Belize adventure vacation: What to do with a week in San Ignacio Belize

If the first thing to comes to mind when you think of Belize is beaches and cays, it’s time to rethink this small country that’s big on outdoor adventure. For those who venture into the interior, especially the west side of Belize in the Cayo District, rivers, caves, Mayan ruins and culture abounds. Here’s how to spend a week or more in the Cayo District, based in the town of San Ignacio.

Belize adventure vacation: San Ignacio Belize

Why base yourself in San Ignacio? This small town of around 9,000 is within minutes of Mayan sites, and less than an hour’s drive from some of the best caving, tubing, hiking and canoeing in Belize. San Ignacio is friendly, easily explored on foot, and offers up what I believe to be the best boutique hotel in the region: San Ignacio Resort Hotel. (See our full review of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel here.)

You’ll want to rent a car or arrange for a hotel shuttle transfer from the international airport near Belize City to San Ignacio, which is about 80 miles to the west, near the Guatemalan border. Unless you plan to book guided tours daily, which frankly, is what we opted to do, you will definitely want your own car to explore the Cayo District. Here’s what not to miss:

Xunantunich and Cahal Pech Mayan ruins:

Both these archeological sites are rich in historical and cultural significance, and both are within easy distance of San Ignacio. In fact, you could walk to Cahal Pech from the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Xunantunich is about a 25-minute drive and is the larger of the two sites. To get there, you’ll need to cross the Macal River via a small hand-propelled ferry system, which is free but requires passengers to exit the vehicle and stand on the moving ferry platform while crossing. The river is small and the process takes less than five minutes. From there, follow the road one mile to the parking area and ticket booth, then climb the hill to follow in the footsteps of the Mayan people who once lived here.

I highly recommend hiring a guide to tour Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, as we know we would not have understood half of what we looked at without Cruz, our trusty guide from San Ignacio Resort Hotel. From the main courtyard of the ruins, you can take in the ceremonial buildings of the priests and the living quarters of the royal Mayan families who once inhabited this region, and you can climb the steep steps to take in the views of the surrounding jungle. Cahal Pech is smaller, but allows for even more exploration of the interiors of the ruins; we wound our way along ancient corridors and through archways to one-time bed chambers. At both sites, be sure to note the ball courts where games were played, and peek into the small museum space at Cahal Pech.

Note: visitors to this region can also tour the famous Tikal ruins in Guatemala; it’s a short drive to the border for a border crossing, then about a two-hour drive. Your guide will hand over the reins of your day trip to a Guatemalan guide at the border.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve:

I had no idea that a pine forest existed in Belize, until we toured Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Located at about 3000 feet elevation, the reserve is located about an hour and a half from San Ignacio along pretty rugged (at times) dirt roads. Yes, it’s a long drive, but once inside the park, we found some of our favorite outdoor attractions in Belize. The change of scenery alone is stunning! While guided tours of this reserve are optimal, it’s definitely do-able to drive yourself as long as your vehicle can navigate the rough roads. You’ll want a good map of the area, and be advised that Google won’t help you once in the park.

The Rio Frio Cave is located about 11 miles down the main dirt road of the park, where a cavernous opening leads to what the Mayans once described as the Underworld. It forms a sort of tunnel here, with the Rio Frio pooling and winding through it. Nearby, the Rio On (there are lots of small rivers in this area) awaits, with a series of deep and shallow pools ready-made for adventurous kids (and their parents) to explore. Stop at the turnout for the River On Pools, where you can go to a picnic area and overlook to the left (where a series of steep stairs take you to the river and the lower pools) or to the right, where you can access a gentle trail to the upper pools. We chose to descend the stairs and climb and leap our way up the river, sampling pools as we went, but there is a small, rudimentary changing area and a sandy slope to the pools if you opt for the easier path. The River On Pools were our all-time favorite activity in Belize, and we could easily have spent all afternoon there. Perhaps because they’re difficult to get to, the pools are not crowded at all when we arrived right after lunch on a weekday in February.

Closer to the entrance of the park, you can also follow signage to 1000 Foot Falls, the impressive waterfall you’ve likely seen on postcards and posters of Belize. It’s a decent detour on another rough dirt road (it took us about 30 minutes to get there from the main dirt road), and features an overlook where you can snap photos of the falls and watch for hawks and raptors circulating along the steep, impressive ridgelines. While we were impressed by the view, we wished some trail networks existed here, because after the long drive, we were itching to get some exercise and spend more time along the ridge.

Note: there are a number of eco lodges in the park, but if you opt to stay in one, remember how remote they are! Once settled, you likely won’t be venturing throughout the Cayo District much until you depart.

St. Herman’s Cave & Blue Hole:

No, not that Blue Hole…the one everyone snorkels and scuba dives in is located on the ocean, whereas this Blue Hole is a delightful swimming hole deep in the jungle. Start by touring St. Herman’s cave, for which a guide is required. We loved this tour for several reasons: first, it’s unlike caves in the US with their guard rails, lights, and paved paths. St. Herman’s cave is navigated by climbing, hiking, and sometimes crawling through the limestone passageways. Secondly, the Mayan history is here is fabulous: you can spot shards of pottery and some large pieces of vases and dishes in the cave, as well as ancient remnants of ash and charcoal from campfires. The cave was once used for rituals and the space resonates with history.

It takes about 1.5 hours to navigate the cave, and by the time you emerge on the other side, you will be hot and sweaty (yes, this cave is warm!). This is when to go swimming at Blue Hole! There are also four distinct hiking trails through the jungle here, all part of the Blue Hole National Park, so if you didn’t come with a guide (and therefore can only peek into St. Herman’s cave) you can enjoy the trails at your leisure. There are also guided tubing tours through the cave, though personally, we thought it more fun and more peaceful to cave spelunk away from the splashing, noisy groups.

Note: ATM cave is one of the most popular in the region, and while we did not tour it, we were advised that St. Herman’s is more technical and more challenging to navigate. If you would prefer something a bit more relaxed while still beautiful and impressive, ATM may be the better option for you.

We spent four full days in San Ignacio and barely scratched the surface of all there is to do here. In addition to the tours described above, cultural tours of Mayan women’s co-ops (where traditional cooking can be learned) and San Ignacio (where the art of Mayan chocolate-making is demonstrated and sampled) should not be missed. The latter can be arranged on your own as you walk through town, but the former requires a guide. There are also Macal River canoe trips, additional caving options, and the Green Iguana Conservation Project, located at San Ignacio Resort Hotel. (See our review of the hotel for a full description of this on-site project.)

Guided tours can be booked downtown, but we highly recommend arranging your tours through the concierge at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, who will take the time to describe your options and make the experience seamless. Tours are kept to your own family group, so you get a personalized experience every time, and if you book multiple tours, they do their best to give you the same guide each day, so you establish a great report and friendship. You don’t need to be a guest of the resort to utilize their expertise, though I do recommend staying here!

Do you have a favorite Cayo District outdoor adventure? Share in the comments!

About the author

Pit Stops for Kids AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly at a number of travel publications, and contributes to OutdoorsNW magazine as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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