Things to do in San Ignacio
 Belize tips

Ruins, a history of human sacrifice, thrilling water sports, and breathtaking natural landmarks – there are plenty of things to do in San Ignacio.  Known as the Eco-tourism capital of Belize, San Ignacio is located across the Macal River from its twin town Santa Elena and one of the best places to visit in Belize. 

These two towns, connected by a suspension bridge, make up Belize’s second largest urban area with plenty of jungle feel.

History of San Ignacio

Belize was an important area for the Maya civilization, and major Mayan ruins dot the country.  Many of these ruins are easily accessed from San Ignacio and one of the biggest reasons people visit San Ignacio.

Originally called El Cayo by the Spanish, San Ignacio was once surrounded by water, making it an island.  Once the surrounding creek dried up, it was renamed to San Ignacio, but in some places you’ll find it still referred to as Cayo. San Ignacio is known for being an ethnically diverse tourist hub, with industry heavily focused on cattle and crop farming.

Getting Around

San Ignacio is an easy town to navigate, and you’ll find that you can walk through most areas (depending on where you stay).  If you’re looking to explore outside of town, shuttle buses are available to most destinations outside of the town, including the ruins.  If you’d prefer to take a taxi they are available, but are far more expensive than the shuttle buses. If you can, I’d strongly recommend renting a car for your trip to Belize.

When to Visit

Belize has a subtropical climate, and no matter when you’re planning to visit, the temperatures (and humidity) will be high.

The best time to visit San Ignacio is during the winter, from November through February.  While it’s still quite warm, it will be less humid during the day, and the sun is a little more forgiving.  Average temperatures in February dip to 82°F.

If you are planning to go during the summer months, be prepared for the hottest temperatures between April and June, when daily averages are 93°F.  Take note that Belize has a wet season that runs from June through November.

Things to Do

Whether you’re planning to explore ruins, view endangered animals, or just enjoy the natural wonder of the river and the falls, San Ignacio is the perfect home base to really get a feel for Belize.  San Ignacio is a popular destination as it is conveniently located to many of Belize’s top tourist attractions.  With so many great things to do in San Ignacio, we put together a list of the can’t miss attractions!

 

ATM Cave Tours

The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is an archaeological site located less than an hour’s drive outside of San Ignacio.   Known locally as the ATM cave, it was once the site of Mayan ceremonies, and is named by National Geographic as the #1 Sacred Cave in the world.

Inside the cave, you’ll find the remains of sacrificed victims, along with ceramic artifacts and awe-inspiring natural formations.  Over 1,400 human artifacts have been found in the cave, and it was not uncommon for children to be sacrificed.  At the end of the tour, there’s even a complete human skeleton that has been calcified, known as the Crystal Maiden.

This tour is somewhat physically demanding, and you will hike for 45 minutes to the cave.  You’ll be required to swim in some sections, though lifejackets are provided.  Despite this, the tour is worth it, and is once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll also receive a helmet and headlamp to help you stay with your guide.  

Only a select number of tour companies are licensed to lead tours into the caves, which helps with conservation of the site. We booked our ATM Cave tour through Viator and really enjoyed it.  Book your tour early, as there is a limit to the number of guests allowed into the caves on a daily basis.  You’ll also be asked to leave your camera behind (cellphones are permitted), and to remove your shoes in certain areas of the cave in order to minimize damage.

 

Cave Tubing

Located in Western Belize near the ATM ruins is an activity for any thrill seeker – inner tubing through caves and the rainforest.  This is one of the best ways to see the prehistoric caves outside of San Ignacio.  You’ll float along the jungle river through two cave passages, and your certified guide will explain the significance of various landmarks as you pass.  There are plenty of opportunities to stop and swim, and enjoy the stunning scenery.

The Xunantunich Ruins

The ancient ruins of Xunantunich were once a Maya civic ceremonial center, and are now an archaeological site.  The name means Stone Woman, and according to local legend a traditionally dressed Maya woman haunts the area.  The ruins are located about 30 minutes outside of San Ignacio, and are the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in Belize.

The fee to enter the ruins is $5BZD ($2.50 USD).  There is very little shade at the ruins, so you may want to time your visit for early in the morning, or later in the afternoon, to avoid most of the sun’s glare.  Though you can tour the ruins without a guide, it is highly recommended to hire a guide at the gate who will teach you about the history of the differnt ruins. There are more than 26 palaces and temples to be viewed over the one square mile, dating from as early as 600AD.  

The most important monument is El Castillo, the second highest structure in Belize.  Standing at 130 feet, the pyramid features intricate religious carvings.  Look for the carved figure of a woman, who some believe is the ghost who appears periodically to locals.  You can climb to the top of the structure for a 360 degree view of the surroundings.

 

Canoeing the Macal River

The Macal River runs through the Cayo District of Belize, between San Ignacio and Santa Elena, towards the Belize River.  Exploring the river by canoe is a relaxing and memorable journey, and you’ll be able to get up close to a lush shoreline with wildlife such as monkeys, giant iguanas, and exotic birds.  You may even see a crocodile!

The trip down the lower river is not difficult, and if you encounter any rapids, they will be easily navigated by a beginner.  Choose to tour on your own, or hire a guide to point out the animals so you don’t miss them.  Most tours begin at the Macal River visitor’s center, and last about 2 hours.  

 

Caracol Maya Ruins

Another popular destination near San Ignacio is the site of the Caracol Maya Ruins, located within Belize’s Chiquibul National Forest Reserve.  These ancient ruins are a little further out, approximately 2.5 hours’ drive (40km south) of Xunantunich.  Be prepared for a rough journey out to the ruins, as the road is not well maintained.  The destination is worth the journey however as Caracol are some of the best maintained Maya sites in Belize.

The site was, during the Classic Period, one of the most important regional political centers for the Maya civilization.   The monuments date back to 400AD, and include Caana (“sky palace”) the tallest manmade structure in Belize.  Many of these temples can be climbed to allow for viewing.

As with many of the other jungle ruins of the area, you will find howler monkeys at the site, which provide an eerie background noise as you explore.  While a guide is not required, it is recommended so that you get the full historical significance of the area and don’t miss any of the most important monuments.

Green Iguana Conservation Project

Since 1996, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel has served as a conservation space for the endangered green iguana.  The iguana had been previously killed and eaten as part of the religious traditions of Belize however there is now significant investment in their protection.

You can start your tour of the project from the hotel lobby daily from 8AM until 4PM.  Here you will be able to view the full lifecycle of the iguana, from incubation to their release.  You’ll be able to touch, hold, and feed iguanas, and even see a baby iguana hatch.  

The tour takes under an hour, and is under $12 USD per person.  If you’re taken with the plight of the green iguana, as many visitors are, there are opportunities to adopt an iguana, which helps provide funds to continue conservation efforts.

Jungle Pontoon Boat Tour

The Jungle Pontoon Boat Tour is an inland boat cruise that shuttles you to various waterfalls in the area.  View exotic birds and monkeys, and admire the mountains rising up from the jungle all from under a shaded awning.  

You can choose to either stay on the pontoon and relax, or hike to various cliff diving locations.  You can even hook an inner tube to the boat, and be towed along behind.  This tour is a great way to explore the natural wonders of Belize, and gives the option of skipping the more strenuous hiking if some of your group would rather opt out.

1000 Foot Falls

The Thousand Foot Falls are a deceivingly named waterfall and natural monument that cascade through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve.  The falls actually are 1,600 feet tall, and are the highest waterfall in the Central American region.  They are located less than an hour and a half outside of San Ignacio.

The best way to access the falls is to rent a 4-wheel drive and follow the directional signage.  Be aware that the road is subject to flooding during the rainy season, and this may prevent you from being able to reach the falls.

Head to the viewing platform for the best look at the falls, which is a moderate hike.  You may have the opportunity to see the rare orange-breasted falcon, though there are other more common birds to watch for as well.  

Belize Botanic Gardens

The Belize Botanic Gardens are located just 20 minutes outside of San Ignacio, and they are a spectacular place to spend an afternoon exploring the native plants of Belize.  The gardens, once a farm before being transformed by Americans Ken and Judith duPlooy, focus heavily on conservation, education, and sustainable agriculture.  They are the largest botanic gardens in Belize.

The gardens serve as an educational center for students, who can stay on property and learn ethnobotany, horticulture, and agriculture. With over 45 acres of plants to explore, a guided tour is recommended.  There are a variety of activities and workshops to take part in, from tea tasting to tamale making.  

Some of the main attractions include the Lookout Tower, where you can bird watch, and the Tropical Fruit Orchard overflowing with organically grown fruits.  The orchid house located within the gardens houses over 120 species of orchid.

Cahal Pech

Located within walking distance of the town of San Igancio is Cahal Pech, home to an elite Maya family during the Classic period.  The site features 34 structures, including a temple, and can be easily explored without a guide thanks to the well placed signage and on-site museum.

Climb the structures to get a panoramic view of the site and the Macal River, and then explore the tomb.  There’s even an ancient ball court.


Using this list of the best things to do in San Ignacio, Belize will ensure you have an amazing time and don’t miss a thing.

If you want to see as many sites in Belize as possible while remaining in one central destination, San Ignacio is the best town in Belize to stay in.  You’ll be treated to beautiful natural scenery, friendly locals, and a whole range of ruins and adventure activities to explore close by. Whether you’re in the area for only a few days, or are lucky enough to stay for months, San Ignacio’s attractions will keep you busy.

Stay Gold.

 

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