Things to Do in San Ignacio
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tropical forest surrounds the sapphire cenote after which this national park is named, while two cave systems—Crystal and St. Herman’s—extend across part of the 575-acre (230-hectare site. The park’s caves contain sculptural limestone formations and Maya relics, while above ground, nature trails weave through the jungle foliage.
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.
Set amid the pine-covered and boulder-strewn slopes of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, this 150-foot (46-meter curtain of roaring white water is one of many picturesque waterfalls that dot this wooded wilderness area. Hidden behind the forest foliage, the falls attract bathers who come to swim in the pool at its base.
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. Sacred Mayan 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. It is also full of natural wonders including rock formations, massive stalagmites, and crystal clusters.
El Pilar is an ancient Mayan city located at Belize’s border with Guatemala. It’s a Middle Preclassic and Late-Classic Mayan site, which is currently under excavation by the University of California. The site is believed to contain 20 or more plazas and hundreds of other structures spread out over more than 50 acres. Visitors will find several easily navigable trails here.
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.
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.
Running through the Chiquibul Rainforest, the Macal River is one of the most diverse ecological areas in Belize. Home to more than a dozen endangered species including the jaguar, tapir, scarlet macaw, and black howler monkey, the Macal River Valley is a must-see for any nature lover. Some sites along the river worth visiting include Cahal Pech, Belize Botanic Gardens, and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
Located in the Cayo district of Belize, the Belize Botanic Gardens encompass 45 acres (18 hectares of native and exotic plants. Collections at the gardens change by season, but don't miss the Native Orchid House that includes over 100 species of Belizean orchids. The gardens are also a place of study and work on local plant conservation, as well as home to more than 50 varieties of tropical fruits.
Spread out along the banks of the Mopan River, this small rural village is the jumping-off point for Xunantunich, one of Belize’s most impressive Maya sites. The pace of life in the town is slow, although a steady stream of visitors pass through en route to the jungle-surrounded stone ruins on the far side of the river.