Visiting San Ignacio, Belize, is a must for anyone travelling around Central America. It’s an adventure hub, and a great place to stay for exploring ancient Mayan ruins, wildlife-rich jungles, and vast cave systems that beg to be swam, climbed and canoed through.
Also known as Cayo, the town runs along the stunning Macal River, and is joined to the quieter Santa Elena by the imposing Hawkesworth suspension bridge. The town has a storied history settled by the Maya people in 1200 BC, plateauing at a population of around 15,000 in 800 AD. It was later named El Cayo by the Spanish, then used as a base for the mahogany trade during the country's time as British Honduras.
It’s now the second largest settlement in Belize, after Belize City, but it’s the Mayan legacy that draws travellers to the area. The remnants of their mighty civilization come high on the list of things to do around San Ignacio.
But it’s not all about the past. The area is also home to a swathe of wildlife and natural wonders, including lofty waterfalls, refreshing lagoons, and thoughtfully conserved nature reserves and parks. Visiting San Ignacio and its surrounds is undoubtedly a highlight of any trip through Central America.
Although San Ignacio is a tourism hub for Belize and the adventure district of Cayo, it doesn’t feel ‘touristy’. You won’t find large hotel chains or foreign fast-food outlets here. Like in many of Belize’s towns, San Ignacio relies on homegrown food, expert guides, and local experiences.
There are lots of things to do in San Ignacio, but the top attractions are a half or full day trip from the town. For this reason, you should give yourself at least a few days to fit in seeing the town and visiting nearby attractions like the ATM Cave, Caracol, Xunantunich and Tikal in Guatemala (if you’re not heading there next).
San Ignacio is a hub for eco-tourism in the Cayo District of Belize. It has a great multicultural food scene, lively nightlife in the downtown area, and is the place to stay for visiting the top sites in Northern Belize and Tikal in neighbouring Guatemala.
It’s also an easy place to visit if your Spanish is limited. Belize is the odd one out in Central America - it’s the only country with English as the official language. But there’s also a mix of Maya, Mestizo, Creole, and Garifuna in San Ignacio, making it jam-packed with culture and diversity, not to mention mouth-watering cuisine.
Unlike the former capital Belize City, San Ignacio has very few issues with petty crime, though it’s reasonable to take the same precautions you would in any built-up area. Residents are mainly Mestizos, Maya and Garifuna, and there are also a load of expats from Europe and North America.
The guided tours from San Ignacio are well run and are more safety conscious than in many other countries in Central America, though you will pay a little more for that privilege.
Even though San Ignacio isn’t small, it’s pretty easy to see all of the main sights in a day. Head to the pedestrianised Burns Avenue and the surrounding streets to find restaurants, souvenir shops, and many hotels. Nearby are the farmers market and the bus station, where you can catch buses to the capital Belmopan as well as Belize City.
A fun day trip from San Ignacio is the Belize Botanic Gardens. Go for a hike on the Mayan medicinal trail, learn about the flora and fauna from an expert local guide, or do a tea tasting tour and learn how to make delicious tamales in this sprawling 45 acre site.
For animal lovers the Green Iguana Conservation Project, Belize Raptor Center, and Green Hills Butterfly Ranch are all worth a visit. For something a bit wilder take a jungle cruise down the Macal River to spot howler monkeys and jaw-dropping waterfalls.
Belize Zoo is also worth a stop, if you’re on your way to San Ignacio from Belize City. Although it’s not big, it offers a fantastic opportunity to see some of Belize's fantastic wildlife up close, and you will also be supporting the zoo’s conservation efforts.
When it comes to Mayan ruins, San Ignacio overshadows its better-known neighbour, Chichen Itza in Mexico. In town, Cahal Pech is worth a stroll around, and is especially great for younger children as it’s safer than other sites in the area.
Xunantunich is a little harder to get to, involving a short drive and hand-cranked ferry to cross the Mopan river. But climb the towering El Castillo temple and you will get 360-degree views over Cayo, nearby Guatemala, and the Pine Ridge Mountain Reserve.
But the star of the show is Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM Cave for short. Easily one of the best day trips from San Ignacio, the guided tour will see you swimming through cold water, squeezing through tight tunnels, and uncovering calcified skeletons deep underground. Caves were thought to be the gateway to the Mayan underworld, and both here and by canoe tour at Barton Creek Cave Reserve, you can find evidence of spiritual rituals and sacrificial remains.
For hiking, caving, off-roading, and all things adventure head to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Go for a dip at Rio On Pools, explore Rio Frio Cave, and admire misty waterfalls like Big Rock and 1000 Foot Falls (Central America’s tallest waterfall).
This is also where you will find the tallest Mayan structure in Belize. The under-explored Caracol Ruins are a lost world - where it’s not unlikely to be the only visitor on a quiet day. Due to the unmade road, many visitors skip this impressive Mayan city, so be sure to take a guided tour of Caracol to uncover its fascinating and rarely told history.
You can get to San Ignacio from Belize City by public bus - the fare is around BZ$10 (US$5) and usually takes around 2 hours. However, these ex-US school buses are notorious for being cramped and busy, and aren’t great if you have any luggage with you.
Another option to is take a tourist shuttle for around US$20, which will get you there in around 1.5 hours.
Since many visitors won’t stop in Belize City itself, it’s easiest to get a shuttle to San Ignacio from the port (connecting to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye) or directly from the airport. Coming back, there are plenty of options to get a shuttle from San Ignacio to Belize Airport.
If you want to be central for tours and sights, book a San Ignacio hotel near the river. Although the standards aren't quite as good, it can make visiting the town a little easier if you don’t have a car.
For a nice low-cost hostel in San Ignacio try Yellow Belly Backpackers. The friendly staff will organise tours for you and take the stress out of your trip.
A little further out of town, Maya Mountain Lodge is set in lush tropical gardens, with self-contained bungalows and a superb breakfast.
For a true touch of luxury, one of the best San Ignacio Belize hotels is Ka’ana Resort and Spa. Make use of the infinity pool, guided excursions, and its top-end on-site restaurant La Ceiba.
If you’re looking for where to eat in San Ignacio, for breakfast you can't beat one of Belize's classic dishes - ‘fry jacks’ at the laid-back Pop's Restaurant. For lunch or snacks, the farmers market in town is a great place to try Belizean street food.
For dinner, Guava Limb Restaurant is a favourite. With a fusion of dishes from all over the world, the restaurant is set within a tranquil jungle garden, it’s hard not to end up eating here every night! But other eateries like Cenaida's Belizean Food and Crave House of Flavour are also well worth a try.
Although not a small town, San Ignacio’s main sites are fairly compact - as long as you don’t mind walking up a few hills. Taxis are readily available, and tours to nearby sites are easy to hop on to but can be a little dearer than making your own way.
It’s a great idea to hire a car in Belize to make the most of the many sites around San Ignacio, just be aware that you will need a 4x4 vehicle in some places (like the bumpy drive to Caracol).
There are also some culturally important places, like ATM Cave, that require you to book a guided tour, but the local experts definitely make the experience all the richer.