San Ignacio and around


San Ignacio (locally called Cayo) is the capital of Cayo District and Western Belize's largest town, an agricultural centre serving the citrus, cattle and peanut farms of the area, and a good base for excursions into the Mountain Pine Ridge and west Belize. It stands amid attractive wooded hills at 200-500 ft, with a good climate, and is a nice town to rest in if coming from Guatemala. The town is on the eastern branch of the Old, or Belize River, known as the Macal. The 180-mile river journey down to Belize City is internationally famous as the route for the annual 'Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge', a gruelling three-day canoe race held the weekend of Baron Bliss Day, 9 March.

North of San Ignacio is El Pilar, an archaeological site that straddles the border with Guatemala. Although it is a large site (about 94 acres), much of it has been left intentionally uncleared so that selected architectural features are exposed within the rainforest. The preserved rainforest here is home to hundreds of species of birds and animals. There are five trails - three archaeological, two nature - the longest of which is 1.5 miles. There are more than a dozen pyramids and 25 identified plazas. Unusually for Maya cities in this region, there is an abundance of water (streams and falls). 

Canoe trips up the Macal Riverare worthwhile. They take about three hours upstream, 1½ hrs on return. Hiring a canoe to go upstream without a guide is not recommended unless you are highly proficient as there are Grade II rapids one hour from San Ignacio. Another trip is to Barton Creek Cave, a 1½-hour drive followed by a 1½-hour canoe trip in the cave. The cave vault system is vast, the rock formations are beautiful, the silence is eerily comforting and all can be explored for a considerable distance by canoe.

For a more adventurous caving tour, you shouldn't leave without going to Actun Tunichil Muknal( ATM) Cave (the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre), a one-hour drive from San Ignacio to the Tapir Mountain Nature reserve, a 45-minute jungle hike in the reserve and then 3½ hours of adventurous, exhilarating caving. Besides the beautiful rock formations, this cave is full of Maya artefacts and sacrificial remains.


At Xunantunich ('Maiden of the Rock') there are Classic Maya remains in beautiful surroundings. The heart of the city was three plazas aligned on a north-south axis, lined with many temples, the remains of a ball court, and surmounted by the Castillo. At 130 ft, this was thought to be the highest artificial structure in Belize until the Sky Palace at Caracol was measured. The impressive view takes in the jungle, the lowlands of Petén and the blue flanks of the Maya Mountains. Maya graffiti can still be seen on the wall of Structure A-16 - friezes on the Castillo, some restored in modern plaster, represent astronomical symbols. Extensive excavations took place in 1959-1960 but only limited restoration work has been undertaken.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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