Besides the gorgeous oceans, people travel to Belize to explore ancient Mayan ruins and exotic jungles. San Ignacio is the perfect jumping off point for many of the country’s must-see gems, making this small but bustling town a top destination.
What is San Ignacio
Visitors of all athletic abilities and interests will find plenty of things to do in this western Belize town. San Ignacio has a more visible middle class than other parts of the country, and is a central hub for both locals and tourists. There is a small shopping area in which visitors and Belizeans rub elbows, leading to a generous offering of stores, restaurants, nightlife, and festivals.
The true draw for San Ignacio is its central location to a number of attractions, including Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), the Macal River, and a number of statuesque ruins. We only spent two-and-a-half days here before heading out to our next destination, so know that there are plenty of things to do in San Ignacio outside of the activities highlighted in this blog post.
Getting There and Getting Around
The drive from Belize City to San Ignacio was smooth and easy to navigate, unlike many of the lesser-traveled roads in Belize. There are plenty of shuttles you can take, but I’m ultimately pleased with our decision to rent a car. The main roads in San Ignacio and the neighboring Santa Elena are easy to drive, but turning off the well-traveled drags can lead to quite a bumpy ride. Lack of signage in the town makes it easy to get lost (we almost drove into Guatemala), but the town’s size makes it easy to find your way back to the central area.
If you travel to San Ignacio, chances are that you will have a wish list of things to do. If you plan on going with tours that pick you up from your hotel, a car is unnecessary. However, if you plan on exploring the area yourself, know that none of the city’s highlights are within walking distance of the town’s center or one another.
Things we Loved About San Ignacio
Caracol: I’ll be honest, I was on the fence about going to Caracol. After all, these Mayan ruins were 2.5 hours from San Ignacio, the roads there were too treacherous to drive, and tours there could be a bit expensive (we paid $85.00 per person for the trip and went with Maya Mountain Walks ). In hindsight, the right choice was to go! The ruins were fun to explore, and our knowledgeable guide talked with passion about the surrounding nature, the purposes of the various buildings, and the culture of the kingdom that resided there all those years ago.
For more insights and tips, read my full blog post in which I review Caracol.
Belize Iguana Project : Small, straight-forward, and incredibly cool, the Belize Iguana Project is an enclosed area in which individuals raise iguanas to maturity before releasing them into the wild to help the population. Why I love this place is that the lizards’ wellbeing is truly a top priority. The iguanas can climb all over you (watch out, their claws are sharp), yielding plenty picture-perfect moments. When touring the facilities, we were only with four other individuals, making for a fun Q-and-A session with our host without the discomfort of crowds.
As a bonus, the facility is housed at the ritzy San Ignacio Resort Hotel, so Joe and I got to enjoy the luxurious surroundings for a few minutes. The botanical gardens are right nearby as well; while they look lovely, we were unable to find the time to go during this trip to Belize.
Xunantunich: I’ll be honest, after seeing Caracol, I thought that Xunantunich would be underwhelming. I was wrong. Located a short, smooth drive from San Ignacio, it’s better maintained and a bit more populated than Caracol, though I wouldn’t call the ruins “crowded.” For me, the highlight was the spectacular view from the top of El Castillo.
Barton Creek Cave: Almost everyone that visits San Ignacio makes the journey deep into the ATM cave, an adventure that requires hiking through deep waters, hoisting oneself on top of rocks, and generally being concerned for one’s safety. I wanted to want to do it but, if I am being honest, neither of us thought this sounded like a good time. So we opted for Barton Creek as an alternative.We went on a private trip with Maya Mountain Walks, and they drove us through gorgeous countryside to reach Barton Creek Cave. We passed picture-perfect Mennonite farms and stretches of uninterrupted, untamed nature. We even had to drive through a small river to reach our final destination.
Barton Cave cannot be done without a guide, though you’ll find someone on the premises who will readily take you deep into the cavern. Be prepared to sit in a canoe for an extended period of time, which may not be the most comfortable experience for someone with a bad back.
The journey through the still waters and darkened cave is enjoyable, especially when the spooky stalagmites and rock formations pair with stories of Mayan sacrifices.
Maya Mountain Lodge: It’s pretty rare that I consider my accommodations a highlight of a destination, which makes Maya Mountain Lodge all the more special. The grounds were absolutely beautiful, the staff beyond friendly, and the food was delicious. Plus, it’s quite affordable. I highly recommend here.
Things We Found “Meh” About San Ignacio
The Zip lining: I love zip lining and have done my fair share of them. Unfortunately, the one in San Ignacio was the most underwhelming one I’d ever done. Almost all of the zip lines were too low to the ground to generate any real thrill, so most of the time it felt like a glorified playground. The one benefit was that there was no one else with us, meaning that we had zero lines or waits.
The Town Itself: San Ignacio provided me and Joe with a truly enjoyable time. However, despite its tourist-friendly destination, the town is not necessarily tourist-friendly itself, especially compared to other destinations like Costa Rica. Yes, you’ll find a strip of bars and restaurants. However, the town caters to the locals first-and-foremost, which honestly is a good thing. The upside of this is that you’ll have some Grade-A people watching, as we found out when we caught the tail end of an early-morning festival. The downside is that the standards of living fall far below what many of us Americans come to expect. While I am hardly a snob, it was nearly impossible to find food that wasn’t expired at the grocery store, and I felt a bit nervous leaving our nice rental car parked on a side street after dark.
It’s worth noting that, despite my paranoia, nothing bad happened while we were in San Ignacio except for a tense run-in with the neighborhood’s stray dogs.