7 Things to do in and around San Ignacio, Belize – gateway to jungle, caves and Maya temples

Back when we spend five weeks weeding on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm, 3 kilometres out of the nearest small village, San Ignacio was our go-to metropolis. Don’t get me wrong, San Ignacio is in no way a big city. Coupled with twin Santa Elena, the city barely has 20.000 inhabitants. Despite its small size, visitors will not be bored. Here are 7 things we really enjoyed in San Ignacio.

1. Take selfies with green iguanas

Anete with a green iguana at Green Iguana Conservation Project

We visited these jolly vegetarians at Green Iguana Conservation Project, in the gardens of the San Ignacio Resort.

Nicknamed ‘bamboo chickens’, green iguanas are locally considered a tasty piece of meat. Their eggs, stewed and served with coconut rice, are a delicacy. Some sadistic souls also take joy in stoning iguanas or setting the pour things on fire. It has lead the species to be under threat of disappearing.

Nigel from the Green Iguana Conservation Project hatches displaced eggs. He also nurses injured iguanas back to health. The ultimate goal is to release them in the ‘wild’, protected nature parks or the gardens of eco-lodges.

A meeting with Nigel’s green iguanas costs BZ$18 (around €8). Visitors can feed the animals and make plenty of selfies. The money goes towards conservation.

2. Visit impressive Maya temples

Tom and Anete in front of Xunantunich

Together with southern Mexico and Guatemala, modern-day Belize forms the heartland of the ancient Maya world. The traces of that past are literally everywhere. Dig anywhere in the Cayo district and chances are that your spade will hit part of a ruin. So many treasures lie hidden under the soil that neither archaeologists, nor the budget they need, can keep up.

Luckily, a couple of Maya temple complexes around San Ignacio are excavated and open to the public. The most accessible one is Cahal Pech (BZ$5 or €2,20), a steady uphill walk from town. This was the first Maya temple we visited. We had read that it’s not the most impressive one, so we expected to find a heap of nondescript rocks. It was nothing like that. For eager rookies such as ourselves, it was thoroughly sensational. We needed quite a bit of courage to ascend the steep staircase of the highest structure. In the small but interesting museum, we learned that the old Mayans hunted for iguanas. Poor Nigel.

Xunantunich (BZ$10 or €4,40) is even more awe-inspiring. The top of El Castillo – the second highest temple in Belize at 40 metres – offers a helicopter-view of the region. Not only can you see nearby Benque Viejo del Carmen and admire the green canopy of the surroundings, you can also peek into Guatemala. Don’t jump up when you hear a T-Rex – it’s probably just a howler monkey. Part of the adventure is the journey here. The chicken bus drops you off in front of a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan river.

Discover the Maya in this article about ethnicity in Belize.

3. Learn how chocolate is made

Anete and Tom trying hot chocolate at AJAW

Even if temples are not your thing and you already start to doze upon hearing the term ‘archaeology’, you’ll still have to thank the ancient Mayans for one thing. Almost 3000 years ago, they discovered chocolate. They even considered it the food of the gods.

But if you expected that those old Mayans happily munched a bar of Snickers or Côte d’Or after stacking a stone wall or two – well, I’ll have to disappoint you. Their chocolate, crushed cocoa beans mixed with water and chilli pepper, tasted somewhat different. In fact, the old Mayan word Xocolatl, meaning bitter water, probably describes it best.

At AJAW Chocolate, we learned all of this and more. BZ$24 per person, around €10,50, bought us a chocolate demonstration. We learned all about the harvest of cacao pods and the fermentation, drying and roasting processes. Afterwards, we ground beans into a thick chocolate paste with a volcanic grinding stone, to produce our own nice cup of hot Maya chocolate. Mmm!

Read the full blog post about our experience at AJAW.

4. Get local in San Antonio and camp on a hilltop in the Maya Mountains

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We lived for five weeks in the middle of the Belizean nowhere, so it should be no surprise that we walked the 2,5 kilometres to San Antonio regularly. To get our share of big city life, if you can call it that. San Antonio is a typical small Maya village, where the barbershop consisted of a chair and a mirror under a bamboo roof, where all the young boys gathered to play FIFA in the one and only internet café (which doubled as a village shop) and where the nearest doctor was a shaman up the hill.

San Antonio had no doctor, but two village pubs. A Belikin a day, keeps the doctor away, right? We regularly visited. These pubs were concrete bunkers with saloon doors and nutshells and empty bottles on the tables, not yet cleaned up from the previous evening. Belikin posters showed scantily clad models in front of Maya temples and the pool table seemed to be teleported straight from the 50s. The soundtrack was varied – from Bob Marley over old-fashioned tango to Bryan Adams, Annie Lenox and other 80s crap which we’ve been persistently trying to forget for three decades now – but had one thing in common: it was always too loud. If you tried to flush, the toilet spat half of the water on the floor.

Bryan Adams or Pentecostal church music?

These village pubs were great places to meet the villagers. People like the former gang member who had changed his life after the birth of this son (but who still gave his dog Belikin stout). We also talked to the barman in one of the pubs. Mikey wasn’t only a bartender, he also grew beans and peanuts, replaced the roof in San Antonio’s restaurant – a bamboo hut where we ate rice and beans, fried chicken and a bunch of mutually interchangeable Mexican snacks – and he had ploughed a field at the Stardust Sanctuary Farm. People in the rural Maya Mountains combine half a dozen jobs to get by. Mikey told us about the viewpoint his uncle had built on a nearby mountain ridge, and how he hosted campers there.

Anete admiring the view from Ca-Anah-Mul near San Antonio, Belize.

Two weeks later, we hiked up to Ca-Anah-Mul. For hours, we sat on the wooden terrace, admiring the show. It felt like watching TV. So many things fought for our attention. There was the blood orange sunset in the west, the thunderstorm regularly lighting up the sky in the east. There were the always changing showers and the cloud formations in the north, the lights of San Antonio in the valley and those of Spanish Lookout and Benque Viejo del Carmen further away. The fireflies, the endless impossible green carpet, the plumes of smoke. The Friday mass at the Pentecostal church in San Antonio went in overdrive for hours on end, emitting carnival music, drum rolls and passionate preaching. At last, the proof I needed to realise that Bryan Adams isn’t so bad after all.

5. Romp around in Francis Ford Coppola’s backyard

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Well, well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but the Apocalypse Now director does own a lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. If you have saved up a bit of money like a good boy, you can even stay there. If you’re like us and you’re more likely to sleep in a tent (see number 4) than at a fancy resort that you can’t ever leave because, o my god, imagine if dirt gets behind your nails… you can still visit this nature reserve.

The first thing you need to know about the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve: it is a huge land. As public transportation is non-existent in this area (the bus literally turns around in front of the Stardust Sanctuary Farm), you’ll need either the stamina of a long-distance hiker, or a car. We had neither. Luckily, we did have Victor, the farm’s gardener. Nicknamed El Máquina for his fanatic work ethics, he was always looking for ways to make some extra cash for his family. He worked illegally in the USA and, when immigration caught him, he worked in prison until the Americans finally deported him. He agreed to take us into the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve.

We bumped over the red clays running through enormous stretches of pine forest, home to jaguars, cougars, tapirs and other illustrious animals. But the shout we heard when we approached Big Rock was not animalistic. It belonged to a young blond man who plunged from a granite – yeah, yeah – big rock into a pool formed by a thundering waterfall. Hours earlier, we had enjoyed the more peaceful Rio on Pools, revelling in the cold and crystal clear water. This really was the perfect way to cool down on a hot day – and god knows there are many of those in this part of Belize.

Read more about waterfalls in Belize and Guatemala.

6. Lick ice cream in Spanish Lookout

Anete enjoying ice cream at Western Dairies in Spanish Lookout, Belize.

The weirdest creatures in Belize are not the green iguanas from number 1, but the men with woolly beards and straw heads that look like they’ve escaped a frontier film. Congratulations, you’ve spotted the Mennonites. These hard-working Christians ride around in horse-drawn carriages, selling their watermelons or potatoes by the road-side. They live in the boondocks of Belize, in villages without electricity, slaving away on the land.

Some of the Mennonites have left their traditional lifestyle behind. They reckoned that a little bit of electricity in their houses and a little bit of gas in their big-ass trucks isn’t going to make baby Jesus think any less of them. From a plot of wasteland near the market in San Ignacio, you can take a chicken bus over potholed dirt roads, through scruffy villages with names such as Duck Run, Duck Run 2 and Duck Run 3, until you reach the smooth streets of Spanish Lookout, a progressive Mennonite stronghold. It feels like you’re no longer in tropical Belize, but in the American Midwest.

The bus drops you off a hundred metres from the headquarters of Western Dairies, the main producer of dairy and – hurray! – ice cream in this country. The restaurant is popular with locals, so you might have to endure a teenage birthday party. Stay strong, the reward is worth it. You can sample exotic flavours such as soursop, coconut, nance and, err, sugar corn. I told you it’s a bit like the American Midwest here.

Learn more about Mennonites in our post about ethnicity in Belize.

7. Descend into the Mayan underworld

Fair Maiden in A.T.M. Cave, Belize

Sure, you can check out any collection of Maya artefacts in a museum of your choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s ten times more impressive to see ancient pottery, animal bones or remains of human skeletons, sacrificed by the Maya within their proper context. In the ATM Cave near San Ignacio, you can do the latter. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a key attraction for adventurers in Belize.

To reach the fabled cathedral in the cave, you’ll have to swim, climb, crawl and squeeze yourself through tight spaces filled with water, somehow survive the ‘decapitating rock’ and clamber up to a boulder the size of a tractor. The ultimate reward is a glimpse at the fair-maiden, a calcified intact skeleton of a young girl.

Our descend into Xibalba – the Mayan underworld ruled by the gods of death – left us speechless and shaken, not sure what we had just experienced. We wrote about it extensively in this post about the ATM Cave.

Pro-tip for budget-conscious backpackers

After leaving the Stardust Sanctuary Farm, we stayed in J & R Guest House for a couple of nights. Our BZ$30 room was small, but kept impeccably clean by the sweet Spanish-speaking grandmother of the family. Guests can use the convenient kitchen.

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