Whoever thought that Belize is only about white sandy beaches and palm trees got it wrong! Inland, near the border with Guatemala, you’ll find the city of San Ignacio, where entirely different landscapes await. Here, you’ll discover breathtaking natural wonders, including hidden caves, waterfalls, and numerous Maya temples. One of the highlights of San Ignacio is the ATM tour, where you’ll visit a sacred Maya cave. Like a true Indiana Jones, you’ll swim, climb, and maneuver through the cave while learning all about Xibalba, the Maya underworld. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know and more tips for exploring the beautiful San Ignacio!
How to Get to San Ignacio?
From Flores (Guatemala) to San Ignacio
To travel from Flores to San Ignacio, you’ll need to cross the border. It’s convenient to book a shuttle that crosses the border with you, so you won’t need to transfer. There are many different shuttle buses with varying prices. Getaway Travels often offers the best prices. You’ll make a stop at the border where you’ll go through customs, then continue your journey to San Ignacio. Depending on how long you spend at the border, this ride takes approximately 3 hours.
From Caye Caulker to San Ignacio
At the port of Caye Caulker, you’ll board the ferry to Belize City. It departs several times a day and takes about an hour to reach the Belize City port. You can choose between the San Pedro Belize Express or Caribbean Sprinter ferries. From this bus terminal in Belize City, local buses depart for San Ignacio. If you prefer to travel to San Ignacio by shuttle, it’s best to book this journey at your hotel or hostel in Caye Caulker.
What to Do in San Ignacio?
There are plenty of attractions in and around San Ignacio. Below, you’ll find tips for the most enjoyable activities.
Must-do: Embark on an Adventure in ATM Cave
If there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss in San Ignacio, it’s the ATM Cave tour. With this tour, you’ll explore the impressive sacred Maya cave, which was the highlight of my trip to San Ignacio. The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave literally means the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. This cave was rediscovered in 1986 and has been declared the number one destination for sacred caves in the world by National Geographic. The cave is stunning with its crystal-clear stalactites and stalagmites; from a historical perspective, it’s fascinating. It is a natural museum of ancient Maya artifacts and a sacred burial site.
During the tour, you will embark on a journey through the cave, guided by an expert and in a small group, channeling your inner Indiana Jones. You’ll be swimming, climbing, and scrambling through the cave’s intricate passages, so having a reasonable level of fitness is a must. Along the way, you’ll gain insights into Xibalba, which translates to “the underworld” in Maya culture. According to their beliefs, the underworld consisted of nine layers one had to traverse before reaching heaven. Caves served as the initial step in that direction, making them the site of many rituals and offerings. Deep within the cave, you’ll encounter an archaeological site with Mayan pottery, which the Maya used, and skeletons of individuals who were sacrificed for ancient rituals.
The ATM tour offers a unique and essential experience in San Ignacio. It’s fascinating to explore the Maya history from a different perspective beyond the well-known temples. It is highly recommended to pre-book the ATM Cave tour because it can get fully booked last minute.
What to Bring: Wear sneakers, trail shoes, or water shoes along with a pair of thick socks. Opt for lightweight pants and a t-shirt. Apply mosquito repellent beforehand, remove any jewelry, and bring a change of clothes. It is prohibited to take your camera, phone, or other belongings into the cave due to past incidents where tourists accidentally damaged ancient remains. As a result, nothing is allowed inside. When you book the tour mentioned above, you will receive previously taken photos afterward, providing you with a memento of this extraordinary place.
Float Through the Caves with Cave Tubing
If you prefer a more relaxed day but still want to experience something enjoyable, no worries! Even while lounging on an inner tube, you can immerse yourself in the culture of San Ignacio. Please don’t confuse this tubing experience with the party version in destinations like Vang Vieng, Laos. Think of it more as an informative journey akin to a Fata Morgana at Efteling. Several Cave Tubing tours, including an hour of travel each way, last a full day. I personally joined this Cave Tubing tour and can highly recommend it as one of the best-run organizations. Upon arrival, you’ll enjoy a 30 to 45-minute walk through beautiful nature before reaching the caves. Once you’re settled in your tube, you’ll float through the cave, marveling at the stunning rock formations and shimmering stalactites. Meanwhile, your guide will share intriguing facts about the role of caves during the time of the Maya, and you might even come across some ancient pottery shards.
If you want to combine tubing with zip-lining, then this combination tour is also a lot of fun.
Tip: You can purchase waterproof phone cases or rent a dry bag at the starting point. They also offer water shoes for rent in case you don’t have suitable footwear or sandals.
Explore the San Ignacio Market
Visit the San Ignacio Market if you want to buy fresh vegetables or fruits or simply explore a local market in Belize. The market predominantly features vegetable, fruit, and street food stalls, but you can also find second-hand clothing. The market is open every day, but it’s busiest on Saturday mornings when all the food stalls are open, allowing you to sample various local dishes. If you haven’t tried pupusas, tamales, or burritos yet, this market is the perfect place to indulge in these delectable treats.
Climb the Temples of Xunantunich
Xunantunich is a magnificent Maya complex nestled in the jungle, boasting 25 temples and palaces. The most renowned structure is El Castillo, which stands tall at 40 meters (131 feet). The exciting part is that you can still climb this temple. From the top, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of other temples and the surrounding natural beauty.
You can visit the temples with a tour, but it’s also easy and fun to explore the complex on your own. Tours can be quite expensive in Belize, and you can easily get here using public transportation. In San Ignacio, take the bus heading towards Benque. Inform the bus driver or keep an eye out to get off here and then take the ferry to the other side of the river. After the ferry, it’s about a half-hour walk to the entrance of the Xunantunich Temples. The park is open from 08:00 to 17:00, and tour groups usually arrive between 10:00 and 15:00. Therefore, I recommend planning your visit outside of these hours to avoid crowds. During quieter times, you’ll have fewer people in your photos when capturing the beautiful views, enhancing your overall experience. However, do ensure you bring enough water and perhaps a snack, as the kiosk doesn’t open until 10:00.
Extra tip: For an even more extraordinary experience, you can explore the Xunantunich Temples on horseback. During the horseback ride, you’ll ride through the stunning natural surroundings, ultimately reaching the temples. This adds another layer of awe to your visit. You can book this tour even if you have no prior horseback riding experience.
Stay in a Jungle Lodge in the San Ignacio Area
In Belize, you’ll find many beautiful natural areas, and to fully immerse yourself in their beauty, consider staying at a jungle lodge. In the San Ignacio area, you’ll discover several gorgeous jungle lodges where you can be one with nature. Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge might just be the most exquisite lodge in Belize. Situated amidst lush jungle, this lodge offers stunning wooden bungalows. Despite being in the heart of nature, you can enjoy luxurious comfort in these cottages. Wake up to the sounds of the jungle, and as you sip your morning coffee on your veranda, you might spot toucans, coatis, and monkeys. There’s a beautiful swimming pool, and the restaurant serves delicious food. Another option is Table Rock Lodge, a small paradise nestled along the Macal River. Enjoy a lovely swimming pool and stay in fantastic bungalows. If these lodges are above your budget, Pine Ridge Lodge is a more affordable yet beautiful option.
Visit Cahal Pech in San Ignacio
If you want to admire more Maya temples, Cahal Pech is definitely worth a visit. These ruins are located on the outskirts of San Ignacio and can easily be explored in a morning or afternoon. It’s not the largest Maya city, but it’s peaceful, and the temples are beautiful. Don’t forget to visit the museum, where you can get plenty of interesting information. Cahal Pech is open every day from 6:30 to 17:00.
Explore the Mountain Pine Ridge Nature Reserve
The beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge Nature Reserve is a completely different piece of nature compared to the rest of Belize. Here, you’ll find an extensive pine forest with rugged terrain hiding beautiful rivers and waterfalls. The reserve is part of the larger Maya Mountains and is known for its natural beauty and rich biodiversity. It’s even home to tapirs, although spotting them is quite rare.
Mountain Pine Ridge is about an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, and with the Mountain Pine Ridge day tour, you can explore the most beautiful spots in the reserve. Hike among the pine trees, cliff jump at Big Rock Falls, discover the stunning Rio Frio Cave, and spend a couple of hours in the refreshing river waters.
Caracol is another archaeological site with Maya ruins, and it’s not just any site. It was one of the most important and extensive cities during the Maya era. Caracol was a powerful city that often engaged in battles with Tikal in present-day Guatemala. Caracol emerged victorious in this battle in the year 562 AD, which was a significant triumph in the Maya world. Caracol is located about a 2-hour drive from San Ignacio.
Caracol & Mountain Pine Ridge Combo Tour: If you want to visit both Mountain Pine Ridge and the Caracol temples, you can combine these two locations into a single day tour. This way, you can experience both culture and beautiful nature in one go, and the cost is no higher than tours that only go to the Caracol temples.
Learn Everything About Iguanas at Green Iguana Conservation
During a guided tour at Green Iguana Conservation, you’ll learn all about these remarkable iguanas. Green Iguana Conservation is dedicated to the endangered green iguana. They rescue injured animals, rehabilitate them, and reintroduce them into the wild after recovery. They also have a breeding program, primarily producing females due to temperature-induced sex determination, which helps restore balance in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, some iguanas in this facility are no longer capable of surviving in the wild. The tours are available every day between 8:00 and 16:00, with a new tour starting every hour. The price is around $10 per person.
Admire the Most Beautiful Butterflies at Green Hills Butterfly Ranch
Just half an hour from San Ignacio, you’ll find Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, the largest butterfly farm in Belize. As the name suggests, this is a beautiful place in the lush jungle where many butterflies, birds, and other animals thrive. In this enchanting butterfly garden, they have over 30 different butterfly species, and you can learn a lot about their fascinating lives. Besides butterflies, the 101-hectare estate boasts a rich diversity of flora and fauna with beautiful flowers, hummingbirds, agoutis, and even jaguars. Bird enthusiasts can also enjoy the pristine rainforest, home to approximately 300 bird species.
Relax by the Macal River in San Ignacio
Temperatures in San Ignacio are consistently high throughout the year. Therefore, plan a relaxing afternoon and take a refreshing dip in the Macal River. The easiest way to get here is by walking past this market. The Macal River is a popular spot among locals. Find a comfortable spot in the grass and enjoy a refreshing swim in the water.
Tip: Sometimes, you can rent kayaks along the river. This is a fun activity to do, provided you protect yourself from the sun. When I was there, I unfortunately didn’t see any kayaks, but that might have been because I visited during the low season.
Best Restaurants in San Ignacio
Caneida’s Belizean Food – This is a good choice if you want to enjoy local food for a friendly price in the afternoon. It’s open from 11:00 to 17:00.
Booze & Branches – A cute and cozy place for drinks.
Lola’s Restaurant & Bar – Here, you can have a delicious lunch and dinner. The menu includes fajitas, tacos, quesadillas, pasta, ceviche, and burgers. It’s also a nice place for cocktails.
Ko-Ox Han nah – This restaurant serves food from morning till night. The extensive menu offers plenty of choices, and the prices are reasonable.
Crave House of Flavour – This is a bistro with good wine and grill dishes.
Guava Limb Cafe – In this cheerful restaurant, you can enjoy delicious dishes. There’s something for everyone, from Indonesian gado gado to classic burgers and pizzas, as well as tender steaks and chickpea curry.
Our Favorite Places to Stay in San Ignacio
Unfortunately, the hotel options in the town of San Ignacio are not very abundant. If you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars per night, there are only a handful of good hotels to choose from. One of them is Yellow Belly Backpackers, where you can stay at a reasonable price. It has a cozy atmosphere created by the welcoming owner and friendly staff. There’s a common area, a large kitchen, comfortable dorms, and double rooms. If you prefer to stay in a hotel with a pool in a good location, then Cahal Pech Village Resort is perfect. The bungalows, in particular, are beautiful with their many windows and great views. As you’ve read earlier in this article, there are several beautiful jungle lodges in the vicinity of San Ignacio. Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge might be the most stunning one. If this is above your budget, check out the other jungle lodges we mentioned earlier in this article.
|Yellow Belly Backpackers
|Cahal Pech Village Resort
|Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge