Journey into the Jungle: San Ignacio, Belize
Belize is a fascinating, multi-layered land of contrasts that it’s pretty hard not to fall for. This ex-British colony is sandwiched between Guatemala and Mexico on the Caribbean coast and is a strange, but beguiling mix of the Afro-Caribbean and native Mayan cultures, with a strong British colonial influence thrown in.
Although some people do visit Belize as a holiday destination in itself, most of the budget travellers that find themselves in this Central American destination are passing through on the well-worn backpacking trail. They’re either coming south from the Caribbean coast of Mexico or coming up from Guatemala.
A lot of these backpackers get scared off Belize by the price tag, and it’s true. In comparison to its Spanish-speaking neighbours, accommodation and tours ain’t cheap. On the other hand, it’s a crying shame to do what some do and just pass through on their way to cheaper climbs without so much as getting off the mini-bus.
One of the biggest draws in Belize is Caye Caulker, an island that’s imbued with the true Caribbean spirit. It draws in divers like bees to a tropical flower with the promise of the legendary ‘Blue Hole’ dive site.
Just don’t go expecting acres of beach, as there isn’t any. What you will get, though, is bars playing reggae late into the night and a laid back, international crowd.
The other big draw and the one I’ll focus on today is San Ignacio, in the heart of the Belizean rainforest. It’s very near the Guatemalan border and is famous for its adventure tours.
This is where you need to be if ruined Mayan cities, tropical heat, lush rainforest and cathedral-like caves sound like your idea of a good time.
How to Get There
If you’ve got time on your hands, the true Belizean experience is the ‘chicken bus’. If you’re coming from Mexico, get ready to kiss goodbye to the beautifully organised, air-conditioned coaches you’ll have got used to there.
When they say chicken bus, they mean chicken bus. Someone legitimately put a chicken in a basket on the seat next to me down in Guatemala, where it’s a very similar story.
The shuttles are roughly double the price, but they take less than half the time, so it’s more than worth it. We were coming down from Chetumal in Mexico, and we were picked up from our hostel’s door and taken through immigration, then had to swap buses in Belize City, with a quick half an hour to grab some street food. It was beautifully easy, and within 6 hours we were safely in San Ignacio.
Where to Stay
On my Central America circuit, I was actually backpacking with my wonderful mother, which meant we tended to avoid dorm rooms as we found that a private room for two people normally cost pretty much the same as two bunks would have.
Although we started off booking, we got pretty cavalier about things and just started turning up with no reservations.
You might want to book ahead for at least the first couple of nights if you’re travelling in mega-peak season (December/January and Easter), but we were there in the low season (June), just as the rains were thinking about arriving. There were far more beds available than people to fill them. Which also meant it was cheaper!
We got a room with two beds, a private bathroom and a fan at Hyet Guesthouse, which is right in the heart of the little town, for US$25 a night. Not too shabby. Prices go up a lot in high season.
Hyet is a good option, but wander around the centre a bit and check out a few spots and see if you can get any deals or if anyone will throw in a free breakfast.
What to Do
If you’re making the trip to San Ignacio on a budget, make sure you do your research in advance and decide what your top priority is. As everything is a little on the pricey side, you’ll probably only want to hang around for a few days and pick your tours and spend your dollars wisely
One of the main attractions is the ATM Caves. This tour involves a jungle walk, swimming into an incredible cave, and seeing the burial site of four skeletons, sacrificed to the gods centuries ago. There are also plenty of waterfalls around, ruined Mayan cities to visit and even chocolate making workshops. Take your pick!
We opted for cave tubing, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. For about US$75 per person, we did the full day tour, which ended up being just us, low season as it was.
After an hour or so’s drive with our guide Miguel filling us in on Belizean history, we arrived at the caves, grabbed our tubes and started the 40-minute walk through the jungle to the start of the tour.
Hot and sweaty, the sight of the crystal clear, beautifully cool water of the river, where it briefly emerges from one cave before disappearing into the next one, was glorious, and the feeling of jumping in even better.
For three hours you float down the lazy river through stunning caves, and I’ve never felt so relaxed. Trust me, it’s well worth the money.
When we found out that we could ride beautifully kept horses to some Mayan ruins, we didn’t take much convincing.
Hanna Stables are well known in the area for being extremely professionally run and looking after their horses beautifully. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned rider, you’ll enjoy this.
We rode along by the river and then took a hand-cranked ferry over to the site of Xunantunich. From the top of the highest pyramid, the views are incredible, you can even see the Guatemalan border!
You can even stay the night on the farm or do longer, overnight rides. Santiago, the owner, is a great guy and even dropped us at the Guatemalan border.
Only a 20 minute (uphill) walk out of town, you’ll find the remains of an ancient Mayan city. Take advantage of the fact it’s open from 6am and get there as early as you can, and chances are you’ll have the whole place entirely to yourself, especially in low season.
This site has been partially cleared of the jungle that reclaimed it once the Mayan city fell, but it’s still gloriously rugged, with trees growing out of pyramids and vines everywhere.
It’s impossible not to feel incredibly intrepid when you climb to the top of the main pyramid and look down at the plaza far below where throngs of people once gathered for ceremonies.
Wind in and out of the passageways and explore the rooms that were once part of the royal palace. Listen to the sounds of the jungle and picture what it must have been like to live here, so many centuries ago.
What to Eat
Belize’s main saving grace when it comes to budget travelling is the food. Sure, if you go to a restaurant or bar you’ll be paying more than you would at the equivalent joint in Guatemala, but the street food is just as cheap if not even cheaper in Belize. The fusion of Caribbean and Mayan cuisines never ceased to amaze me.
As this is a Mayan area, there’s no getting away from the corn, but they do have the same little packages made of ground corn that you’ll find all over Mexico and GuatemalaWe lived off veggie burritos, rice’n’beans, ‘jonny’ cakes spread with beans and cheese and ginger cake.
If you’re a meat eater, there are even more local delicacies you can sample. If you do a day tour, lunch is likely to be included, but make sure you let them know if you have any dietary requirements in advance, as plain rice and beans lose their charm after a little while.
Is it Really That Expensive?
Sure, you’ll pay a bit more for accommodation here than you might in other places, and if you’re looking to hit up a bar you’ll rack up an impressive bill, but you can definitely do Belize on the cheap if you’re clever.
Stay a couple of nights in San Ignacio, decide what your priorities are when it comes to tours, and budget on food, and you’ll be extremely glad you didn’t decide to pass it by.
Note: One weird thing about Belize is that 1 Belize dollar is ALWAYS worth 1 US dollar, no matter how much the North American currency fluctuates. To me, that makes very little economic sense, but hey, I’m definitely not the expert.
You can always pay for things in US dollars, but if you get cash out at ATMs it’ll be the local stuff. You’ll find yourself being continually confused whether people are talking US or Belizean dollars, so make sure to clarify so you don’t get ripped off.
You’re more than ready to explore the delights of San Ignacio. Brace yourself for the tropical heat, and soak up the exoticness. You won’t regret a flying visit to this fascinating spot.
Images: the waterfront in Caye Caulker by James Willamor – cc by sa 2.0, Cahal Pech ruins by Mig Gilbert – cc by sa 2.0, Cahal Pech ruins by Tinker & Rove cc by 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.