While Caye Caulker is a tiny speck of sandy land overwhelmed by baby blue water on all sides, San Ignacio is in the heart of Cayo district, a broad expanse of land covered in a sea of green tropical forests occasionally slashed by winding brown rivers. If you haven’t checked out my post on Caye Caulker the take away is: don’t do that much. Ride your bike around, swim in the ocean, have some Bellikins, rinse and repeat. Okay maybe dive if it’s shark whale season. But for San Ignacio there are so many things to do: ruins, caves, waterfalls, more ruins, even nearby Guatemala is fair game. The take away would be to maybe pick and choose what suits you. But whatever you do definitely, definitely don’t fly there. Take the local bus. It’s fun. You get to actually interact with locals who don’t work in tourism. There are friendly people, good sandwiches, and even occasional singing. What more could you want.
Look at those chipped nails from 19 year old yours truly. Some things never change.
But right the bus. You will most likely fly into Belize City and from there you can go to the main bus station and get ridiculously cheap bus tickets to San Ignacio. You will compare it to the price of flights and private vans and your wallet will weep with joy. Buses leave every half hour or so, tickets are ~5 USD and the trip nonstop is about 2.5 hours. The local bus makes frequent stops and takes a bit longer but what it loses in time it makes up for in fun. And tamales. So that is what we took. Although not the height of luxury the local buses were comfortable and reasonably clean and appropriately you got to travel with locals. With not a lot of other tourists on board we got to chat to Belizeans. And most conveniently, if you are reading this, you too can chat with locals because in Belize a form of English called Creole (or Kriol) is spoken. It phonetically sounds just like English, just ten times cooler (and maybe minus a couple consonants and prepositions).
The long trip was made shorter by both the sights and the friendly conversation. People often mistook my dad for a local, as there is a decently sized Chinese population in Belize. They probably would have assumed me and my sisters were locals too but at the time my penchant for neon-coloured American Apparel unequivocally screamed gringo tourist. To be fair it was 2007ish and I had just joined a sorority so this and wearing those metallic-y headbands that went across your forehead were very of the moment, if you will (believe my justification). As the trip went on we sat and watched as grandmothers carrying groceries, young men on the way to work, families, children and the occasional chicken hopped on off. We saw dense dark jungle, expansive grassy fields, colourful small villages, and spirited games of soccer roll by the windows. We fell asleep and woke up to the bus stopped, a lady carrying a tray of sandwiches and a styrofoam cooler filled with hot tamales sashaying up and down the aisles, singing in a spirited voice, and smiling ear to ear. We bought some tamales and asked if we could take a picture of her. She obliged as long as she could check it was a good picture. She approved. We dug into the tamales with a napkin and a flimsy plastic fork. We approved too. And then we were off again.
We didn’t actually stay in San Ignacio but in a hotel tucked into the nearby jungle, the Parrot Nest Lodge. We quite liked the place and I would recommend it for those that have a higher tolerance for the less luxurious side of life and also an appreciation for tropical forests (read: ok with bugs). It was far from the city but the couple that owns the place arranged a ride to pick us up from the bus station and drive us to the hotel, a semi-long drive as we drove deeper and deeper into the jungle. Eventually the road turned to dirt and narrowed , soon the sunlight only occasionally peeked through a dense cover of leaves as the car rattled and jumped over gnarled tree roots and rock alike, kicking up dust in its wake.
We personally loved the cottages on stilts, the many resident pets, communal breakfast, dinner, and post-dinner Scrabble with other guests as crickets and cicadas heartily chirped from somewhere off in the pitch black darkness of the surrounding forest. I was perhaps less fond of the giant brown spider that we found hanging out, beyond reach, at the center of our cottage’s roof. It was so large that it’s eyes (!!) reflected back at us when we took a picture of it with flash (evidence below) and I covered my entire body with my blanket and decided to suffer in sweaty but relatively safe (at least psychologically) self-induced suffocation the whole night. Of course it was mysteriously gone by the morning. So yes accommodations were definitely more on the rustic side and our treehouse in particular had no AC and the showers were outside. But the location was hard to beat, nestled into the crook of a river bend (where you can go tubing) and every shade of green as far as the eye can see. Plus, by the time we left we were pret-ty good at Scrabble.
As far as activities we did:
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – In English “The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre” (very Indiana Jones no). This is a huge cave system and Mayan archaelogical site with thousand year old skeletons, pottery and stonework. This cave was used for religious ceremonies, including sacrifices and the piéce de resistance is the “Crystal Maiden” a possibly sacrificed teenager (now thought to be a boy actually)(…so “Crystal Man-Virgin?….) whose skeleton has calcified in a way that makes it appear glittering and crystal-like. It is quite dark so you are given headlamps and for the inner chambers you have to remove your shoes to lower the risk of you accidentally stepping on some kind of super ancient and very important artifact. (E.g.) A couple years ago a tourist dropped their camera on a thousand year old skull so now you are not allowed to bring your camera. Kind of very understandable, to me it’s shocking they let you run amok in the darkness anyways, but perhaps they have cordoned off the areas with artifacts by now. Although we found the “Crystal Maiden” a bit anti-climactic the water that runs through the cave and forms pools and waterfalls was pretty cool and we had perhaps too much fun trying to squeeze down weird little openings in the caves or follow convoluted streams of water. Which now as I write this down seems very not-advisable but our guide thought it was fine and we are alive so there’s that.
Caracol – Caracol is one of the many Mayan archaelogical sites in the region. Personally I get ruin-fatigue after going to too many ruins/temples/churches and what have you so my advice is to pick two or maybe three at most and save the best for last. As we were limited in our time we went only to Caracol, the largest Mayan city (re)discovered in Belize in 1937 and one of the most important regional political centers of its time. Caracol has impressive pyramids but I like the more quotidian remnants of the more than 100,000 people that used to live here so long ago. There are towering temples for prayer, intricately engraved altars for sacrifices, remnants of vast terraces for growing food, cemeteries for burying the dead and even ball courts (…presumably for ballin’). It’s crazy to wander through fields with low crumbling stone walls and tall near-intact pillars jutting out of the ground and wonder what are the missing pieces of the puzzle that have disappeared over the course of the more than 1,000 years that this city was abandoned by its people and reclaimed by the jungle. If you go, know that it does get crowded with tourists so earlier in the day is always best. But either way when you climb up the (very) narrow steep stairs to those tall pyramids and see trees as far as the eye can see and hear the howl of spider monkeys in the distance it is worth considering you are probably seeing and hearing the exact same sights and sounds that some one (albeit with much smaller feet) experienced standing in this exact spot a very, very long time ago.
Rio On Pools – The Rio On pools are a series of continuous pools formed by streams and short waterfalls snaking over and around large granite boulders. The smooth surface of the granite creates natural water slides and people like to sit under the waterfalls for an (intense) massage type experience. Many tours will stop here on the way to other attractions or combine it with another site. The water is a little chilly and the slides are a bit hard on your backside but it’s a nice pit stop and offers temporary relief from the hot and humid weather.
Overall, San Ignacio is a great choice if you are looking for archaeological and eco-tourism type sites. We wished we had spent more time in the actual town to see some of what everyday life was like in this part of the world but on the other hand liked how remote our hotel location felt. Although going to the sites seems to be all very structured with scheduled van pick ups and guides it’s hard to imagine doing it on your own as everything is quite far. The guides also help to give context and history to sites like ATM and Caracol. If we did it again we would probably do San Ignacio first and then Caye Caulker instead of the other way around. But either way, take the bus. And maybe don’t look too closely at the ceiling before going to bed.