A January 2004 trip
to San Ignacio by lcampbell
Quote: A perfect central base camp for archeological excursions and outdoor adventures, San Ignacio (Cayo) has plenty of inexpensive accommodations and good food. Cayo has a diverse population, making for an interesting cultural experience as well.
My other favorite activities were biking to El Pilar, a small national park and unexcavated archeological site (mostly for the pure physical challenge of getting there by bike, but also for the supreme solitude once we arrived) and hiking at Blue Hole National Park.
Cahal Pech and Xunatunich were small but interesting archeological sites (a good intro before visiting Tikal in Guatemala the next week). If I were to check out any of the guided tours (which were over our budget for this trip), I would have taken a cave tour to Actun Tunichil Muknal. With a larger budget, I think I would also rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle for the day to visit Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve and possibly the Caracol archeological site.
The lowlight was our very brief visit to the over-hyped restaurant called Eva’s.
The best grocery store that I found was just north of the bus station on Burns Avenue. It had everything imaginable at reasonable prices. On the far south end of Burns Avenue was a natural foods store that was very interesting, and near that (across the road) I found a used book shop.
The internet place we liked best was across the street and diagonal from Tropicool Hotel, toward the bus station. I don’t remember the name.
Belize Bank and Atlantic Bank are both on Burns Avenue, the main drag.
Other Belize journals:
For more information on Belize, see my journals: Belize on per day, The Sultry South Coast of Belize, and Peaceful Placencia.
On to Guatemala:
And for more information on moving on to Guatemala, see my journals: Guatemala on per day, Ultimate Archaeology, and more.
Bus Placencia-Dangriga: US per person (pp)
Bus Dangriga-Belmopan: US pp
Bus Belmopan-San Ignacio: US.50 pp
We left Placencia on the 6am bus and had immediate connections, so we arrived in San Ignacio before lunch.
San Ignacio to Flores, Guatemala:
*Bus San Ignacio-Benque Viejo del Carmen: US.75 pp
*Taxi to the Guatemala border: US pp
*Belize Departure Tax: US pp
*Visit Guatemala check-in window (easy to miss). No charge to enter Guatemala.
*Exchange money either before or after check-in window. Before will be with money-exchange men, and after will be with the bank. I don’t know which had better rates.
*Minibus from border to Santa Elena: US.50 pp (20 quetzales – be careful, some may try to charge more!) Note: there is a regular full-size bus to Santa Elena, but it only ran a couple times per day, was cheaper, but also had trouble with the muddy road (there were multiple large commercial trucks stuck in the mud – needed to be pulled out with tractors - and blocking the road). I was happy to be on the minibus.
*Walk 5-10 minutes from Santa Elena to Flores over the 500 meter causeway.
Private or Shared Bath?
Shared bath, very clean. Nice hot showers. Towels provided.
We met owner Dorris first, and she was friendly enough, but not overly so. Her husband Wally was an interesting character. He is a pretty grumpy English fellow, who may come off as very rude. But in fact, I ended up liking him. It made me feel very secure when he did "guard duty" at the hotel’s front entrance every night, making sure that only those who were supposed to be there entered. And some might be annoyed at his long list of rules, but I found that it made for a quiet nice place to stay in – not a wild party place. For us, it was perfect. If you stay a bit, Wally even opens up a little bit, and you see that he is an OK guy after all. Even though there wasn’t really a common area, we did meet quite a few fellow travelers as well.
Food and Other Amenities:
There is no restaurant at Tropicool, but there are plenty of restaurants close by. There is a courtyard area in the back, with a sink for washing clothes as well as a clothesline. Tropicool has bicycles for rent for US$10 per person per day.
Tropicool is located just a half-block from the bus station. We were surprised to find that it was quite quiet at night despite being on a very busy street.
As I mentioned, with Wally guarding the entrance at night, the Tropicool seemed to be a very safe place to stay. I saw many single women staying there also.
The price was an incredible US$12.50 per night double occupancy.
Other accommodation choices:
Although we stayed at the Tropicool, I peeked at a couple other places, and this is what I discovered. The Cohune Palm Hotel was comparable to the Tropicool in cleanliness and amenities, was the same price (US$12.50 per night, double occupancy), but with only 4 rooms. Just across the street from Cohune Palm was Martha’s, which I understand is a good quality place, but was full so we couldn’t look at the rooms. The reception area was professional, and there is a good restaurant. The best value by far, in my opinion, would be the Casa Blanca Hotel for US$27, double occupancy. This was an impressive and spotless accommodation. There was a gorgeous shared kitchen and common area, and the security was the best I’ve seen.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 16, 2004
30A Burns Avenue
San Ignacio, Belize
Cahal Pech has a very recent history of study and excavation. The first written documentation of discovery of the Cahal Pech site was in the 1930s, and exploration did not begin until the 1950s. Unfortunately, true scientific study and excavation did not begin until 1988, and by then, much looting had already taken place. Despite this, there are some great displays of archeological pieces and interesting information at the Cahal Pech museum. Excavation stopped within the past few years, and I was told that no more work is planned due to lack of funding, or funding going elsewhere.
The location of this long-forgotten "place of ticks" (as the name translates) is high on a hilltop, 900 feet above sea level. The view is obscured by trees, but the atmosphere is supremely tranquil. When we visited, we were the only ones there. We were free to enjoy the quiet mystery, and we had the on-site ranger all to ourselves as well.
The city was once home to around 10,000 Mayan people starting approximately 900BC, possibly as early as 1200BC. There are 34 buildings and two ball courts located around 7 plazas. Some buildings are uncovered and restored, and some are still pyramid-shaped, earth-covered mounds. Our map showed one building called the "Royal Tomb." We located where it would be and found a jungle-covered hill. I asked the ranger how they knew it was a royal tomb if it was still unexcavated, and he explained that archeologists had dug a hole into it from the side and found a large jade death mask that would be used for royalty. After the discovery, the tomb was recovered with earth, and I presume the artifacts were put away in a museum for safekeeping.
The entrance fee for Cahal Pech is US$2.50 per person. It is open 9am-4:30pm. It can easily be seen in a morning or afternoon. Or if you are looking for solitude, bring a lunch and a book, and stay all day. The video in the museum was broken when I was there, but hopefully it will be up and running by now.
Cahal Pech Archaeological Site
San Ignacio, Belize
Attraction | "Xunatunich Archaeological Site"
To get to Xunatunich from San Ignacio (Cayo), take one of the numerous west-bound buses. Tell the driver you would like to get out at the ferry to Xunatunich, which is about 7 miles west of town. The bus ride should cost US$0.75 per person. The ferry across the Mopan River is free. After crossing the ferry, there is a one-mile uphill walk to contend with. Bring drinking water!
You may hear from local people, especially taxi drivers, that it is unsafe to walk this stretch. They may try to scare you with stories of muggings or worse. My feeling on this is that it is a ploy to get taxi fare, but you need to decide for yourself. I did not find the walk to be threatening in any way, but I was with my husband. Single women should maybe hook up with other travelers to make the trip.
After paying the US$2.50 per person entrance fee, we stopped briefly at the unimpressive museum. Fortunately, the site itself did not disappoint. The site is a combination of excavated and unexcavated ruins, the largest restoration being a 130-foot stone pyramid called El Castillo. As Xunatunich is already set on the top of a large hill, the view from the top of El Castillo is long, and includes 360 degrees of seemingly endless jungle. Also from the top, the view of the rest of the archeological site, including the courtyards of green grass and families having picnics, is very tranquil. El Castillo has some ornate carvings on the east and west sides. While beautiful, it was interesting to find out that they are replicas, the originals being kept elsewhere for safekeeping.
While exploring the lower structures and hills (which contained unexcavated structures), we were able to find private quiet corners for relaxing, and we saw a lot of bird life. I lost count of how many parrots and toucans that we saw flying back and forth across the courtyards.
We spent ½ day traveling to and from, and exploring Xunatunich and felt that this was adequate time. I suggest visiting Cahel Pech in Cayo first to get the benefit of its superior museum before visiting Xunatunich. One could be visited in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, with lunch in Cayo in between.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 16, 2004
San Ignacio, Belize
We rented bicycles from our hotel – the Tropicool – for US$10 per person, then headed west on the main road out of town. About ½ mile out of town, we turned right following the signs to El Pilar to the small town of Bullet Tree Falls. There we turned left following another sign to El Pilar. This is where the route got bumpier and (decidedly) uphill. The road was peaceful and pretty, and did I mention uphill?
After a while, we thought that surely we must be almost there. Then we saw the sign saying "El Pilar 3 miles." The looks I had been getting from my husband intensified. We bumped and bounced on, walking the bikes up the steepest hills.
Our efforts were rewarded when we reached our destination – and I was given a reprieve from Dan’s annoyed looks. The nature preserve, actually a National Park, was tranquil and lush. We were the only ones there besides the ranger that sold us our passes (US$2.50 per person). From the ranger station we heard howler monkeys, and shortly after we saw a fox hopping through the grass.
El Pilar was built by the Mayan people over many centuries between 600BC and AD1000. We hiked a big loop trail through unexcavated ruins arranged around courtyards. There were occasional uncovered bits. High viewpoints looked down onto the jungles of Belize and Guatemala. There was actually a trail from our location crossing the Guatemala border to a side archeological site.
It was interesting to see Mayan ruins, as we had at Cahal Pech and Xunatunich (see separate journal entries), but there was something special and mysterious about this unexcavated area. We had to imagine what was under the piles of earth. It seemed that the spirits were still lurking there, rather than being released by interfering scientific hands and tools. Maybe someday there will be money for archeological work at El Pilar, but I really liked it the way it was.
The nature, mystery, wildlife, and solitude at El Pilar made it very worth the hard-core bike ride. Guided tours also go to El Pilar – ask around in town for details.
Biking to El Pilar
El Pilar National Park
San Ignacio, Belize
We first spent 1.5-2 hours on the public bus (Cayo to Belmopan at US$1.50 per person, then Belmopan to Blue Hole at US$1 per person). At the ranger station just off the highway, our questions were answered by a friendly ranger named Patrick, and we also paid our US$4 per person entrance fee. Then we hit the trail into the park.
The first part of our hike was not super interesting, but the trail took us to St. Herman’s Cave. This cave is the only one in Belize that visitors can see without a guide – a least for the first 300 yards or so. At that point there is a sign that a guide is necessary beyond that point. A guide was available in the ranger station. A three-hour guided tour of St. Herman’s Cave was priced at US$50 per person, and a six-hour guided tour of Crystal Cave was US$75 per person. The guide we met was extremely friendly and knowledgeable. He has been trained in high angle rescue, technical climbing, and is a volunteer firefighter. This is definitely a guy I would want to take me on a cave tour. Here is his contact information:
Marcos, www.mayaguide.bz, Marcos@mayaguide.bz, cell 600-3116, PO Box 485, Belmopan
After we explored as much of the cave as we were allowed without a guide, we headed back out to the trail. This time we followed a loop trail through the rainforest. Unlike the trail leading in, this trail was more rugged and wild. And I think the rain (imagine that, rain in a rainforest) made the whole thing more interesting. In addition to the wonders of vegetation, there were modest limestone rock formations, with plants growing on and hanging from them. Part way around the loop trail was an observation tower. We climbed up and had our lunch on top (the rain had temporarily stopped as well) while enjoying sweeping views of the tops of the rainforest to the west, and massive citrus groves to the east.
After another brief stop at the ranger station, we followed a trail that paralleled the highway to the actual Blue Hole, which is a limestone sinkhole filled with water. The turquoise water was inviting despite the rain and cold, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of a wet bus ride back to Cayo. Instead we watched a few others play in pretty swimming hole before catching the bus back.
To see what we did, plus take a swim and hike the Hummingbird Trail (which we skipped), allow around 6 hours. Allow more time if including a cave tour. The park is open 8am-4pm daily. Bring your own food, water, and raingear.
Blue Hole National Park
San Ignacio, Belize
Pop’s was our favorite choice for breakfast. We ate there more than once, and each time Dan had sausage, beans, waffles for US$2.50. I had fry jacks and sausage for US$1.50, plus good coffee, which in Belize means it isn’t instant. The lease expensive choices were off the A La Carte menu.
Hanna’s had excellent Indian food. Dan had beef curry with potatoes, which were nicely seasoned, plus veggies for US$6. I had spicy eggplant with potatoes and a really good side salad for same price. The atmosphere was nice, and the service was pleasant.
Hodes Place was just a tad out of the main part of town, maybe a five minute walk. We tried it because we saw and smelled smoke coming from an industrial-sized grill, plus we couldn’t find anything else really open in town as it was Sunday. On weekends, Hodes has BBQ Chicken plates (chicken, tortilla, potato salad, and baked beans) for US$2.50 –yummy! There were plenty of locals, and the outside seating areas looks upon a large orange tree orchard.
We tried one breakfast and one dinner at Café Sol. The breakfast was good, healthy food, but a tad more expensive than Pops. We fortified ourselves with a granola and yogurt combination, a fruit and yogurt combination, a muffin, and 2 coffees for US$9 for all. Dinner was not as good or filling. Dan had a Mexican Wraps for US$3.50 that he said was OK. I had vegetarian chili with jalepeno corn muffins for US$4.50 which also could be classified as just OK.
Meli’s Rest was definitely the place for Belizean food, and lots of it for a great price and friendly service. I had beans, chicken, water, fry jacks, and Dan had same plus eggs and OJ for US$5 for all. We only saw local folks eating here – no tourists.
We had dinner twice at Martha’s. The first night, Dan had stew chicken for US$5 and I had this onion "soup" called Escabeche (with rice and tortillas) for the same price. The Escabeche had a very powerful flavor. It was mostly all onion, but also with chicken, chile, cilantro, and cloves. I could not finish it – it tasted good, it was just very very strong. A different night we had an excellent Hot and Spicy pizza. The price was US$13.50, and it was enough for two people.
Serendib was a Sri Lanken restaurant. We both had delicious curries - veggie (US$4) and fish (US$6). I recommend requesting for it to be made hot and spicy!) The curries came with rice, potatoes, and cucumber/tomato salad. The flan for dessert was perfection (US$1.25). I tried to come back the next night for more flan, but they had run out! I was very sad about it. This was by far the best service we got at any restaurant in Belize. I do not recommend the ice cream shop that is directly next door to Serendib, though.
On the main market day, Saturday, there are plenty of food vendors set up in and around the fruit and vegetable stands. There is so much food, you should definitely go when you are hungry and try a bit of everything! We had some great BBQ chicken plates for super cheap (can’t remember price) and it was extremely moist and tasty.
There are plenty of guided adventure tours that were very tempting but beyond our budget. Here is a sample list of trips and prices from a company called David’s Adventure Tours. Other companies offer the same or similar trips at essentially the same prices:
6 Mile up river canoeing US$15.00pp
14 Mile down river canoeing US$27.50pp
3 Mile Canoe Caving & Barton Creek US$32.50pp
Bird Watching US$20pp
Overnight Camping US$22.50pp
Mountain Pine Ridge US$37.50pp
Overnight Jungle Tours US$75pp
Caracol Archeological Site US$75pp
Blue Hole National Park US$35pp
Also, a number of companies offer caving trips to Actun Tunichil Muknal – a more physical trip with archeological findings featured in National Geographic magazine. This trip is approximately US$80 per person.
Another archeological cave tour is to Chechem Ha cave. This cave is privately owned, and tours are given by the owner for a reasonable fee. Transportation to the site might be the challenge.
Green Iguana Exhibit:
There is a small, somewhat seat-of-the-pants exhibit at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel dedicated to green iguanas and their preservation. My feeling is that it started as a tourist gimmick to make money (and is still that) but it has some possible ecological value as well. This is a small operation, run primarily by one young woman name Martina and her brother. She admitted to me that they are not scientists or experts on green iguanas. They are learning by trial and error, and they have one thick textbook which is their iguana "bible" which had a well-worn binding. Occasional knowledgeable visitors give them iguana information as well. They are pretty much "winging it." That said, I think that there is some value to the operation. They really do want to increase the dwindling green iguana population. Iguana numbers have fallen dramatically due to hunting (tastes like chicken, they say) and habitat loss. Martina and her brother find eggs, incubate them, care for the young after they hatch, and then release them back into the wild. It is done this way to have a larger survival rate for the eggs, they say. They give educational programs to local people and school children about habitat preservation and the effects of overhunting. If you are on a tight budget, and have more interesting things to do, I’m not sure that I’d take the time or pay the US$5.50 per person to see this exhibit. San Ignacio Resort Hotel is located at 18 Buena Vista Street in San Ignacio.
At the end of Branch Mount Road, the Macal and Mopan rivers come together to form the Belize River. The park is small, muddy, and dirty, but the swing bridge was great, and we saw huge iguanas in tree branches above river banks by the park and along Branch Mount Road. You will sometimes hear a huge splash as the iguanas let themselves fall into the river if they are startled.
Latin Dance Classes:
While visiting the Green Iguana Exhibit at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, I saw a flyer in the lobby for Latin Dance Classes. I love to dance, and the price of US$5 per person for a two hour lesson was hard to resist, so with my husband’s blessing (he hates to dance) I gave it a try. The instructor was from New York, originally born in Haiti. I think he offered to do this for the hotel for fun and pocket money. There were 7 students, and we learned the beginner basics of Bachata, Merengue, and Salsa dances. The was a fun evening for me because I was the only tourist in attendance – all the rest were locals, plus one businessman from Guatemala. Also, the class was being filmed, so I think I might be on a commercial somewhere!
Wally, our grouchy but knowledgeable hotel-keeper, had plenty of good ideas for day trips on bicycle. It was the one time I saw him enthusiastic. Anyway, here were his ideas (Note: I did not verify the directions, so I can’t be sure they are correct!):
Bullet Tree/Clarissa Falls Loop: Head west out of San Ignacio on the main highway, turn right following sign to El Pilar and/or Bullet Tree Falls. When you reach the village of Bullet Tree Falls (I saw a river, but no falls), cross the bridge, stay left at the police station. Road should then turn into a trail leading to a suspension bridge. Cross bridge, go right and follow road past Clarissa Falls (not worth US$1 entrance fee to access river, but there is a restaurant for food and drinks). When you reach the main highway, turn left to return to San Ignacio.
Bullet Tree Falls/Spanish Lookout Loop: Head west out of San Ignacio on the main highway, turn right following sign to El Pilar and/or Bullet Tree Falls. Keep going through Bullet Tree Falls and main road should take you through the Mennonite village of Spanish Lookout. The road loops back to the highway, where a right turn will take you back to San Ignacio.
Black Rock: Head west out of San Ignacio on the main highway. Turn left at the sign for Ix Chel and Chaa Creek. I think Black Rock is a resort on the river, so there should be a sign, and will likely have an entrance fee and food available.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve:
I was very disappointed that I didn’t get to see this area. Lonely Planet describes is as a "land of macaws, mahogany, mangoes, and jaguars." There are tours that go to the area, but no public transportation. The tours all seemed so identical, we thought that it might be like going to Yellowstone National Park and only seeing Old Faithful and nothing else, so we decided to skip it. I think this would be a great place to explore if you had a rental car (or a rental 4-wheel drive vehicle) so you could enjoy all the hidden spots that tour groups skip. It would also be the perfect place for a wild and adventurous backpack trip. Some highlights visited by tour groups are the Rio Frio Caves, the Rio On Pools, and Thousand Foot Falls.
The Trek Stop, located west of San Ignacio on the main highway (bus goes past Trek Stop – ask to be left off there), offers innertubing trips for US$7.50 per person for the 3 hour trip. The Trek Stop phone number is 823-2265.
Port Angeles, Washington