Belize and the Cayo District
San Ignacio was our first destination in Belize. Coming from Guatemala and Mexico, the differences between Belize and its bordering countries are striking. First of all, it is the only country in Central America which does not have Spanish as its official language but English. However, many languages are spoken on the territory and Belizean Creole is widely used. Indeed, for a small country, Belize hosts many different ethnic groups. This is what makes it so rich and we really enjoyed this aspect. With its Caribbean atmosphere and Rastafarians, the country represents the idea we have of Jamaica (which we hope to verify by travelling there one day). Regarding history and culture, Belize has a lot to offer with its the Mayan heritage, later followed by pirates and buccaneers. One negative point though, Belize is a country where it is expensive to travel (much more than in the neighbouring countries of Central America).
The Cayo region is the largest of the six districts in Belize. It is a region full of natural beauty and Mayan culture remains. The perfect place to let your adventurous soul speak. Do not miss to visit the famous ATM caves and Caracol ruins!
The city of San Ignacio
San Ignacio is a small town close to popular tourist attractions, a very good base to visit the area. What we liked most about the city:
- Pet green iguanas at Belize Iguana Project
Every hour in the San Ignacio Resort Hotel you can visit this small green iguana reserve. This project aims to educate and help repopulate Belize green iguanas threatened by hunting (adults and eggs are unfortunately delicacies on some tables). Young iguanas are raised in this farm before being reintroduced into their natural environment. We were able to feed, pet and carry these iguanas accustomed to humans. An incredible experience and low budget (18 Belize dollars per person).
- Stay with locals in a charming traditional house
We loved our stay at Nelida’s home, you can book a room via Airbnb.
- Taste Belizean food while sipping a cocktail
The cheapest dish is always the famous “rice and beans” going with with the meat of your choice and a plantain banana, delicious! You will find this in most of the restaurants in the centre. We enjoyed the Ko-Ox Han Nah restaurant.
- Visit Mayan ruins at the city’s gates
It is easy to visit Xunantunich Mayan Ruins and Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins, which are very close to the city, using public transport.
- Visit the best places in the area going on a tour from San Ignacio
San Ignacio’s main attraction is its proximity to the many natural adventures the Cayo district has to offer. The simplest is to book a tour (due in particular to the state of the roads and the obligations to be accompanied by a guide on some visits). You will find many offers in the city centre small pedestrian street. The tours are expensive so we advise you to check all prices, inquire on the spot and try to negotiate. We chose to do two tours with the great company Pacz Tours. Our guides were very good and every day we had a delicious lunch prepared by the owner’s mother.
Actun Tunichil Mukanl (or ATM cave)
We explored one of the most impressive caves in the world (at least it is what they say here). Actun Tunichil Mukanl (or ATM cave) is a network of caves used for the most prestigious Mayan ceremonies (including human sacrifices).
Visiting this incredible and mystical place full of history is not an easy task! This part-canyoning / part-caving tour must be done with a guide. To get to the entrance you will have to hike in the jungle, cross the river 3 times and swim into the cave entrance. Then you must crawl / climb / swim, with water up to the waist and always against the current. All of this to get to a dry room which contains archaeological remains. This is followed by intense climbing punctuated by the observation of superb rock formations and Mayan’s artifact remains. All of this to reach the sites of sacrifices where skeletons are still intact. Go in with good water shoes (or ask if you can borrow from the tour operator) and wear tick socks. Indeed, once at the room entrance, shoes are prohibited. Cameras are prohibited too (since a French tourist dropped his on a skull…). Consequently we have no pictures to offer but the place is really very impressive! Thrills Guaranteed!
We had initially set aside this activity due to the recommendations on our travel guides, it seemed too difficult for Clémentine. We were going to do cave tubing instead, a much more relaxing idea! In the end, on the spot, we let ourselves be convinced by the locals who consider it being the best activity of the region and the most interesting cave. Clémentine does not regret doing it but there have definitely been difficult moments… If fear holds you back we advise you to try the experiment, if however you have doubts because of your physical condition think carefully because it is not a relaxing activity! Be careful also if you are subject to claustrophobia some passages are narrow.
Caracol Ruins and Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
If you follow our travels you should already know we have a passion for lost jungle Mayan ruins. The Caracol ruins did not disappointed us. The site is smaller than Tikal in Guatemala but just as impressive. Also, you will certainly encounter some wild animals. There is still a lot of excavation work going on which makes the visit even more mystifying. For example, some engravings evoke cities that have not been discovered yet!
The very complete tour from Pacz Tours (which you will find in San Ignacio) also includes a stop in the beautiful Rio Frio Caves and a swim in the natural pools of Rio on Pools. A very nice place to relax after spending the afternoon climbing Mayan temples. These places are part of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve which you cross in a jeep.
Border crossing between Guatemala and Belize
To reach Belize from Flores in Guatemala (or vice versa depending on your travel direction) it is possible to do it by public or private transport. We chose a private transport, a little more expensive but easier. Crossing the border was smooth and quick despite the tensions between the two countries. You will notice the border is dotted on Google Maps following the claims of Guatemala on part of Belize’s territory.
The Belizian chicken bus
In a country where the cost of living is expensive, using the famous chicken buses as a means of transport is preferable. It is also an authentic and very interesting experience. The chicken buses are former US school buses rehabilitated in public transport in Central America. San Ignacio was for us the last stop before the Caribbean islands of San Pedro and Caye Caulker. We are happy we made the trip to Belize City in a chicken bus. The trip was not too bad as it was rather short and we had some nice encounters there. This means of transport is not particularly dangerous in Belize except for the risk of butt pain, intense sweating and cockroach attacks.
Clémentine’s reading list in Belize
- The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird by Bruce Barcott. This documentary tells the incredible life of the founder of the first zoo in Belize while offering you a trip through the incredible country’s wildlife.
- In terms of travel guide we recommend the very complete the Rough Guide to Belize.
We hope this article will make you want to visit the beautiful country of Belize.
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