Is San Ignacio Worth Visiting?
If you are planning a trip to Belize, without a doubt San Ignacio is worth visiting. While some people may just want to spend their time closer to the water, San Ignacio offers the chance to see the other side of Belize. Instead of the sea & beach, you will get to experience more of the history, culture, and nature of the country.
There are few other places out there that can offer so many diverse offerings just within a short drive from the city center. So, whether you want to see some of the most significant historical Mayan ruins, explore one of the top caves in the world, or just enjoy some nature, then San Ignacio is for you. San Ignacio is located in western Belize just nearby the country of Guatemala. It is about a 2-hour drive from Belize City and a short 20-minute drive from the border.
While the town center is a vibrant, exciting place to visit, the area was once a hub during the Mayan times. Surrounding San Ignacio are several well-known Mayan sites that can now be visited today. Most people who visit San Ignacio, do so to be in close proximity to these Mayan ruins. Some of the most well-known sites include:
- 1) Cahal Pech (near town)
- 2) Xunantunich (10 minute drive)
- 3) Caracol (2 hour drive)
- 4) Tikal (2 hour drive – in Guatemala)
- 5) Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
- 6) Rio Frio Cave
- 7) Rio On Pools
- 8) Barton Creek Cave
- 9) Macal River Canoeing
- 10) Medicinal Jungle Trail
- 11) Green Iguana Conservation Project
- 12) Belize Raptor Center
- 13) Green Hills Butterfly Ranch
- 14) Belize Botanic Gardens
- 15) Explore Town
- 16) San Ignacio Market
If you are looking to visit some impressive Mayan ruins during your time out in Belize, then San Ignacio is the place to be. Most of these sites were flourishing in the early years (anywhere from 1,000 BC to 900 AD), before collapsing before the first millennium.
Big Rock Falls
There’s a reason there’s such a thing as ‘hidden gems,’ and Big Rock Falls is the prime example of this. Tucked into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve this waterfall literally prompts your jaw to drop once you lay eyes upon it. Magnificent, monumental and massive, Big Rock stands tall with a small pool at the bottom of it, flowing into a bigger cenote that rushes over large rocks (hence, the name.)
After numerous wooden stairways plunging into the forest, you will arrive at the bottom where the 150-foot waterfall stands. After all those steps, launching yourself off a rocky cliff into the pool is just what you need. If you’d rather a more relaxing entrance, simply wade amongst the rocks before dipping into the big cenote at the foot of the falls. Lying on your back and staring at the cloudless sky as you float is the recommended way to experience Big Rock Falls. For a free, natural massage place yourself near the rocky walls and let the cascades pummel your back while also refreshing your face.
Big Rock suits both adrenaline-junkies (diving from the cliff), or relaxation lovers (wading or lying on the rocks.) Since it’s deep within the reserve you are sure to have most of the place to yourself, a great opportunity to appreciate nature’s creations close at hand. You can either spend a half day enjoying the chilling water of Big Rock or after spending a couple of hours head on over to Rio on Pools, which is nearby.
How to get there:
- The closest large town to the waterfall is San Ignacio where you can get a guide to take you to the site.
- After a couple hours winding through red-dirt roads you will see the entrance to the national park with a sign reading “Welcome to Mountain Pine Ride Forest Reserve.” You will need to check yourself in with the park ranger stationed there.
- From there, you will drive another four miles before arriving at the trail leading you to the top of the steep stairs.
- Make your way down until the roaring sounds of water announce your arrival!
The main Maya site that is within walking distance of the town is Cahal Pech. This is actually one of the oldest sites in the region with evidence that it was active as early as 1,200 BC. The site is completely surrounded by the lush greenery of the jungle, so you will get a combination of nature & history all in one. There is also a small museum at the entrance of Cahal Pech to wander through and learn more about its history. During my visit, I ended up going there towards the end of the day. This meant that very few people were around and I essentially had the entire place to myself. It was very eye opening to walk around, climb up some structures, and get an idea of what this historical site was once like.
Hours: 6:30AM – 5:00PM
Cost: $10 BZD / $5 USD
Moving away from the town center is Xunantunich, located just about 10 minutes away by taxi (or bus) from San Ignacio. Xunantunich is a much larger site than Cahal Pech, and it also offers some grander structures and temples within its complex. Now, to get to Xunantunich, you will first be let off on one side of the Mopan River. Once at the river, there is a hand cranked ferry that will take you across. From the opposite riverside it is then a 20 minute walk along until you reach the site itself (there are also drivers who will take you up for a small fee).
At Xunantunich you will be welcomed to a variety of plazas, pyramids, structures, and palaces. But the highlight is El Castillo, that comes in at 40 meters / 130 feet in height. Visitors can head up the structure and be welcomed to 360 degree views of the complex and surrounding jungle. This is certainly one of the best views you can ask for in the region, so be sure to make your way up during a visit.
Hours: 8:00AM – 4:00PM
Cost: $10 BZD / $5 USD
Another super impressive Mayan sites that flourished in the early years is Caracol. Now, instead of being near the town center, Caracol is going to require a day trip outside of San Ignacio. No worries though, as there are plenty of great tour options to take your there. While it is a 2-hour drive away, many tours will also add the Rio On Pools and Rio Frio Cave along the way too (more on those soon). This means that you will get a full day of activities including a Mayan site, cave exploration, and some swimming.
Caracol was known to be the largest Mayan cities in Belize, with over 180,000 people living there at the time. Throughout the complex, there will be just so much to explore and enjoy along the way as you see where these people once lived. The highlight of the complex is the Sky Palace (Caana), which is the largest manmade structure in the country. It includes four palaces, three temples, and comes in at 43 meters / 140 feet tall.
Since it is located in the lush Chiquibul Forest Reserve, you will also be surrounded by the rainforest and its abundance of nature.
Now, while the previous three Mayan sites are located in Belize, Tikal is in nearby Guatemala. Since it is just a 2-hour drive, taking a day trip to explore Tikal is considered one of the best things to do in San Ignacio. To do so, your best bet is to sign up for a full day tour that will include transport, expert guides, lunch, tickets, and more. This is one of those spots where having a guide by your side will just be so helpful as you learn the ins and outs of what Tikal is all about.
Since it was the main city center of the Mayan period, you can imagine how much history can be found all throughout. The complex is truly massive and there is just so much to explore. There are six main temples (many of which can be climbed), in addition to plazas, structures, and an abundance of wildlife. Tikal is also both a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the culture flawlessly combines with the landscape. Be on the lookout for the intersection of nature & ruins, as animals roam about the complex areas. After a day of exploring all that Tikal has to offer, it will then be back to San Ignacio to end an exciting day.
Tip: don’t forget your passport when heading to Tikal!
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Without a doubt, the most talked about attraction near San Ignacio is the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave. The cave is also a Mayan site, that was used for ceremonial and sacrificial purposes. Today, guided tours take visitors into the depths of the cave as you swim, wade, crawl, and maneuver yourself through this one of kind place. Consistently named as one of the top caves to visit in the world, ATM combines the Mayan history with the cave itself, resulting in one unforgettable day. Tours leave from San Ignacio in the early morning, making the one-hour drive to the Tapir Nature Reserve. Once there, it is time for a 45 minute hike through the jungle as you cross three rivers and get to the cave entrance.
Over the course of the next three hours, you will get to explore all the cave has to offer. While the cave itself is quite impressive, there will be a multitude of Mayan artifacts sprawled throughout. In addition, there are 14 skeletal remains within the cave that give some understanding of what ATM was once used for. Be sure to book your spot in advance as there are a limited number of people who are allowed in the cave each day.
Rio on Pools
If headed on a Caracol day trip, odds are the Rio On Pools will be included as well. The pools are located within the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and offer the perfect spot to cool off after a day of exploring. There are a wide variety of natural pools here that have different depths and shapes. Small waterfalls and the flowing waters, make this the perfect place to just sit back & relax.
Rio Frio Cave
Yet another add on to a day trip to Caracol will be the nearby Rio Frio Cave. Rio Frio is known for having the largest cave entrance in Belize, and was once used as a Mayan sacrificial site. After making your way through the 70 foot high entranceway, you will get the chance to explore further into the cave. Stalactites, stalagmites, caverns, boulders, and more can be found all throughout, giving you the chance to take in one of the more impressive caves out there.
Barton Creek Cave
For those that want to add some water activities to their trip to San Ignacio, then the Barton Creek Cave will be for you. While most canoe trips you may be familiar with head out on rivers or lakes, this one will head into the Barton Creek Cave. The cave is located about an hour away from San Ignacio, and can only be explored as part of a guided canoe tour. Once you arrive, you will hop into the canoe and slowly make your way through this ancient Mayan cave. Throughout the tour you will learn all about its history as you get to witness its impressive cave formations along the way.
Canoe the Macal River
For a more local and easier canoeing experience, head on out to the Macal River. This can be more of a self guided experience as you can rent a canoe from the Chaa Creek Lodge, and then canoe your way upstream. Along the way you will get to enjoy the lush greenery and wildlife that surrounds the river. After canoeing for as long as you like, you can simply float back downstream to Chaa Creek to end your day. Guided tours are also available if interested for an extra cost.
Hotel Note: Chaa Creek Lodge is considered one of the top accommodation choices in the region. Be sure to check availability if that sounds like something you are interested in.
Medicinal Jungle Trail
Throughout the San Ignacio region you may come across offerings of Medicinal Jungle Trails. These trails offer the chance to learn all about the surrounding plants. While they may just seem like normal plants to some, many of these may have medicinal and healing properties. During a walk, you will learn more about these plants & what they can provide. Chaa Creek offers a great, affordable hour-long tour for those interested in taking part.
Things to Do with Kids
For those that want to experience some of more animal & nature specific sites around San Ignacio, there are several great options to choose from. Most of these are also great options for those with kids.
Green Iguana Conservation Project
Located right near the town center in the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (my top overall pick), is the Green Iguana Conservation Project. Each day, there are tours on the hour from 8:00AM to 4:00PM, for $11.25 USD per person. During a guided tour, you will be taken into an area where many green iguanas live. There you will learn all about the conservation efforts of the project and get to have a better understanding of what they do.
It is a fascinating little tour to take part of and is the perfect addition for those with kids interested in animals.
Belize Raptor Center
Another place in San Ignacio that looks after animals is the Belize Raptor Center. Located just 10 minutes from town, the center is dedicated to the conservation and education of raptor birds. They help rehabilitate injured birds, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild once they are ready. You can learn more about the center and what they are all about by visiting their website.
San Ignacio Market
One of the highlights in town is the San Ignacio Market. During my time in town, I was going in and out of the market daily. It is located right on the shore of the Macal River and is packed with all types of vendors. Whether you want to have a sit-down meal or just grab some fruit or snacks, the market will have a little bit of everything for everyone. While the market is open every day of the week, on Saturdays is when it comes to life even more. No matter what type of local Belizean food item you are looking for, the market is the place to be.
Green Hills Butterfly Ranch
About a 30 minute drive from San Ignacio is the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch. As Belize’s largest butterfly ranch, you will come across 20+ different species of butterfly that roam around the enclosure. It is not just about the butterflies though, as the overall property makes up 250 acres of landscape. There is an abundance of other wildlife that has been spotted on the ranch, including over 300 bird species, and even animals such as jaguars.
Plenty of beautiful flora is also spread all around, as you get to learn all about the nature that Belize has to offer.