were rare. You’ll also find a pine forest reserve brimming with caves, waterfalls, natural swimming pools, and great vistas.
Cultural diversity and a mosaic of languages
With a multiracial population, Belize is a mosaic of cultural diversity. A great part of the population descends from ancient Mayans. There is also a thriving Afro-descendent community whose ancestors were African slaves that the British colonizers imported in the 1700s. Throughout the years, many expats from nearby Spanish-speaking countries moved to the region. Belize gained independence from Britain in 1981, but it’s still a part of the British Commonwealth. While there, I saw many British soldiers in jungle training, including a troop skinny-dipping in a river. Hello, prudence!
While English is the official language, it coexists with Spanish, numerous Mayan languages, and Creole, all of which enjoy widespread usage. The linguistic landscape includes even German, reflecting a sizable Mennonite community.
Mayan history, myths…and chocolate!
The Mayans, the original inhabitants of Belize, continue to reside and thrive in this region. A visit to the ancient ruins is a must. One of my cherished memories of connecting with the locals was when I joined the resort’s guides around a bonfire. During this time, they shared captivating stories of ghosts and mythical creatures. Additionally, I had the privilege to attend a chocolate-making class and delve into the rich history of the “drink of the gods,” which dates back thousands of years when the Mayans reigned supreme in Mesoamerica.
Great for solo female travelers and families
I went on a solo trip to Belize and spent most of my time at the resort. However, when I ventured out, I joined group tours organized by the Mystic River. During one of these tours, I explored Santo Ignacio by myself and always felt safe. On one of my adventures, I connected with a fellow solo traveler lady from Germany. At the resort, I also met several families traveling with children and teenagers who shared how Belize had become a fantastic destination for making cherished memories.
The Mystic River: a luxury jungle resort lodge
Be rest assured that the property is not paying me to write this review, but below are the main reasons why I recommend it.
After extensive research, I found that the Mystic River provided the best value compared to other resorts in the region by hundreds of dollars a night. I ate most of my meals there, and to make my dollars count, I opted to eat à la carte instead of buying an all-inclusive package.
During my stay I visited three other luxury jungle lodges, the Blancaneaux (owned by the Francis Ford Coppola family), where I had a delicious margarita after a tour; SweetSongs, where I ate a wonderful lunch; and the San Ignacio Hotel in San Ignacio, where I toured a conservation project. Their premises are more luxurious, but in my opinion the Mystic River offers a perfect jungle setting, beautiful accommodations, and great service.
Perfect, serene location in the heart of the jungle
The setting by the Macal River is unbeatable. You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle, and the river running through the property elevates the natural setting. It feels remote, but it’s only a 25-30 minute drive from San Ignacio, the largest town in the Cayo District. The tropical canopy is dense, the sounds of wildlife are plentiful, and quietness and serenity reign. Except when the howler monkeys decide to do monkey business: the first time I heard them, I thought Godzilla was after me!
Spacious and comfortable suites, but be aware: no A/C and limited Wi-Fi
I stayed in the most basic room, the Studio Suite in casita-style, surprisingly huge. My king bed was comfortable, and the bathroom was spacious with a fabulous cold/hot shower. I spent many moments writing and recharging on the spacious outdoor balcony that reached into the dense jungle. The view of the Macal River was dreamy, and from my balcony I saw numerous toucans and agoutis, little rodents that look like small guinea pigs.
Though this is a luxury resort, be warned: there is no air-conditioning. I must admit: it was insanely hot when I was there in early June, which is the start of the rainy season and also the hottest time of the year. The spectacular rain that poured down a couple of times cooled things off a bit, but not by much. Every night before bed, I had to take a cold shower and turn on the ceiling to the maximum potency. I would still wake up in a puddle of my own sweat. That a funny woodpecker would wake me up daily was poetic enough to keep me in good spirits for a whole week.
There is also no Wi-Fi or TV in the room, which I welcomed, for their absence prompted me to read and write. Wi-Fi is stable and available in the resort’s common areas. The suite doesn’t have a mini-fridge or coffee maker, and room service is limited to coffee and pastries starting at 7 a.m.
Quiet swimming pool
There’s none of that annoyingly loud music and frantic entertainment found in the Cancun, Mexico, resorts. At the Mystic River, nature is the spectacle. The swimming pool is small and not as modern looking if compared to those from other lodges I visited, but it was cozy and yeah, quiet!
Free canoes, kayaks, and river tubing
I put on a life jacket and canoed for 5 minutes down the river to the neighboring SweetSongs Jungle Lodge Resort. I anchored in a nice pebble beach with shade and chairs where I spent hours reading in complete solitude, occasionally watching toucans and flocks of other birds fly by. On another occasion, I tubbed on the lazy river around sunset to cool off from the heat.
Free guided bird-watching
I’m not a bird watcher, but I’m an early riser, and with a cup of coffee in my hands I enjoyed learning about the hundreds of species that call Belize and the Mystic River home.
Free marshmallow roasting under a full moon and stars
I asked for a bonfire to enjoy moonlight and roast marshmallows. Fortunately, I had the place to myself that night and engaged in a wonderful conversation with two resort guides who were raised in a nearby Mayan village. As the evening progressed, I found myself hearing tales of local myths and legends (read more on my blog post Spirits and Worry Dolls: The Supernatural Lurking Under the Belizean Moonlight). To the Mayans, these stories of ghosts and otherworldly creatures are deeply woven into the tapestry of life. For them, the boundary between the supernatural and reality is imperceptible. I was both fascinated and spooked enough to keep the lights on in my room that night!
There are a few hiking trails around the property, including a short 15-minute path that led me to a fantastic river view.
Nice bar with daily happy hour specials
Rum is the local drink, and I enjoyed the rum martinis with Blue Curacao that the friendly bartender skillfully crafted exactly as I instructed him. The menu also featured reasonably priced bottles of European and South American wines. And of course, Belikin, the local brew.
Decent food, but there’s room for improvement
I wish I could tell you that the food was memorable. It wasn’t, but it wasn’t bad either. Considering that this is a luxury resort, I was a bit disappointed, because the food quality could be a hit or miss. I also hoped for more local specialties in the lunch and appetizer menus. Also: don’t expect the food to be Michelin-style. It feels homemade, not chef-based. I did enjoy the local breakfast specialties though. And I loved how the friendly staff always saved me a seat with the best river view.
Sustainable and completely off-the-grid
The resort owner told me that the Mystic River operates as its own city, completely off-the-grid. As per the website, it has its “own advanced systems of electricity generation, wastewater treatment, waste reduction, resource generation, and recycling.” Their abundant garden is packed with fruits and vegetables used in the kitchen. I also learned that soon the resort will run 100% on solar panels.
Friendly and professional staff
Everyone knew me by name. The staff was warm and professional and always available to assist me with my needs. The owners took a special interest in describing how they envisioned the resort and built it from the ground up. I felt highly inspired and honored that they shared their entrepreneurial journey with me.
My top Jungle Adventures in Belize
My first impression was to ask how is it possible that tourism is allowed in a special place like that. Short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, ATM is a spectacular system of caves that appeals to adventure lovers and those interested in ancient Mayan culture and anthropology in general. National Geographic has even ranked ATM the number one on the list of “Sacred Places of a Lifetime.” This tour is only allowed with a licensed guide, and photos are strictly prohibited. In the past, tourists ruined delicate artifacts and human remains for the sake of a selfie.
ATM isn’t for the faint of heart or those in poor physical condition. The tour includes a short hike in which you cross a couple of rivers that aren’t always crystal clear. Inside the cave, you’ll climb steep steps, walk through high water and slippery grounds, and even swim.
You’ll feel transported back to thousands of years ago and see skeletal remains of human sacrifices exactly as they were found. It’s a remarkable natural museum that brings the Mayan underworld to life. It’s beautiful, and even a bit spooky. If there’s only one adventurous thing you should do in the Cayo District, this is it. Be mindful that this is a sacred site, so behave properly.
Caracol Mayan Ruins
Located 25 miles south of San Ignacio and surrounded by the tropical jungle, this exquisite archeological site once housed more than 150,000 people. It’s the largest ancient Mayan site in Belize and hosts the tallest building in the country, the Canaa or “Sky Palace,” at 141 feet or 43 meters high. It’s well-preserved with plazas, reservoirs, and even a ball court where athletes played games. As with many ancient Mayan sites, the buildings were erected to be in alignment with the Equinoxes. The acoustic is impeccable, and I could imagine an ancient ruler covered in jade talking to his subjects in the main plaza below.
The peak of Caracol’s civilization happened around 650 AD. The city was abandoned around 1050 and rediscovered by a British archeologist in 1938. It’s mind-blowing to think that only 20% of the site has been excavated. Various mounds are covered with giant trees making you think they’re just natural formations, when in reality they’re hiding ancient buildings. I recommend you go on a professionally guided tour to learn more about the fascinating history of Caracol and the Mayan civilization.
Day trips to Caracol normally combine visits to the fabulous Rio Frio Cave and Rio on Pools, described below.
Rio Frio Cave at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
With stalactites, stalagmites, a natural white sand beach, a natural swimming pool, and the delicious scents of the earth, water, and trees all around it, the Rio Frio Cave is one of the most magical, scenic spots I’ve seen in my entire life (and I’ve seen many). My local tour guide mentioned spotting a mamma ocelot and her two cubs nesting there a few years ago. The site was also used by the ancient Mayans as a sacred burial site. I was in awe.
Rio on Pools at Mountain Ridge Pine Forest Reserve
These connected natural swimming pools make a great picnic location. It’s a serene place to swim, unwind, and welcome in bliss. The vistas are also gorgeous. Located one hour from San Ignacio.
Big Rock Waterfalls at Mountain Ridge Pine Forest Reserve
I’m a waterfall chaser: if I hear there’s one nearby, I must go. My half-day tour included a picnic by this stunning 150-foot waterfall that cascades into a series of clear water swimming pools. The water, fed by the Privassion River, was perfect: not too cold, not too warm. It was one of those experiences where I felt I had a deep spiritual cleanse. The vegetation around it is not the tropical jungle, but a natural pine forest.
One must be careful not to slip and fall, so good water shoes are a must. There’s also a steep downhill hike to arrive there. This means the climb back up is just as steep, so hold your breath. Big Rock Waterfalls feels remote, but it’s a favorite leisure spot for locals and tourists, so get there early to avoid crowds.
San Ignacio Saturday Farmer’s Market
You can’t experience Belize solely from a resort, so create time to explore nearby towns and villages. With approximately 24,000 people, San Ignacio is the center of the Cayo District. It’s unpretentious, humble, and even a bit run-down. I strongly recommend you go there on a Saturday to experience the vibrant farmer’s market, shop artisanal crafts, and eat locally. The pupusas I ate at the market were exquisite!
Green Iguana Conservation Project at the San Ignacio Hotel
From the farmer’s market walk to the opulent San Ignacio Hotel, which hosted notables like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The hotel also hosts the Green Iguana Conservation Project, a noteworthy educational one-hour experience for adults and children, open to non-hotel guests. Learn about the different types of iguanas found in Belize, with particular attention to the endangered green iguanas. You’ll also have a chance to play with these funny-looking creatures. I was never into iguanas, but by the end of my tour, my heart melted, and I felt a great connection to these mini-dinosaurs.
AJAW Chocolate Experience in San Ignacio
Chocolate was considered a sacred drink in ancient Mayan times. The AJAW Cholocate Experience in San Ignacio combines history with hands-on chocolate making. In a classroom setting, you’ll have access to a cocoa tree, cocoa pods, and cocoa seeds, and learn how chocolate has been produced in stone grinds for thousands of years. Moreover, you’ll be served several tastings, including in the ancient Mayan and Spanish styles (the former with allspice, the latter has a dash of cayenne and cinnamon). Be warned: it’s bitter and nothing like you’re used to. But oh, it elevates you!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How many days should I plan to stay in the Cayo District and in the Mystic River Resort?
I spent seven days in the Mystic River. I recommend a minimum of four full days in the Cayo District to experience its top sites without feeling overly rushed. To fully enjoy the settings and activities at the Mystic River, reserve at least a full day and a half.
2. Are there direct flights from the US?
Yes. A flight from Houston takes approximately 2.5 hours.
3. Do I need to rent a car in Belize?
The Cayo District, home to the best jungle lodges, is approximately a 2.5-hour car ride from the Belize International Airport in Belize City. While some tourists prefer to rent a car, I decided against it because I’m uncomfortable driving in a foreign country. Instead, my resort took care of arranging all my tours. If needed, you can easily find taxis in towns like San Ignacio.
4. How do I arrange an airport transfer to/from the Mystic River Resort?
Although the Mystic River Resort offers a private transfer service, I discovered a more cost-effective option through Ron’s Belize Private Shuttle. Ron, the owner and a Dutch expatriate, personally chauffeured me to and from the resort and the airport. The van was equipped with comfortable seating and air conditioning. Ron conducted himself with professionalism and was very friendly throughout the journey. I wholeheartedly recommend his services.
Note that some resorts have private small plane runways, and small airplane transfers are common for jungle and beach destinations.
5. Are the Mystic River and Belize expensive?
Luxury jungle lodges primarily target American and European travelers, and their prices align with those of high-end hotels in the United States. As previously mentioned, during my research I determined that the Mystic River Resort provided the most favorable combination of luxury and value. In the low season (May – November), one night in the most basic suite, which was huge and wonderful, cost me $230 with taxes and without food.
Food at the Mystic River is cheaper than the average dining experience in the US. A dinner with an appetizer, main entré, and a glass of wine cost between $25 – $35. In San Ignacio, a local meal at the farmer’s market can cost less than $5.
While in Belize, I also had the opportunity to visit a couple of other luxurious resorts: the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, the Blancaneaux Lodge, and SweetSongs Jungle Lodge. These properties are undeniably stunning but come with a higher price tag.
6. What is the local currency?
The official currency in Belize is the Belizean dollar (BZ$). US dollars are accepted and exchanged everywhere. The exchange rate is pretty straightforward: 1 USD = 2 BZ$. Credit cards are widely accepted but carry cash in either currency for tips and more minor expenses.
7. Is Belize safe for solo female travelers?
As mentioned, I traveled alone and felt safe the entire time, including walking alone in San Ignacio during the day. I heard many warnings not to travel alone to Belize City due to its high crime rate. Travel on, but exercise caution anywhere you go, always.