Quirky San Ignacio
San Ignacio is a strange little town, located on the hillside of the Macal River valley. I guess that is to be expected, since it has been here in the jungle a long time, and was once known as 'Cayo' in the days when it's major purpose was for harvesting mahogany logs. Its streets were a confusing jumble and the town's buildings seemed to be a disjointed lot, coming in all sizes, shapes and states of disrepair. Sidewalks are a haphazard affair as well, sometimes disappearing completely or turning into sudden large drop-off due to the driveway needs of business establishments. One thing that was interesting were areas where deep channels ran beside the sidewalks. That reminded us of Mendoza, at the foot of the Andes mountains in Argentina, where similar channels are required to deal with the heavy runoff from the mountain snowmelt. I guess it is tropical rain downpours that are the problem in San Ignacio!
We walked around town exploring as we shopped for a few things such as extra cash from a bank ATM, new novels for both of us from a used-book store, a pineapple and some limes from a street vendor and a bottle of Belize's '1 Barrell Old Rum' (wine was next to impossible to come by) from a Chinese supermarket. By noon the temperature was 31 C, so we took refuge in an excellent little restaurant - Cafe Sol (see my Restaurant tips), before heading back to the Trek Stop to lounge around for the rest of the day. We also had to make our final preparations for a 2-day excursion to the Mayan ruins in Guatemala's Tikal National Park - time was running out on us!Related to:
- Road Trip
Hawksworth Suspension Bridge
With our various tours having kept us busy for our first two days in the area, we decided to head the short distance into San Ignacio for a look around on our third full day in this part of Belize. We were standing on the side of the Western Highway by 9:30 AM and it was not long before a 'share cab' stopped to pick us up for the ride into town (US$3).
The outstanding feature of San Ignacio is it's Hawksworth steel suspension bridge, built in 1949 when the Western Highway was extended from Belize City all the way to the Guatemala border. This 172-m (563-ft) long bridge carries a single lane of traffic across the Macal River on a steel mesh roadway and it also has a steel mesh floored pedestrian walkway along one side. We took a walk across the river to Santa Elena for a quick look around, and the bridge shook and rattled as large vehicles rumbled past. We had a great view of the Macal River from mid-span (3rd photo), as it flowed north to join with the Mopan River a few miles away, where they combine to form the Belize River.Related to:
- Road Trip
Range of activities
Although this is a great place to chill out for a few days, there is also a wide range of activities on offer – some free, some paid for. The free ones are:
~ canoeing on the river
~ walking several miles of trails by the river and in the surrounding hills
~ visiting the nature centre and butterfly farm
~ early morning bird-watching with a naturalist
~ a guided medicine trail walk
Paid for activities on-site include:
~ horse riding
~ night walks with a naturalist
~ mountain bike riding
~ visits to the Maya farm
~ Maya ruins at Xunantunich
~ Mountain Pine Ridge
~ caving expeditions
As we had been very busy for the previous week or so in Guatemala, and given the poor weather, we decided not to book any excursions and to take each day as it came. We did however do several of the free activities, which I have described in separate tips. We also planned to do the night walk on our last evening, but in the end decided that a final leisurely dinner and a few drinks in the bar were the better choice. We got talking to an English couple in the bar later that evening who had been on the walk, and although they had enjoyed it we didn’t feel we had missed out too much – they had seen bats and tarantulas but little else, and we knew we would have the chance of similar activities at our next lodge in Lamanai.
Chaa Creek has an on-site Nature Centre and a visit is free for all guests staying at the lodge or the river camp, so we headed up the hill one afternoon to check it out.
We received a friendly welcome from the resident naturalist who told us a bit about the displays in the centre and then left us to browse alone. Perhaps because of the weather (it was raining!) we were the only visitors at that time. Although called a nature centre, displays in one of the rooms actually focus on Maya history and culture – there is a mock-up of a typical Maya home and some very informative exhibits which filled in some gaps in our knowledge after our visit to Tikal (where the captions on museum displays were only in Spanish). In the other room, devoted to the natural history of the area, exhibits include local snakes, insects, creatures of the day and night, and a good display about howler monkeys and the successful programme to rehabilitate them in this area.
Next door to the Nature Centre is the Butterfly Farm, where Blue Morpho butterflies are bred for educational purposes. When we had seen all we wanted to at the Nature Centre we were taken to the butterfly enclosure. Our guide explained the life cycle and showed us the various stages, as well as the differences between the male and female butterfly (the female is a deeper, softer blue while the male is brighter and more metallic in tone). Their undersides are a complete contrast, being a rather drab brown (see photo 2). The cool damp weather that day meant that the butterflies weren’t as active as they might be, and it was hard to get good photos as many had their wings folded, but the guide was patient and waited till we were satisfied with our shots.
We then went to the nearby breeding area where the caterpillars are kept and fed on their favourite leaves until they reach the pupa stage.
Early morning bird watching
This was easily the best of the free activities we participated in here. We gave it a miss on our first morning as the weather was too wet, but the next day, despite heavy overnight rain, was better, so we were up at 6.30 to meet up with a group of other guests in the bar for a cup of coffee while waiting for our naturalist guide. There were quite a few of us in fact – it seemed that others had, like us, been waiting for the first dry morning. The guide arrived festooned with binoculars to share out among us, and with a very good telescope too.
Our walk simply took us on a loop around the grounds – you don’t have to go far here to see plenty of birdlife. The guide was very good at spotting things, but we were also helped by having a keen bird-watching couple in the group who also pointed birds out to us and were able to identify them if we were out of earshot of the guide. In the 90 minutes or so that we were out we saw:
~ yellow-winged tanager
~ black-cowled oriole
~ slatey-tailed trogon
~ melodious blackbird
~ crimson collared tanager
~ keel billed toucan, the national bird of Belize (photo 3)
~ collared aracari toucan (main photo and photo 2)
~ social flycatcher
~ golden-fronted woodpecker
~ tropical kingbird
~ violatious trogon (photo 4)
~ lineated woodpecker
~ banded-back wren
~ white-collared seedeater
~ black-headed trogon
~ plain chacalaca
We also saw an agouti trotting across the grass (see photo 5). The telescope allowed us to get great views of all the birds, though photographing them wasn’t always so easy, with the exception of the collared aracari toucans who seemed far more interested in eating than in worrying about us.
Of course there are no guarantees with wildlife spotting activities – you can’t depend on the birds turning up to order. It seems we were pretty lucky to see as many as we did given that the weather wasn’t great, but I think you’d have to be very unlucky not to see a fair number as the grounds here have been specially planted to attract a good variety. It’s an easy walk and right on your doorstep so it would be a real shame not to get out of bed a bit early on one morning at least during your stay!Related to:
Macal River Trail
The grounds of the lodge are extensive and there’s a network of trails for you to enjoy. One of these is the Macal River Trail, part of which we did one morning. As the name suggests, this follows the river that runs in the valley below the lodge. To start with you walk downhill and cross the small creek that gives the lodge its name, Chaa Creek, which tumbles down towards the larger river. You’ll soon be walking among the trees and hearing the rush of water from the creek. The river itself is calmer, and you can see the canoes that are available for guests’ use (another thing we planned to do and abandoned in the face of the wet weather and the pleasures of simply taking it easy for a day or two in this wonderful setting!)
The rain we had experienced over the previous two days meant that the river was full and the creek very lively, but it also made the path rather muddy, so it’s best to wear good footwear even though this is a leisurely walk rather than a hike. We didn’t go all the way along the trail as the mud slowed us down and got a bit tiresome in the end, but I imagine that in drier weather this would be a very pleasant walk and a good way of getting some shade and getting away from the more manicured grounds in the immediate vicinity of the cottages and public buildings.
Belize Botanical Gardens
If you like gardens and flowers, then I recommend a visit to the Belize Botanical Gardens. Eventhough there wasn't much in bloom at the time of my visit in late February, it is still a worthwhile daytrip from San Iganacio.
There are over 100 species of orchid on display in the orchid house including Belize's National Flower, the black orchid. There is also a firetower for a great view of the landscape, a bird pond and many walking trails through native trees and plants.
You can also visit DuPlooy's Jungle Lodge which is adjacent to the gardens for a swim in the Macal River and lunch on the deck. The deck is a great spot for birdwatching and provides a wonderful view down onto the river.
Admission to the gardens is $2.50 US and the gardens are open daily from 7am to 5pm.
See my travelogue for more flora and fauna from the botanical gardens.Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
Walk to Branch Mouth
It is a 30 minute walk along a dirt road to the community of Branch Mouth. It is also the location where the Macal and Mopan Rivers join to form the Belize River which flows out to the Caribbean Sea.
You will encounter alot of birdlife on your walk, bring your binoculars. We spotted some green parrots in the tree tops.
At Branch Mouth, there is a very long and very bouncy swing bridge that the locals use on their daily commute into San Ignacio. Don't be surprised to see a group of school children in their uniforms crossing at the beginning or end of the school day. We also saw a bicycles crossing the bridge.Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Hiking and Walking
Caracol: Hidden treasure
According to a guidebook, "Guatemala has Tikal, Honduras has Copan, and Belize has Caracol". Misconceptions about its archeological significance and Caracol's remote location on the western edge of the Maya mountains mean relatively few people have been here.
En route to Caracol, we actually got a police escort to the Maya ruins because 2 years ago, tourists were confronted by bandits and robbed. Belize, being the polite and righteous Central American country they are, were upset and now offer escorted tours to the site for tourists.Related to:
- Historical Travel
El Pilar: Excellent birdwatching
Well hidden beneath the jungle canopy of the Cayo District, the Maya ruins of El Pilar straddle the Belize/Guatemalan border. Encompassing over 25 plazas and approximately 100 acres (38 hectares), it is more than four times the size of nearby sites, indeed, the largest center in the Belize River area.
The rare abundance of natural water sources in this vicinity is possibly the origin of the name El Pilar ("pila" being Spanish for watering basin). In keeping with the name of the reserve, El Pilar presents a lively nature adventure to visitors. Preservation of the jungle habitat takes precedence here, and clearing is done only to reveal select examples of architecture.
There is no public transportation to this historical site. You need to either hire a personal tour guide, or in our case, we had a rental 4x4 that took quite a beating!
Of all the Maya ruins that we visited on this vacation, we felt the closest to nature at this site. In fact, El Pilar was my husband's favorite site, even though, as you can see from the photos, you can't actually see much of the architecture. There were just wild trees everywhere, and unexplored mounds, and as we trekked through the jungle, we spotted tropical birds and listened to the black howler monkeys in the trees around us!Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
This caving adventure is one of the most exciting and popular tours in the area. After a van into the Tapir forest and a few kilometer hike into the jungle fording some rivers, you strap on your helmets and headlamps and head deep into this important cave. Once far inside you get to see the remains of Mayan ceremony in the form of pottery shards and even sacrifice victims.
There are several companies running the trip but I personally recommend Hun Chi'ik. They are a fairly new agency created by some of the most experienced guides in the region. They are highly professional, more so than another agency, and small so there is a higher likeliness of small groups.Related to:
- Adventure Travel
Ziplining at Jaguar Paw
We also went ziplining at Jaguar Paw. If you stop by the Jaguar Paw Resort, there is a desk that collects the fee (US$55 per person), then you walk up a short hike to a staging area where tour operators then strap you into the gear, give you a brief safety instruction, then you hike uphill (10 minute trek) to the first platform. A series of six platforms will give you an exhilirating and thrilling overlook of the jungle canopy of the Cayo Mountains. It is an experience to remember!Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
- Adventure Travel
Belize Botanic Gardens
The Belize Botanic Gardens, established by DuPlooy's Riverside Cottages, comprises over 50 acres and has been developed after 10 years of reforestation work and the planting of some 2500 trees.
Entrance fee is US$11 per person. You can spend hours walking through this garden, reading all the signs and marvelling at the wide variety of plant species contained.Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
An amazing mayan archeological site hidden in the jungle. Caracol was an importat city that defeated the mighty Tikal in AD 562.
The site covers 35 sq. miles and its thought to have a population of 150,000.
Few structures are restaured but the main atractions are: Caana (Belize's tallest structure up today, 42 meters high), Temple of the Wooden Linteln and a Ball Court.Related to:
San Ignacio Hotels
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