San Ignacio is often overlooked by travelers coming from Guatemala, heading directly to the islands, and they’re missing on something. Cayo district is full of hidden gems. From river tubing and zip lining to bird watching and visiting Maya ruins, San Ignacio has a lot to offer and will satisfy any taste. Keep reading for a list of best things to do in San Ignacio.
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Mayan ruins near San Ignacio
Cayo district is full of Maya ruins, sparkled here and there through the jungle. Some are more accessible than others, here are a few must-see Mayan sites near San Ignacio.
Caracol, an ancient Maya city, located deep into the Belizean jungle, is a fantastic place to discover. A lot of structures are yet to be excavated, but what has been unearthed so far is breathtaking. Buildings are usually organized around a plaza. On some of the pyramids, you reach the top only to discover another plaza and more buildings.
The view from the highest pyramid is well worth the climb up. You’re literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature and birds singing.
On some structures, you still can see the rooms and the water system. The ball court has been left intact, the stelae in the middle are replicas. The carvings found on the side of some pyramids were hidden by Mayas, when a new ruler became king, he would usually destroy the structures or build on top. The carvings are not the original, if you touch it, you’ll notice it’s fiberglass, protecting the stucco sculptures underneath it.
How to get there: No public transportation, you’ll either need to go via a tour (around 100 USD) or with a 4 wheeler. If you go on your own, you’ll need to leave San Ignacio around 7 o’clock to reach the military camp at 9:30, from there you’ll be escorted to the ruins, the convoy back is around 2 PM. Being so close to the border, the area is full of smugglers, that’s why the military is there. It normally is safe though.
Bring plenty of food and water, there are no shops there.
Entrance fee: 20 BZ
Cahal Pech is the most accessible Maya site. Located on the outskirt of San Ignacio, Cahal Pech used to be a palatial home for one of the dignitaries and his family. Most of the structures are from the Classic period, but traces of settlement have been dated back as far as 1200 BC.
The furthermost plaza is a maze with multiple rooms and passageways. It’s incredible because, in most Maya cities, you can see how the exterior looked like, but it’s harder to imagine the inside. In Cahal Pech, you can actually see how the interior was organized.
Entrance fee. 10 BZD
How to get there: You can walk from the city center or take a cab. Head towards the roundabout on the way to Benque, once at the roundabout go up the hill via the dirt road.
Xumantunich is another exceptional Maya site to visit in Belize. Also surrounded by jungle, when you go up the main pyramid, you’ll get a breathtaking view over the surrounding villages and endless nature.
The structures have been well restored, and on one of the pyramids, you can see incredible carvings on each side.
Xunantunich means “Stone Woman,” the original name is unknown. A legend says the ghost of a woman has been seen there multiple times. Dressed in white with glowing eyes, she appears neat the Castillo and disappears into one of the walls.
The settlement started during the ceramic phase of the Pre-Classic period and reached its pinnacle around 670–750 AD when it got abandoned after some kind of battle. Xunantunich was re-established a few decades later and flourished once more.
Entrance fee: $10 BZ
How to get there: You can go via a tour, you can drive there (concreted road all the way) or you can take a cab (3-5 BZ) or a bus from San Ignacio to the river-crossing point (the ferry is free) and then, walk the 1-mile to the site (you can hitch a ride with someone). You can hire a guide at the river-crossing point. Keep your eyes open for monkeys on the way.
El Pilar, located 12 miles northwest of San Ignacio, deep in the jungle near the Guatemalan border, is a Maya city inhabited from the Middle Pre-Classic to the Late Classic. Under excavation, the site is practically the same as when it was first rediscovered.
To get there, you’ll need a 4-wheeler or to go through a tour.
Things to do in San Ignacio – Natural sights
Rio Frio cave and pools
On the way to Caracol, you’ll find Rio Frio cave and a bit further the pools. The cave is easily accessible, you don’t have to walk too much. The cave is through and through, you can enter it and explore. Both entrances are huge and let plenty of light in.
The pools are also easy to access, it takes around 5 minutes walking from the parking lot. There are plenty of areas to swim in, some swallow and some deeper. There’s a small waterfall, you can get under it and get a nice massage. Be careful, the rocks are super slippery.
Bring plenty of food and water, there’s nothing there.
Barton Creek Cave
Kayaking on the Barton Creek river, through this huge cave, you’ll be amazed from start to finish. If you like the outdoors, an excursion to Barton Creek Cave is a must. On your way, you’ll see Mennonite villages, tons of birds, lush vegetation, and beautiful concretions inside the cave.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (ATM Cave)
One of Belize’s best attractions, the ATM is an intricate cave system and sacred place for Mayas. Apart from the natural beauty of the cave, the highlight of the visit is the human remains found there. Mayas used the cave to make human sacrifices and worship the Gods. One of the full skeleton found inside the cave is called the Crystal Virgin because of the way the bones were calcified.
A lot of artifacts such as pottery are also found inside the cave. To protect it, the number of people allowed in each day is limited, and you cannot bring anything inside the cave. Even shoes are forbidden.
Visiting Belize on a tight budget?
As you might have understood, Belize is not a cheap country to travel to. Most “tourist attractions” aren’t reachable by public transportation, and some are so isolated than even hitchhiking is not an option. So you’ll need to go via tours, usually around 100 USD each. If you don’t have the budget (or the time) to visit all the places listed above I would recommend doing at least the Caracol and the ATM Cave tour. Keep in mind that you can always negotiate the prices. You can also do Xunantunich and Cahal Pech on your own.
Related article – Lamanai, the Maya city lost in the jungle
Where to stay in San Ignacio
From backpackers to luxurious jungle retreat, San Ignacio offers a large range of accommodation. Here are a couple you can check out:
- Budget: Bella’s Backpackers Cayo – comfy hostel, clean, common area, hammocks, kitchen, and wifi – Around $15 US a night.
- Mid-range: Pine Ridge Lodge – 19 miles from San Ignacio, surrounded by nature and tranquility, great restaurant on-site, offer tours, a great place for trekking and bird watching – Around $80 US a night.
In the city: MissDof’s Guesthome – nice guesthouse with a garden, common room and a shared kitchen. private bathroom, air-condition, breakfast included – Around $50 US a night
- Luxury: Ka’ana Resort & Spa – great resort on the outskirt of San Ignacio, in a secluded but accessible location, spacious rooms with terrace, wifi, an infinity pool, organic restaurant.
In the jungle: Hidden Valley Inn & Reserve – located in the heart of the rainforest, this resort is great for trekking there are several trails and waterfalls nearby, pool, yoga classes, private airstrip, bar, and restaurant.
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