Western Highway (Westbound)
On the banks of the Macal River, at the edge of downtown San Ignacio, you’ll find a sprawling Saturday market where everything from shoes and clothing to housewares and fresh produce is for sale. Local people shop for supplies and gather to catch up on gossip at the food stalls. The market is somewhat divided between produce sellers and souvenir vendors, but as the market has grown, the separation seems to have floundered a bit. Leave enough time to wander every aisle and stall to ensure no gem is left undiscovered. Locals recommend the tacos and pupusas as the best choices for lunch, and the snow cones topped with evaporated milk for a snack. Buses also park just next to the market in a dirt lot, so transportation is not difficult if you’re coming from outside of town.
San Ignacio, Chaa Creek Road, Belize
Often referred to as Belize‘s original eco-lodge, Chaa Creek opened in 1981 as a simple rain forest hotel. In the decades since, it has become one of the country’s most popular options for upscale jungle accommodations, winning awards for its hospitality and its practices emphasizing environmental sustainability. Guests have two main options in terms of room types and price points. Luxurious rooms and suites are in the main lodge, featuring polished wood or tile floors and locally made furniture; the simpler, more budget-friendly casitas sit along the Macal River. The latter are sparsely furnished and offer few distractions. Guests of either room type have access to the property’s amenities and grounds, which include a natural history center and butterfly exhibit, a rain forest medicine trail, binoculars for bird-watching, and canoes for paddling along the river.
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, Belize
Movie director Francis Ford Coppola had traveled the world, but when he visited Belize in the 1980s, in search of a “jungle paradise” like the one where he had filmed Apocalypse Now, he was taken by the untamed land and bought Blancaneaux, the first of two resort properties he would eventually own in Belize. (The other is Turtle Inn.) Initially, Blancaneaux was a family retreat, but by the early 1990s, Coppola decided to turn it into a small luxury resort. Today, guests with deep pockets enjoy visiting Blancaneaux for its sense of exclusivity; travelers have to really want to stay here. An hour’s drive down a bone-jarring road away from civilization, one doesn’t just happen upon the resort. Accommodations are gigantic villa- and cabana-style lodgings lavishly decorated with handmade furniture, textiles, and crafts. Hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and swimming are a few of the activities for guests on-site at Blancaneaux.
Cave tubing is one of the most popular adventure activities in Belize. Like so many things in the country, it is another chance to learn more about Maya culture. In Maya mythology, caves were the entrances to the underworld, known as Xibalba. A rough translation might mean “place of fear,” but there’s no reason to worry these days. Cave tubing requires safety gear and is always done in groups with respected guides who are trained in safety and proper procedure. There are many options for cave tubing companies at Caves Branch and many have been leading tours since 1995. Pick one, go through the safety training, don a slick-looking helmet and life vest, grab an inner tube and you’ll be ready for your adventure down the river into a cave. Best conditions for the experience don’t involve heavy rainfall, so occasionally tours can be canceled, but your operator will judge whether it’s wise to still depart or not. As all companies have to adhere to safety requirements instituted by NICH, there’s no need to worry.
Western Highway San Ignacio town, San Ignacio, Belize
On a hill just above the town of San Ignacio, on a site that only covers about two acres, lie the Maya ruins of Cahal Pech. Like so many of the Maya sites around Belize, steps have been taken to ensure that what remains is preserved and that visitors are able to explore structures at their leisure. The name apparently means “place of ticks” and was chosen because the area around the ruins was used as land for grazing animals. Cahal Pech, settled in 1000 BC and no longer inhabited by 800 AD, was a royal palace for a ruling Maya family, and the site consists of seven plazas plus structures that include temples, a ball court, homes and an altar. Not all of the ruins are in excellent shape but climb to the top for wonderful views of the surrounding river valley. There is also a visitor center and museum on site.
Chiquibil Forest Reserve, Belize
The massive ruins of Caracol were once a major Maya metropolis in prehispanic Belize, during the Classic Period. The majority of the site is yet to be reclaimed from the forest, but the structures that have been uncovered are truly impressive. The main structure is still the tallest building in all of Belize and places you “on top of the world.” The jungle surrounding the site is teaming with wildlife, and a pair of binoculars come in handy. The ruins are located south of San Ignacio along the rough Mountain Pine Ridge Road. There are several worthwhile stops on the way, such as Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Falls, but the best stop is a cool libation at the Blancaneaux Lodge Bar.
Mile 69¼ Western Hwy., San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize
Ka’ana is described as a “boutique resort,” and it appeals to guests who want a sense of being in the Belizean rain forest while also enjoying the comforts and amenities of a full-service resort. Rooms and villas here seem to blend into the jungle, but it’s clear that all is carefully tamed to ensure that guests don’t feel overwhelmed by the wildness. Rooms are decorated in earth tones, with textiles and design accents all locally crafted. Furniture is sturdy local hardwood. Master suites have outdoor showers, and there are two spacious, private villas, each with its own plunge pool, garden, and outdoor terrace, among other luxuries. Staff can arrange land and sea excursions to the country’s most popular cultural, historic, and natural sites.
Buena Vista Street, Cayo District, San Ignacio, Belize
Centrally located in the heart of the Cayo District, the award-winning San Ignacio Resort Hotel offers guests convenient access to the region’s best sights and activities. San Ignacio Resort Hotel features 24 rooms and has the distinction of being named “Hotel of the Year” in 2012 by the Belize Tourism Board. Room options include a honeymoon suite, regal rooms, deluxe balcony and garden rooms and one spa suite. The on-site restaurant features a number of tantalizing dishes and some of the best traditional food I’ve had in Belize. Check out the on-site Green Iguana Project and learn about San Ignacio Resort Hotel’s conservation efforts in Belize. Be sure to start at least one morning off by bird-watching over breakfast.
Xunantunich Rd, Belize
The Cayo District is home to many of Belize’s ancient Maya sites, including one of the largest, Xunantunich. Located atop a ridge near the Mopan River and the Guatemala border, Xunantunich’s “El Castillo,” the main pyramid, is certainly the most impressive. Visitors who brave the steep steps to the top are rewarded with unsurpassed views into Guatemala and neighboring areas of Belize. While the climb up can be pretty steep and rough, there are other routes to get down along the backside that make the descent a little easier. It took me multiple visits to finally gather the courage to climb to the top, but I’m grateful I did, as the views were absolutely worth it! Organized tours to Xunantunich often combine with other activities like zip-lining, cave tubing, or even trips to the Belize Zoo. Travelers who wish to explore all of Xunantunich’s six plazas, which contain more than 26 temples and palaces, should plan to book a private tour or visit on their own.