Unfortunately, Belize is one of the most expensive countries to visit in Central America, probably due to it being an ex-British colony, and popular with American and Canadian expats and visitors which has helped to push up prices. The town of San Ignacio, in the Cayo district close to the Guatemala border is no exception. Even a half day tour can cost $60-$80 USD, and popular tours such as the (incredible) ATM cave tour will set you back close to $100 USD. If you have the cash to spend, I highly recommend doing the ATM cave tour, but if you are backpacking Belize on a budget, then don’t worry – there are still plenty of activities to see and do close to San Ignacio that don’t need a tour guide. Here are my top picks for things to do in San Ignacio Belize without a guide.
Explore San Ignacio Belize without a Tour Guide
Despite its complicated name, Xunantunich is really easy to get to without a tour guide, as any bus to Benque will take you through the village of San Jose Succotz where these Mayan ruins are. In San Jose Succotz there is a ferry which crosses the river where you can walk up to the ruins. The hand-cranked ferry is free to cross, and the entrance fee to Xunantunich is just $10 BZ ($5 USD), which is ideal for cash-strapped backpackers! The museum at the site is worth a visit, and keep an eye (and ear) out for the resident monkeys.
Take your swimsuit with you so you can take a dip in the river after your visit; cross the river and walk up to where people are cleaning clothes & bathing for the cleanest spots. A great place to eat in San Jose Succotz is Benny’s kitchen; they also do take-away meals so you can eat it by the river. To get back to San Ignacio, hitchhiking is quite common, but check the driver hasn’t been drinking before you get in. Buses leave every 30 minutes or so from the Uno gas station by the roundabout in the village, or take a colectivo taxi (any taxi that takes more than one person/group).
*TOP TIP* Back in San Ignacio you can get off the bus at the gas station & turn right at the roundabout to go to Cahal Pech ruins, & Cahal Pech Resort Hotel for awesome sunset views, or continue back into town.
Cahal Pech Ruins
San Ignacio was built around Cahal Pech ruins, more remnants from the Maya empire. Cahal Pech is very different to the Xunantunich because the ruins are more like a maze rather than the more traditional pyramids which we find at Xunantunich and other Maya ruins like Tikal. The Museum there is very interesting too, so spend some time in the museum before you head out to the ruins. After visiting you can also enjoy a drink and beautiful panoramic views by carrying on to the Cahal Pech Village Resort hotel that is 300 yards further uphill. The bar at the resort is open to the public, and has two pools where you can swim as a non-guest for a $10BZ fee. This is also a great place to watch the sunset before heading back into town.
The Iguana Sanctuary at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel
The San Ignacio Resort Hotel on the Western Highway has an iguana sanctuary that is also very nice to visit. The entry fee is 18BZ and they have two tours daily at 10am and 2pm where a guide will explain the resorts conservation efforts to protect the iguanas, and you go inside the iguana enclosure to feed the beasts. The sanctuary is walking distance from the hostel; up the hill by the police station.
*TOP TIP* You could combine visits to the Iguana Sanctuary & Cahal Pech together, which would take around 3-5 hours. You could also visit Xunantanich in the morning, and come back to town to visit Cahal Pech and the Iguana Sanctuary to fill a whole day.
Swim in the River
You can swim in the river in San Ignacio, in town go across the metal bridge & turn left, where the water is cleaner. You will usually see locals cooling off here too. If you fancy a few beers, call at the Highway Supermarket on your way, and remember to take the empties away with you.
Further afield, around 3/4 mile from town is a pretty place called Branch Mouth where the Macal and the Mopan rivers meet to become the Belize River. It is a nice place to swim and have a picnic, and the walk there is a nice bit of exercise, however, it is not a good idea to go alone as robberies have occurred here. It is best to go in a group, and keep an eye your belongings on the shore. Instead of walking you could also take a cab for $10 BZ.
Canoeing on the River
For more adventurous types, why not hire a canoe to explore along the river? By the board bridge in San Ignacio town most days you will find a man called Tony who has six canoes he rents for the day for $30BZ each, cheaper than the agencies in town. His wife also cooks meals you can take with you, or grab some food at the market for a packed lunch. A good place to visit on the river is the Creek Resort, which has pretty medicinal gardens and a butterfly farm. To tour the facilities, there is a $20 BZ fee, and you can have lunch there if you like but the prices are quite expensive, so bring a packed lunch to keep your costs down. The canoe trip takes around 2-3 hours up stream, it isn’t difficult, but it is easier in the morning as there is less water flow – leave here by 10am at the latest to avoid the higher water when the damn opens at 2pm. There are a couple of small rapids on the river, where you can pick up the canoe & pull it over the rocks. On the way back, the trip is much easier as it’s downstream, so you should be home in about an hour.
Caracol & the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
In the beautiful Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, there are waterfalls and caves, and Caracol to explore (the largest Maya ruin in Belize). A tour to Caracol will cost you $85-95USD, and usually includes a stop at Big Rock Falls & Rio Frio Cave. However, you can also rent a car and do this trip on your own for about half the cost if you share the price of renting the car. We hired a car with Flames Car Hire which cost you about $145BZ plus gas, so about $200BZ in total. The entrance fee to Caracol ruin is $20BZ per person, plus whatever food you take with you.
If you want to visit Caracol then you must try and reach the ranger station by 9AM to go in an army convoy into Caracol ruin, so get an early start and leave San Ignacio town by 7.30am. There are occasionally problems with security, so it is best to join the caravan if you can. When we went, the army weren’t concerned so they let us carry on alone. At the entrance to the reserve the ranger will take your license plate & check how many people you are, but the reserve entrance is free. It takes about 2 hours in total to get to Caracol, so it’s best to go to Caracol first, then visit Rio Frio, Rion Pools & Big Rock Falls on the way back. It is possible to camp at the Ranger Station if you have your own gear or ask your hostel in San Ignacio if they know someone who will rent you the equipment.
Have you been to San Ignacio? Have I missed any other activities to do in the town? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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Accommodation in San Ignacio
I volunteered at Bella’s Backpackers hostel in San Ignacio for a month, which is a good value option and just a couple of minutes from the bus station and main square. I also tried D’s Hostel which was great for relaxing and getting some work done. There are plenty of great hotels and resorts in San Ignacio too.
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