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San Ignacio is a small town in the Cayo region of Belize. San Ignacio, or Cayo as it is called, is located on the Macal river, and makes a good and affordable base for exploration of the stunning regions around it, with plenty of day trips to be taken and several decent tour guides willing to take you. It's also an important transit town en route to or from Guatemala.
San Ignacio is renowned for its close proximity to Belize's famous Maya ruins, and is a hub for outdoor activities such as caving, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, and Belize being a small country the Caribbean beaches aren't far away. It is one of the last towns in Belize before entering Guatemala, where many visitors go to visit the Tikal Maya ruins. The population is mostly of Mayan and mestizio origin, but there's also a small Lebanese and bigger Chinese community in town, visible through their local businesses. Opposite the Macal River across the Hawksworth Bridge is Santa Elena, formerly a separate town that has grown together even administratively. Together they're known as "the Twin Towns" and with around 26,000 inhabitants form the second most populous urban area in Belize.
The area has been inhabited since around 1200 BCE, and until the 9th century CE a town named Cahal Pech was located about one kilometre south of present-day San Ignacio. It was abandoned, and a new town named Tipú was established by the Mayas 9 km further south along the river. The Spanish showed up in the 16th century, together with some unsuccessful attempts to convert the natives to Christianity. They established a town by the name of El Cayo where present-day San Ignacio is, named so because it was an European "island" in the middle of the Mayan kingdom. The Spanish were driven out by the natives in 1638 and El Cayo was abandoned, though they would return in 1707, backed by military force, and in turn forced the Mayans west into Guatemala. The name of the town was first noted as San Ignacio on a map from 1787. But they did not undertake much else in the region, instead British lumberjacks settled in the area which would eventually become British. In 1930 the highway from Belize City was finished, making it possible to get there from the coast in just a day. The "La Ruta Maya" canoe race still reminds of the days before the highway where the only way in was the Macal River.
These days few trees are cut down, and agriculture is the main activity in town. Being on the road between Belize City and Guatemala and surrounded by sights means that also tourists have found their way to San Ignacio. Tourist infrastructure has sprung up and there are eateries and lodging in all price classes.
San Ignacio is easily reachable by car. The Western Highway is the best road in the country and is fully paved and free of pot-holes. There are several gas stations along the route so you have no worries there. Once you reach the sister-city of San Ignacio - Santa Elena - be aware that there are two bridges and each is a one way bridge. You have to make a right turn, if you are heading west, and run downhill to cross the bridge into San Ignacio. Locals apparently know tourists will miss this turn and are quite aware to signal you that you have made a mistake if you try to go the wrong way.
You leave San Ignacio across the Hawksworth Bridge which is the only suspension bridge in Belize. This is also a one-way bridge to leave town, unless the low lying bridge is closed.
2nd class buses (no air conditioning or "trunk" for suitcases) run frequently from Belize City; the trip is usually less than 2½ hours, in spite of numerous stops. As of 2019, a bus from Belize City to San Ignacio costs BZ$9 (Belizean dollars). Buses run to Dangriga on the coast in about 3 hours. In the other direction, buses run to the Guatemalan border quite close by, with connections to Flores and Tikal. Bus services are either "regular", which means they stop anywhere along the road to pick up and let off passengers, or "express", with only scheduled stops in major towns. The website Belmopanonline keeps an up-to-date schedule of bus lines in Belize.
Shuttles can pick you up at the airport, or most any other spot, and transfer you much quicker and with much more ease since they are door to door. See Belize City#By shuttle for a list which includes addresses and phone numbers of the shuttle companies as many of them are based in San Ignacio.
- Belize Ground Shuttle offers daily shared shuttle service to and from San Ignacio and the International Airport, Belize City, Placencia, Hopkins, and Dangriga. They have a fleet of brand new vans for safety and comfort. Great for groups.
- Ron's Belize Shuttle specializes in private shuttle service offering door to door service between any destination in Belize.
- BZ Belize Shuttle has an outstanding recorder of transporting you to and from your destination on-time. Your Belize Shuttle Driver is Denfield Gomez, known locally as Denny, maintain an impeccable driving recorder when it comes to shuttling you to or from your destination.
- Teddy Bear Shuttle and taxi service is safe and reliable, you can find him just behind the Belize Bank in the centre of San Ignacio Town.
- Mayan Heart World offers private shuttle transfers from San Ignacio, Belize western border to Flores or Tikal in Peten, Guatemala. The company even have the ability to transfer you to just about any where from San Ignacio Town.
- William's Belize Shuttle has shuttle services from Philip Goldson International Airport, Belize City, Placencia and Hopkins Village.
San Iglacio has a small landing strip named 1 Mayan Flats. Tropic Air offers flights to San Ignacio from several other locations in Belize, including Belize City, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, and Goldson International Airport in Ladyville. Flights are operated by small planes flying at a quite low altitude (around 1000 m) giving passengers nice views of the landscape during flight.
The roads in town are quite walkable, and traffic is light. Most everything is within a 5-minute walk from downtown. There is really no reason to drive. The town is foot-scaled so walking is your best bet for getting about and really experiencing the town.
If you do need a ride, taxis are available near the bus drop-off and along Savannah Street. Shared taxis ("collectivos") to the nearby village of Bullet Tree Falls are available on Wyatt Street off Burns Avenue.
One can also rent a car locally with or without a driver. There are a few car rental agencies in town.
- Premium Rentals in Santa Elena offers small SUV's and large passenger vans.
- Matus Car Rental and Western Auto Rental are also options.
There are public buses with service to nearby resorts for only BZ$1 per person. This offers a great way to get into town, but if you expect to stay late remember you may have to take a taxi back, and they can get increasingly more expensive later into the night.
Sights outside town are commonly visited by tour.
- 1 Cahal Pech. Daily during daylight hours. The main attraction in the town. Cahal Pech is a smallish set of Mayan ruins that were abandoned around 800-900 AD. There is an indoor museum displaying artifacts, a site plan, and information on the ruins in a regional context. There are, allegedly, guided tours, but these are unneeded, as the site is easy to traverse. The entire site should take 1-2 hours at most for a thorough exploration. Once at the ruins, the site is fairly flat, but Cahal Pech is at the top of the hill overlooking San Ignacio. The walk uphill to it from the main town is quite exhausting and is difficult even from the San Ignacio Resort Hotel on the hill. If you have any disability, or are in poor physical condition, you will want to drive. Admission is BZ$10 (or USD$5) but may change.
- 2 Iguana Hatchery (at San Ignacio Resort Hotel). tour daily at 9AM, 11AM, 1PM and 3PM. Visit the Iguana Conservation Project and the interpretive Medicinal Jungle Trail at the San Ignacio Hotel. Ranked as one of the best family excursions in San Ignacio. US$ 11.25 pp.
- 3 Hawksworth Bridge. This is the only suspended road bridge in Belize and connects the twin cities. It was built in 1949 and named after the then-governor. It's a one direction bridge going towards Santa Elena – traffic to San Ignacio goes along the Wooden Bridge further north.
- 4 Branch Mouth. About 20 minutes walk from downtown along Branch Mouth Road. The confluence of the rivers Macal and Mopan, forming the Belize river. In addition to the natural attraction, there's the low-hanging Hammock Bridge (not for people who're afraid of heights), and a small park with a picnic area and a beach.
- 5 Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, Chiquibul Rd. See 30 different butterfly species in a large flight area, as well as local birds and plants.
- 6 Chaa Creek. Follow the Old Benque Road towards the border and then turn left on the Chial Road, drive for 5 km past the airport, and turn left at the fork to get to Chaa Creek. Here you can find two interesting lodging options (see Sleep below), the Rainforest Medicine Trail and the Chaa Creek Natural History Center & Butterfly Farm.
- 7 Belize Botanic Gardens. Drive as above, but turn right at the fork. This will take you to a botanical garden with a walking path of about 3 km. Here you can also find an interesting lodge (see Sleep below).
Activities generally mean exploring the nature around town and in the region - independetly or as part of a tour. There are shorter nature trails, longer trekking trails and getting to and around the archaeological sites also usually entail trekking. These sites and caves are partially in the same state as when they were rediscovered with comparatively little tourist infrastructure (and tourists) so getting there is a bit of an adventure. Many resorts rent bicycles both for riding on roads and in the terrain, and one business offers horse tours. There are also canoes and kayaks for rent to see the nature from the river. Animal watching is possible at the resorts outside towns or in the nature reserves and gardens.
Many tour companies in San Ignacio, Pacz Tours and KaWiil Tours being the best for safety and quality per outside evaluators, run tours to a wide variety of interesting caves, ruins, rivers, and jungle trails. K'in Winik [dead link] is known for providing amazing tours and overnight jungle camping throughout Mountain Pine Ridge, including Caracol.
It's a good idea to read reviews for other tour companies before booking because some of them have treated guests poorly.
Most of these are day trips, leaving early in the morning and returning the same afternoon. Not all tours are available on any given day. Most tour companies require a certain minimum number of registrations before they'll make the run. Checking in the night before for which tours are available the next day is often the best option.
- Pacz Tours. Different jungle, cave and archaeological site tours.
- [dead link] Lions Adventure Tours. Also tours to Tikal.
- [dead link] K'in Winik Jungle Tours. Also night tours in the jungle to the Pine Ridge Reserve including Caracol.
- Carlos the Caveman Tours. Cave and all-terrain vehicle tours.
- Ka'Wiil Tours.
- Hanna Stables Horseback Riding Tours. Explore the nature on horseback.
- Edwin's Belize Adventure Tours, ☏ , ✉ Edwin@youbelizetours.com. Tours to explore nature and archaeological sites.
There are some shops along Burns Avenue, and each Saturday is market day.
- 1 Zyan's Belize Gifts, Burns Avenue 46 (In the JNC mall). They have a huge selection of great gifts and souvenirs.
- 2 Back to My Roots, Burns Avenue (Across from the JNC mall).
- 3 Indita Maya (Venus Hotel bottom floor).
- 4 Tropicool Gift Shop, Burns Avenue (Tropicool hotel, Next to Pacz Tours).
- 5 A B C Supermarket, Bullet Tree Road. 7:30AM-9PM. A large supermarket.
- 6 New Flags Supermarket, Western Highway (Santa Elena), ☏ . 8AM-9PM. A large supermarket with lower prices.
- The Belize Bank & Scotia Bank & Atlantic Bank (all 3 banks have ATMs in San Ignacio). 24 hour ATMs. All three banks' ATMs take Mastercard.
- 7 Market Saturday. In the market hall you can buy veggies and other everyday products every day of the week. Much more is available on Saturday, the market day, when people from around the region meet here to trade in goods and produce. Great for shopping and people-watching alike.
San Ignacio is one of the more tourist-friendly towns in Belize, with a variety of restaurants keeping longer hours than in many other towns. There are a wide variety of restaurants, and many have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.
- 1 Vivian's Café, Joseph Andrews Drive (3 blocks from downtown, next to Sacred Heart College, and across the street from Mom's Place). Vivian's Coffee and Ice Cream shop is great. Their coffee smoothies are always great to cool one off. Good ice cream too. All the local students go there, which is a good sign.
- 2 Mincho's, Burns Ave (Downtown). Mincho's is the fast food place of San Ignacio. They are only open for breakfast and lunch. They have all the Belizean fast food: tacos, burritos, salbutes, panades, and garnaches. They have the best fresh juice in San Ignacio, and it's only $1 per glass.
- 3 Pop's, West St, ☏ . A small breakfast café on a side street. Many different breakfast options, most including scrambled eggs, delicious and cheap. around BZ$10.
In addition to the restaurants you can also find streetside vendors serving up burritos, tacos, stews and the like.
- 4 Ko Ox Han-Nah, 5 Burns Avenue (One block from downtown). From the lamb quesadillas to the lamb curry to the omelettes, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all covered here. They raise almost all of their own animals at their farm.
- 5 Hodes Place (Next to Macal River Park, one block from the market). Great for kids of all ages. Includes video games, air hockey, pool tables, playground (in a small orchard), jukebox, and a small casino. Try the burritos: they are big and cheap.
- 6 Maxim's Chinese Restaurant, Bullet Tree road (About 2 blocks from downtown). One of the best Chinese restaurants in San Ignacio. Menu including: Delicious Fried Chicken (what they are known for) ranging from $5 and above, fried rice, chao-mein, chop-suey, kun-pao, and etc.
- 7 Martha's Kitchen, 10 West Street, ☏ . Guesthouse and restaurant. A varied menu and good pizzas. around B$20.
- 8 Serendib Restaurant, 27 Burns Ave, ☏ . Quite possibly the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Belize. Has an interesting guestbook. around B$20.
- Running W Steakhouse at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (see sleep)
There are a few options in town, and occasionally also parties at the riverside. Apparently the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the San Ignacio's drinking scene hard with many place having closed down.
- 1 Remo's Roadhouse. Many of the ex-pats start at Remo's because of the great conversation and stories provided by the owner – he can tell you stories that even locals don't know. It's in Bullet Tree Falls, 3 miles from downtown – the first building on the right as you enter Bullet Tree Falls.
Since San Ignacio is the biggest town close to Guatemala, from where many tourists enter and exit Belize, the city, therefore, has quite a few accommodations relative to its size and attractions.
- 1 Bella's Backpackers Belize, 4 Galvez Street, ☏ . Multi-levelled edifice with a tree growing right through it, a roof-top terrace and a hammock-room tree house overlooking the town and surrounding jungle. With plenty of couches, comfy chairs and hammocks to relax in. Great French pressed coffee. Dorms are BZ$25 or BZ$30 for semi-private, while private rooms are BZ$65 for walk-ins. Laundry service for BZ$15.
- 2 J&R Guesthouse, Victoria Street. A small place with four rooms a couple of blocks from the city centre. Single with shared bath BZ$20. Also, have doubles and room with private bath. Owners are friendly and can help guests get to numerous destinations.
- 3 Hi Et Guesthouse, 12 West Street, ☏ . Many backpackers stay here. A block from downtown, it has many rooms upstairs.
- 4 Pacz Guest House, 4 Far west Street (same building as Erva's restaurant). The common area is basic but spacious, water refills and a fridge to store some of your food for the road and/or beers. There is a small terrace leading into the rooms which was great for sitting and relaxing.
- 5 Old House Hostel, 3 Buena Vista Street. Another small hostel a few minutes' walk from downtown. from US$15.
- 6 Cocopele Inn, 26 Western Hwy (Santa Elena), ☏ . Offers apartments for groups and single/double rooms.
- 7 Tropicool Hotel, 30 Burns Avenue (One block from downtown), ☏ . They have nice little cabins encapsulated on their property.
- 8 The River Park Inn, Branch Mouth Road, ☏ . Clean rooms and nice beds, free WiFi and a very helpful and supportive owner. Family run, nice atmosphere in a park-like setting. A few hundreds meter to walk off the centre of the town. ca. 50 US$.
- 9 Nefry's Retreat Homestays, 2 Paslow Lane, ☏ .
- 10 Casa Blanca Guest House, 10 Burns Avenue, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. dbl US$20 to 50(DZ). .
- 11 Mahogany Hall Luxury Boutique Resort, ☏ . A small 20-room colonial-style mansion nestled on the banks of the Mopan River in Bullet Tree Falls.
- 12 Marthas Guesthouse, West St, ☏ . Located in the heart of San Ignacio Town, offers a spacious room with almost all the amenities of most top resorts in the area. Rates starting US$70.
- 13 Cahal Pech Village Resort, Western Highway. It's on the most predominant Mayan hillside in San Ignacio, and next to the Cahal Pech ruins. This resort offers guests an amazing view of San Ignacio and surrounding local sites. The hotel has three pools and a jacuzzi, when it is working. Lately, they have had complaints due to substandard bedding, but the view is still the best, by far, in San Ignacio. Great for families. US$90.
- 14 San Ignacio Resort Hotel, 18 Buena Vista Street, ☏ . A lovely place on beautiful grounds, impeccably clean rooms with air-conditioning, a pool, and very helpful staff. Cute little extras like fresh sprigs of herbs on bathroom towels. Quite pricey by Belizean standards, at US$114/per night for two queen beds. The occasional wall of cinder block or slightly frayed rug shows this hotel is not quite up to the standards the price would imply, but they're close.
- 15 Midas Tropical Resort (Midas Belize), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. US$54 to 129(Cabana). .
- 16 Parrot Nest Lodge (Bullet Tree Falls). You can sleep in a treehouse in a 100 ft (30 m) tall Guanacaste tree. The lodge is surrounded on three sides by the Mopan River since it's on a peninsula. Parrots, iguanas, agouti and otters are all able to be seen on the grounds. The cabanas are in a huge garden, which, though lush and exotic, is virtually mosquito free. The Parrot's Nest is in Bullet Tree Falls, which is just a couple of miles from downtown San Ignacio, so you don't have to endure the city noise and lights. US$50 to US$75 a night per cabin.
- 17 Bullet Tree Riverside Cabanas (Bullet Tree Falls). Another great place to stay 10 minutes from downtown San Ignacio, on the banks of the Mopan River. The cozy thatched cabanas are tucked among lush palm trees, with a remote jungle feel to it! Enjoy freshly prepared local Belizean dishes. Tours and activities included trip to Tikal, horseback riding and explore nearby Mayan ruins, cave or river tubing. Pick-up or drop off at Belize International Airport can all be arranged.
- 18 Lodges at Chaa Creek, Chaa Creek, ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Chaa Creek is the best resort in Central America, bar none. Totally eco-friendly, and they have hundreds of acres. They are on the Macal River, and do canoe rides, biking, and horseback riding. Located 30 minutes from downtown. You can choose to stay at an expensive and luxurious cabin, or at the Macal River Camp, which has casitas and is geared towards those who prefer the outdoors. The Macal Camp is US$55/person/night and includes breakfast, dinner, hot showers, toilets, and excellent service. camp US$55, simple lodge US$100, luxus lodge US$500.
At nighttime, especially for longer distances, you should move around in groups or take a taxi.
- 1 La Loma Luz Hospital (in Santa Elena). The main hospital of the twin towns.
- 2 Welcome Center. Tourist information is available in the Welcome Center at the main square/bus station.
- The post office is on Hudson street near Waight's Avenue.
- The operator Digicell has 4G coverage in San Ignacio and much of the surroundings. There are also a couple of Internet cafés in town.
- Belmopan - the capital of Belize is a good jumping-off point for other destinations. from San Ignacio to Belmopan is 42 km, and takes one hour in a bus.
- Hopkins is 140 km from San Ignacio to Hopkins. A bus via Belmopan takes three hours.
- El Pilar. One of the largest Maya ruins in the country, also gives an insight into Mayan agriculture.
- 9 Actun Tunichil Muknal (usually abbreviated to "ATM"). A Mayan sacrificial burial site near San Ignacio. The site is contained entirely within a cave system, and access to the relics is gained via some 500 m (1,600 ft) of climbing over rocks, wading and swimming through water that is at times over 1.5 m (4.9 ft) deep. The cave was a sacred site for the Mayans and it contains many examples of pottery, ceramics, and stoneware, as well as several sets of human sacrificial remains, one of which (known as the "Crystal Maiden") has been almost entirely covered in limestone crystals by the water in the cave. The site is a 45-minute drive from San Ignacio, and, due to the caving aspect, it may only be visited when accompanied by an official guide (who will provide appropriate safety equipment) and you can't take photos inside. Most tour companies in San Ignacio are able to offer officially guided tours.
- 10 Caracol. Biggest ruin in Belize, once inhabited by 140000 people and biggest city to exist in today's Belize. Yet partially unexcavated, so you really feel like you are in a national park on a ruin. Ca'ana, place of the sky, is one of the biggest and most massive temples in the Mayan world. Definitely a must see ruin, and it comes with stops at Rio On Pools and Rio Frio Cave too.
- Tikal - across the border is the world heritage site of Tikal, together with Chichen Itza one of the most famous Maya sites with ruins dating back to 6th century BC.
- Flores. A pretty town on an island in a lake and a stepping stone for trips to several Maya sites.