Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in San Ignacio
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
Overlooking the beautiful Mopan River from a hilltop, the ruins at Xunantunich are some of the most visited Maya sites in the world. Located in the Cayo region, Xunantunich—which means “stone woman” in Mayan—dates back to the Classic Era, around 200–900. The complex comprises about 25 temples and palaces.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre) in the Cayo district of Belize is a popular excursion destination, just outside of San Ignacio. Visitors experience an Indiana Jones-type adventure where they wade through the cave’s tunnels and passageways lined with stalactites and stalagmites.
Meaning "submerged crocodile" in Yucatan Mayan, Lamanai is perhaps the most mysterious Maya site in Belize, because it is not yet completely uncovered. See history in the making as you visit the excavation site, where some temples still remain buried underground. Exposed structures that rise from the jungle floor offer plenty to explore.
Located near the Guatemalan border, the ancient Maya city of Caracol is the largest archeological site in Belize. Discovered in 1938, Caracol covers about 65 square miles (168 square kilometers) and includes more than 35,000 structures, five plazas, and an abundance of jungle. Visit on a day trip for a unique look at Maya life.
Altun Ha, site of the ruins of an ancient Mayan city, covers about 3 square miles (8 square kilometers) of Belizean countryside. The central area has more than 500 historic structures, mostly built during the Maya Classic era (AD 200 to 900). Join a private or group tour to learn how the city’s 10,000 inhabitants lived.
Established as a reserve in 1944, the 100,000-acre Mountain Pine Ridge is easily the most breathtaking scenery in all of the Cayo District, if not Belize. The Chiquibul Road will lead you through pine forests, waterfalls, cascading water pools over granite boulders and the Maya Mountains in the distance—it’s a sight to be seen.
Among all the Maya caves in Belize, Barton Creek Cave is unique: a tall river cave that was once used for sacrificial purposes and can be explored only by canoe. The most striking feature is a stalactite so low, you occasionally will have to duck into the canoe to avoid getting struck. But the ride to the end is well worth it.
Big Rock Falls is a large waterfall located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve that attracts a number of visitors who enjoy swimming and cliff jumping.
Part of the Vaca Plateau, the falls can be reached via a short, but somewhat difficult, 15-minute hike. The trek is pretty much straight down and includes a fairly steep section with a not so sturdy railing and a rope to hold on to and aid in the climb down. Once at the water level, you must walk over slippery, uneven slabs of granite rock. The deep emerald pools are perfect for swimming or cliff jumping, and the water is very deep so there is little risk of hitting the bottom when jumping in.
Getting to Big Rock Falls from San Ignacio can be an adventure in itself. The drive is approximately 13 miles over unpaved roads throughout Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve with scenic views.
Belize’s Blue Hole National Park (officially St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park) sits near the capital city of Belmopan and is home to two cave systems (Crystal and St. Herman’s), along with nature trails and the jungle pool that gives rise to the park’s official name.
The caves are the main attractions in the park, with the cave and hole connected by an underground stream. The Blue Hole pool was formed by an underground limestone cave that collapsed, creating the sapphire blue pool at the bottom of the cenote. Visitors also typically visit Crystal Cave, also called Mountain Cow Cave, which can be seen on a guided tours through the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba.
The park has a series of small trails, many of which are good for birding, as the forest canopy is low-lying. Birds spotted in the region include jacamars, blue-crowned motmots, scarlet-rumped tanager, nightingale wren and the long-tailed hermit hummingbird.
More Things to Do in San Ignacio
Located just a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the town center of San Ignacio, Cahal Pech is a small but significant archaeological reserve that can be visited in a couple of hours. The site, which was settled around 1,000 BC and abandoned in AD 800, includes plazas, ball courts, an altar, and even a royal burial chamber.
Crystal Cave, also known as Mountain Cow Cave, is located within the Blue Hole National Park near Belmopan, Belize’s capital city. To get to Crystal Cave, you may have to start with a moderately challenging, 50-minute hike through lush rain forest and steep terrain. Depending on your entrance point, you then descend by rope for 15 feet to drop into the mouth of the cave.
Ancient Mayans believed this to be the domain of their gods, earning it the name of Xibalba. Mayans said this is the portal between the tangible human world and the invisible world of the gods. Sacred rituals and important ceremonies were once performed here, and visitors today will see remnants such as ceremonial bowls, pots, and even skeletal remains from sacrificial victims.
Crystal Cave is also full of natural wonders including unique rock formations, massive stalagmites and crystal clusters, a major attraction. The calcite formations cover the floors, walls, and ceiling of Crystal Cave. Some tours include the opportunity to explore Crystal Cave in the water, as you can embark on a refreshing cave tubing journey as you meander along the waters of Xibalba and through an impressive Gothic chamber with hidden pottery dating back to 300 AD.
San Jose Succotz is one of Belize’s small villages in the Cayo District, near the Guatemalan border. This peaceful village lies along the banks of the Mopan River and is best known as the home of the Xunantunich Maya site. El Castillo is the signature temple of Xunantunich, the second tallest structure in Belize. Most travelers visit San Jose Succotz to explore the ancient Maya site, but there is more to this rural Maya village than many people realize.
Belizeans are quick to point out that Succotz is also the home of its championship San Jose Succotz Marching Band. The village also hosts the popular annual Succotz Fair that showcases traditional Maya and Mestizo culture. San Jose Succotz is also home to a number of important medicinal plants utilized in the Maya culture. At least 64 species utilized in over 100 remedies have been identified in the area.
Travelers looking to say in the San Jose Succotz area will find several rustic lodging options, including a hostel with dorms and private rooms. Located within a short distance from San Jose Succotz is Chaa Creek, which has a Natural History Center and Butterfly Farm worth exploring.
Other popular sights further out from Succotz include Cahal Pech, San Ignacio and Santa Elena House of Culture, and San Ignacio Hotel’s Green Iguana Exhibit. The Cayo District is considered Belize’s cultural center, and there are countless natural and historical recreational activities easily accessible.
Belize’s largest butterfly garden houses more than 30 native butterfly species, which flit freely about in a 4,000-square-foot (1,220-square-meter) enclosure. Learn about the butterfly life cycle at this nature center that attracts everyone from butterfly novices to researchers. Hummingbirds are also frequent visitors.
Located in the Cayo district of Belize, the Belize Botanic Gardens encompass 45 acres of native and exotic plants. The area was once cattle pasture prior to its purchase by an amateur botanist and his wife. Due to rising costs related to exporting Belize’s noted bananas and citrus fruits, the couple began to experiment with tropical fruits that could flourish locally and command a higher price on the export market. Belize's lack of a registered botanic garden was later noted, and the idea to turn this spot into one was set in motion. Today, the Belize Botanic Gardens have been a place of study and work on local plant conservation.
Collections at the gardens change by season, but don't miss the Native Orchid House that includes over 100 species of native Belizean orchids. Other exhibits include Palms of Belize, Zingiber Alley, Hamilton Bird Hide and Plants of the Maya. The only botanic garden in the country, this site includes both native and exotic plants of Belize, as well as non-native and non-invasive species.
After Hurricane Hattie struck Belize City in 1961, the decision was made to move the capital and government offices inland. The town now called Belmopan, part of the Cayo District, was built and became the landlocked capital of Belize. Just an hour from Belize City, and equally close to San Ignacio, Belmopan is a calm area with markets, coffee shops, and restaurants.
El Pilar is an ancient Maya city located at Belize’s border with Guatemala. It’s a Middle Pre-Classic and Late-Classic Mayan site, which is currently under excavation by the University of California.
As the site is not very well excavated yet, tours to El Pilar tend to focus on the important vegetative areas that were key in Maya history. El Pilar Archeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna extends into Guatemala and was declared a cultural monument. The area has been under threat by looters and was placed on the 1996 World Monument Fund’s list of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.
El Pilar is believed to contain 20 or more plazas and hundreds of other structures spread out over more than 50 acres. At least one ball court has been discovered, and the tallest structure stands about 70 feet above the plaza. One of the most interesting features of El Pilar is a three- to five-foot-high wall, which runs westward from the site and into Guatemala.
El Pilar gets its name from the unusual abundance of water in the area. El Pilar is the Spanish word for “watering basin.” Researchers believe construction at El Pilar began around 800 BC, and by 250 BC, there was a thriving community. During its peak, El Pilar could’ve been home to as many as 20,000 people.
Visitors to El Pilar will find several easily navigable trails, and birding enthusiasts will enjoy the abundant bird life that calls El Pilar home.
Running through the beautiful Chiquibul Rainforest, the Macal River is one of the most diverse ecological areas in Belize. Being home to more than a dozen endangered species included the jaguar, the tapir, the scarlet macaw, and the black howler monkey, the Macal River Valley is heaven to any nature lover.
Some sites along the river worth visiting include Cahal Pech, an ancient Mayan city, the Belize Botanic Gardens, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, and the city of San Ignacio.
Experience this stunning environment rich in flora and fauna while paddling your way through the beautiful Belizean jungle. If you're in Belize in March, be sure to catch the annual La Ruta Maya Canoe Race, a four day race originating on the Macal out of San Ignacio.
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