San Ignacio Overview

We will try to give an overview of the cities that we stay in on our travels. Our first stay in Belize was in San Ignacio. It is probably the best place to stay in the Cayo District of Belize (where the majority of the Mayan ruins of Belize are).

Where we slept: Hi-Et Guesthouse. We choose to spent all 6 nights of our stay in San Ignacio here. We enjoyed a very small double room with a shared bathroom for BZ$ 25/night. Our room had a small balcony overlooking the town which we loved and ate breakfast on every morning. Hi-Et is not a hostel, so we did not have use of any common area, though there was a shared refrigerator. We were there in low season so we did not have many people staying with us. It was quiet and comfortable.

Favorite Place to Eat: Our favorite place was a small Belizean place right across the street from the Hi-Et Guesthouse: Cenaida’s. We returned here twice because of the good, affordable Belizean food and the friendly service. It was never too crowded and did not feel as touristy as some of the restaurants/bars on the main drag.

Things to Do: (Note that these are in the order that we did them, not ranked in any way!)

  • Cahal Pech (Our Mayan Ruin #1): This ruin is within easy walking distance from the center of San Ignacio. We walked south of town up some rather large hills. We did need to ask for directions a couple of times. Cahal Pech is the oldest ruin in Belize and looked a bit different than several of the others we visited. It was generally smaller and more covered by jungle.
  • Branch Mouth Swimming Hole: We heard about this from our Lonely Planet guidebook. It touted it as a beautiful swimming hole at the confluence of the Mopan and Macal Rivers, just outside of town. The walk was definitely longer and we expected, and the swimming hole a little less nice. But, the great benefit was that we felt like we were completely outside the tourist zone of San Ignacio. We walked for a long way down a less used dirt road beside large plots of farm land. When we reached the confluence, it was definitely nice to take a quick dip in the river. We were the only ones there! There was also a hanging rope bridge across the Mopan. We enjoyed walking over and briefly exploring the other side. There would be a lot of cool stuff to see on that side, though we did not feel like we had the time to explore too much more.
  • Saturday Market: We enjoyed wandering through the market on Saturday morning.  There were many stalls selling local foods and crafts. We enjoyed some freshly made empanadas and burritos. There is nothing quite like watching them make the tortillas right in front of you. Yum! We also really enjoyed buying some fresh cheese from a Mennonite. There are many Mennonites in Belize, but it is always a surprise to see them. They definitely stand out, often being tall, blond, blue-eyed, and speaking low German. They also drive horse-drawn buggies. It definitely reminded us of being in Amish country a little bit.
  • Xunatunich. See Post.
  • Music in Town Square: There were several nights were we experienced free music in the town square. There was multiple performances by local groups which we quite enjoyed.
  • ATM Tour. See Post.
  • Caracol Tours. See Post.
  • Tikal Tours. See Post.

Overall, we really enjoyed San Ignacio. It is a great place to stay to really get a feel of the Belizean Mayan ruins. We definitely recommend it!

Mayan Ruin #3: Caracol (and more)

When we were researching various Mayan ruins near San Ignacio, there was one that kept popping up that sounded amazing: Caracol. It was one of most recently rediscovered ruins (1937) and the biggest in Belize. In fact, it was a real rival to neighboring Tikal in Guatemala. Not something to be missed! However, it was not very easy to get to, so we had to come up with a plan!

Step 1: Decide whether or not to take a tour.
Not nearly as many people visit Caracol as do the other nearby ruins (in part because there are no easy cruise excursions here). But, several of the tour offices do offer day long trips to Caracol. The cost seemed outrageous. Up to $100 per person for trip of only 40 km outside of San Igancio. Decision: No Tour

Step 2: Explore how to get there without a tour.
The guidebook made it clear that it was perfectly possible to get to Caracol on your own. Only a few problems: there is no public transportation available AND you are going to be traveling through undeveloped jungle near the Guatemalan border and there have been reports of hijackings along the way! The good news is that it had been approximately 15 years since any of those had been reported, in part because the Belizean government had set up a military convoy into and out of Caracol. If you want the safety of the convoy, you must arrive at the starting point by 9 am and you must leave the ruins by 2 pm. Decision: It shouldn’t be too bad – let’s do it!

Step 3: Rent a Car.
We wandered around San Ignacio one afternoon visiting various rental car places listed in our guidebook. We pretty much went with the first one we found and were able to talk with someone (Matus Car Rental). Renting a car in Belize is an amazing experience compared with the US. It went like this: We ask for a car. They quote a price for the day. We say we will do it and go to sign the papers. They give us one easy to understand paper to sign. We ask for what the hidden fees are. They look at us like we’re crazy and confirm that it indeed the quoted price for the day, no more. We are shocked. Decision: Rent cars in Belize!

Step 4: Find Travel Friends!
We have discovered through our past trips that some of the best days happen when you rent a car, find some new friends, and strike out to something off the beaten path. Going to Caracol was the perfect opportunity, so all we needed were some travel buddies. Luckily, our prior trip to Xunatunich provided us with what we needed. We met a really wonderful couple on the top of El Castillo. He was from South Africa, she was from Slovakia, and they were amazing travel companions. Decision: Travel friends are one of the best reasons to travel!

Step 5: Go For it!
We picked up our rental car early in the morning. The first challenge was that the front tire seemed to be flat.

“No problem,” says the rental owner, “you can grab some air at the gas station down the road.” Suspiciously, we ask, “How much does that cost??” Long silence… “Air? Air is free!” He looks at us like we were insane. Who in their right mind could possibly charge for air? Oh…

We filled up the tire, retrieve our travel companions and head off towards Caracol. Della had to drive because Eric still hasn’t learned how to drive a stick shift! 😉 The road became pretty bumpy quickly, but not too bad when you compare it to some roads in Gilpin county. We made it to the military checkpoint with plenty of time to spare. The guards looked a little bored and were definitely not worried about anything bad happening. They told us we could wait for the convoy if wanted… or not. We took this as a good sign, but still decided to wait. When the convoy actually happened, it really wasn’t very regimented but we definitely made it safely to the ruins. The last 10 miles in were actually on paved road which was a wonderful change the from the gravelly, washboard road we had been traveling on prior.

We enjoyed a marvelous day at Caracol. We climbed to the top of Caana, which at about 141 ft is still one of the tallest man made buildings in Belize. We saw some great stellae ruins and the Temple of the Wooden Lintel which has an original wooden lintel! The great thing about how hard Caracol is to get to is that not very many people go. We often felt like we were the only ones there.

We left as recommended, with the military convoy at 2 pm. We were pretty tired, but our traveling companions suggested two stops on the way back that were supposed to be lovely: The Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls. Rio On Pools were very easy to find and provided an excellent way to cool off on the hot Belizean day. Big Rock Falls were a bit of a harder challenge. They ended up requiring us to drive into what turned out to be an expensively exclusive resort and then to wander aimlessly through till we made a good guess as to where to park. But, despite the difficulty finding the place, it was amazing! We arrived back in San Ignacio after dark, exhausted but content!  Decision: Get yourself to Caracol! It is fantastic day!

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One of the tallest man-made structures in Belize!

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Climbing Caana

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We made it!

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Top of Caana

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Beautiful Stella

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This is what ruins looks like before their excavated. It’s a wonder they’re ever found!

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Wooden Lintel – original!

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Our trusty rental car

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Enjoying Rio On Pools

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Beautiful way to end the day: Big Rock Falls

Click here to see the route we took.