San Ignacio is one of Belize’s most beautiful destinations for its lush green jungle environment with unique jungle lodges, spectacular Mayan temples and unforgettable excursions. A Belize itinerary is not complete without a few days in the jungle paradise of San Ignacio. We spent several days in both the town of San Ignacio and the beautiful jungle around town. Read our practical tips for your visit to this jungle paradise and about the best things to do in San Ignacio.
How to get to San Ignacio in Belize
Unlike many other tourist destinations in Belize, San Ignacio is not a coastal town, but is located inland. In the Cayo District on the Macal River to be exact. The jungle town is located about halfway through the country and close to the border with Guatemala. You can therefore easily visit San Ignacio in Belize from both Guatemala and from destinations in Belize.
Intersting fact: the border between Belize and Guatemala is under discussion? Guatemala disputes this border and considers Belize to be part of its territory. Belize itself does not entirely agree with this, but this discussion is still not settled. On many maps, the border is therefore indicated with a dotted line. Just make sure to expect proper border control though, so there’s an exit fee, passport control, stamps, etc. at the border.
San Ignacio is easy to get to from other destinations in Belize, such as Hopkins or Punta Gorda in the south or the island destinations Caye Caulker and San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Belize City has the nearest international airport. You can easily get to San Ignacio from there by local bus, which is the cheapest mode of transportation in Belize. If you’re traveling from any other destination in Belize you’ll probably have to make a transfer in the capital Belize City or Belmopan.
Although the distances are not that big in a small country like Belize, traveling by local bus will still take you a long time. The rattling, old American school buses cross the country at an extremely slow pace. A fantastic local and authentic experience, but one that almost makes you forget how small Belize actually is. A rental car or taxi is therefore a much easier to explore Belize, but it is very expensive as well.
Please note: if you book one of San Ignacio’s famous jungle lodges, you’ll probably be staying far out of town or even at a remote jungle location. It will be difficult to get there by normal bus, so check this carefully in advance. Your lodge might have a pick-up service or it may be more convenient to rent a rental car for a few days. Taxis are quite pricey.
Where to stay in San Ignacio: unique jungle lodges and jungle resorts
As one of the most popular destinations in Belize, San Ignacio has many great places to stay, both in the city itself and in the lush jungle outside the town. We chose to book a few nights in the town itself as well as spend a few days in a beautiful jungle lodge to fully experience both sides of San Ignacio. If you don’t have enough travel time to do both, choose one of the unique places to stay outside the city and book one of the unforgettable jungle lodges of San Ignacio.
Please note that it can be a bit difficult to get to the remote jungle lodges by public transport. Many accommodations offer a convenient shuttle service and we recommend using it, as taxis are quite expensive here. Our jungle resort included a taxi service and we made good use of it.
The most beautiful hotels and jungle lodges in San Ignacio:
#1 The Lodge at Chaa Creek for a beautiful lodge near the center of San Ignacio, located on the Macal River. Guests stay in palm-thatched cottages with a private veranda overlooking the jungle. There is a swimming pool, private jungle grounds, a restaurant with local dishes and a wellness.
#2 Falling Leaves Lodge for a lovely boutique hotel with a location on the edge of the center near the Cahal Pech ruins. The spacious and nicely decorated hotel rooms have a beautiful view of the jungle garden. There is free parking, an on-site restaurant and a garden terrace.
#3 Ka’ana Resort for a small-scale resort with tropical gardens and attractive casitas. This was our best stay during our time in Belize because of the hospitality of the staff, the beautiful gardens, the lovely casitas with natural materials and a private patio, the great swimming pool and the organic vegetable garden. A stay at Ka’ana Resort makes an unforgettable travel experience.
#4 Table Rock Jungle Lodge for a small-scale resort with ecolodges on the Macal River, located on the site of an old plantation. There are ten jungle lodges in the middle of nature, spread over a large area. You don’t even have to leave the jungle resort to experience the San Ignacio jungle. There are several on-site hiking trails, you can kayak the Macal River from your lodge and visit the petting zoo. The lodge has a restaurant and a swimming pool as well.
#5 Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge for one of the most popular jungle hotels in San Ignacio. Sweet Songs is located quite a few miles south of San Ignacio, where it has a beautiful location in the middle of the jungle and with the beautiful Belize Botanical Gardens nearby. The luxury bungalows all have their own patio where you can spot wildlife such as toucans, coatis and howler monkeys. There is an on-site restaurant, outdoor pool, bar and river tubing.
#6 Pine Ridge Lodge for a bucket list resort in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve near the dazzling Big Rock Falls. Of all the lodges at San Ignacio, this one always gets the highest review ratings. The rooms at Pine Ridge Lodge offer mountain views and come with a patio overlooking the jungle garden. You’ll be far from civilization, but with an on-site restaurant, excursions from the lodge and beautiful jungle surroundings, you don’t have to go anywhere else.
San Ignacio Map
8 best things to do in San Ignacio
Although the town of San Ignacio is very cozy with a lovely square, many restaurants and shops, travelers mainly come here for the beautiful surroundings. From San Ignacio, you visit the most beautiful Mayan temples in Belize and enjoy a beautiful jungle environment. Continue reading for the 8 best things to do in and around San Ignacio.
#1 Xunantunich, the tallest Mayan temple in Belize
Xunantunich is one of the most beautiful Maya sites in Belize. The largest structure El Castillo is still the tallest building in all of Belize! The complex consists of several squares, surrounded by ancient Mayan structures.
Read more: visiting the Xunantunich Mayan ruins.
During your visit to Xunantunich, you will immediately notice that not the entire Maya city has been excavated. Part of Xunantunich consists of overgrown hills, covering even more ancient structures. This Maya site has more than just temples and religious sites, as there are many palaces and political structures as well. El Castillo for example, was not a temple, but a palace of the most important family. Also noteworthy and not to be missed are the signs carved out of stone on the side of El Castillo. We did not see this in any other Maya city in Central America! You can climb to the top of El Castillo for a beautiful view of Xunantunich and the jungle environment. You can also climb other buildings and temples. But because these are less high, the views from up there are a little less spectacular.
You can easily visit the Maya complex from San Ignacio, because it is located along the road from the city to the border with Guatemala. If you travel by public transport, take the bus with Benque Viejo as its final destination. This is the village right on the border with Guatemala, which is not far from Xunantunich. Ask the bus driver to stop at the Xunantunich ferry. Hitchhiking is also a good option, as there usually is a lot of traffic on this road. Take the ferry – actually more like a large raft that is pulled by hand and that can even be used by cars – to cross the Mopan River. From there you can easily walk to the entrance of Xunantunich.
#2 Cahal Pech, Mayan ruins in San Ignacio
Right next to or actually still in the city – and therefore within walking distance from the town center – you can visit the ruins of Cahal Pech. The ruins are a lot smaller and less impressive than, for example, Xunantunich or Caracol, but they are said to be the oldest Mayan structures in Belize. The Mayan complex is a lot less visited than its bigger counterparts, making this a peaceful visit without large groups or maybe even without meeting another visitor.
Cahal Pech has a strategic location on a hill, so that the environment and the river could be closely monitored. It was once the home of the elite of the Mayan people, leaving many temples, palaces, a ball court, pyramid-shaped structures and plazas surrounded by structures. There is also a small visitor center with a museum, where you can see some finds from Cahal Pech. What makes Cahal Pech different from all the other Mayan sites in Central America, is that this was not an ancient Mayan city of great political significance, but simply the residential complex of a wealthy family. This makes Cahal Pech a very different kind of Mayan ruin to visit than many other complexes.
#3 Caracol, remote Mayan city in the jungle
Caracol is often called the most impressive Mayan city in Belize. The location certainly adds to the dramatic effect of this Mayan city, as Caracol is located deep in the Belizean jungle. As the location of Caracol is extremely remote, you cannot get here by public transport. The easiest way to visit Caracol is by a rental car or with an organized tour from San Ignacio.
Around the seventh century, Caracol was probably one of the most important cities for the Maya in this region. Throughout history, the city has fought many wars with neighboring Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala. At its peak, Caracol probably had about 140,000 inhabitants. The ruins of Caracol were discovered less than a hundred years ago and excavations only started in the 1950s. Caracol has still not been fully restored, like the well-known Tikal for example. It will probably never be fully restored though, as Caracol should remain part of its jungle environment, partly covering the buildings, which is also part of the history and story of the Mayan ruins.
Tip: during your day trip to Caracol, also visit the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve along the way. This nature reserve is known for its lush jungle and beautiful waterfalls.
#4 The ATM Tour: visit a Mayan cave
One of Belize’s most acclaimed landmarks is the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves you can visit from San Ignacio. This excursion is hailed as one of the most unique things to do in Belize and is certainly very different from most places you can visit in Central America. The ATM-tour takes you to an ancient Mayan cave, where human sacrifices were found.
Where a visit to Mayan ruins normally requires little physical effort, the ATM tour is a unique adventure. After a short but strenuous hike through the jungle you reach the entrance of the cave system. The system is largely flooded, so you will have to swim through the caves to get to the well-known cave that this tour is all about. In the caves, it is pitch dark and the only light comes from the headlamps of you, the guide and the rest of the group. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos during the tour.
Especially considering that the ATM cave is an ancient Mayan sacrificial site where many bones have been found and still lie, you’ll get that this is one of the most adventurous things to do in Belize. The tour is physically strenuous and you need to be reasonably fit to properly accomplish all the swimming and scrambling work to get to the main cave.
#5 The town of San Ignacio
Although the jungle environment is what draws in visitors, San Ignacio itself is also worth a visit. Even though it is one of Belize’s largest cities, it has a small town or even village feel to it. The pedestrian street has most of the shops and tour companies that offer you day trips to the sights of San Ignacio in the jungle environment.
The market is a great place to visit for a more local experience and perhaps to buy some fruit or food. There is also a section with stalls that sell street food, where you can try local dishes just like the locals. If you prefer to eat in a restaurant, you also have plenty of choice in the center of San Ignacio. We can recommend Pop’s Restaurant for pancakes and breakfast. There are many local restaurants in the surrounding streets for great local food.
#6 The Green Iguana Conservation Project
The Green Iguana Conservation Project is in San Ignacio itself and will learn you more about the green iguanas of Belize. The project is part of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, where you can buy a ticket for a tour at the reception.
A guide takes you to the enclosures with the green iguanas. We learned how the iguana is under threat today and why a project like this is necessary. The guide told us all about the reptiles and we were also offered to hold them and take a picture with the reptiles. We didn’t really like this holding and taking pictures part of the tour, as we don’t believe the animals should be used as a tourist attraction. The focus should be on breeding and releasing this endangered species while teaching visitors about them.
#7 The San Ignacio jungle
The nature and jungle of San Ignacio are not just home to Mayan ruins, but it’s also one of the best places to visit in San Ignacio. When staying at one of the jungle lodges near San Ignacio – which is a must-do! – you can explore the jungle from your lodge, while hiking or kayaking on the hotel grounds. Exploring the the jungle is one of the best things to do in San Ignacio and we recommend that you set aside at least a day for this.
Tip: if you stay at the Table Rock Jungle Lodge, you can make a beautiful canoe trip on the Macal River from the eco-lodge. You can borrow all supplies from Table Rock.
There is plenty to do in the jungle environment around San Ignacio. Tubing or kayaking on the Macal River is one of the most popular activities. This can be done with a tour or independently, especially if you have booked an accommodation that provides kayaks or tubes. If you like kayaking and Mayan history, it is also highly recommended to visit the Barton Creek Cave. Like the ATM caves, the Maya would have considered this location as the entrance to the underworld and human sacrifices have been found here.
#8 Day trip to Tikal in Guatemala
San Ignacio is this close to the border with Guatemala that a day tour to this neighboring country is a logical choice if you are not already visiting Guatemala after Belize. We absolutely recommend you make a small trip from San Ignacio to Guatemala at this point in the itinerary. Visiting the famous Mayan city of Tikal is something not to miss, when you are this close. You can easily take a day tour to Tikal from San Ignacio. If you have enough time and energy, you can also stop at the lesser-known, but amazing Yaxha Mayan Ruins along the way for the most magical sunset from the top of an ancient pyramid.
As travel distances are long and you also have to cross the border between Belize and Guatemala, it is a pretty long day trip from San Ignacio though. We therefore chose to make this trip without a tour and stay in Guatemala for a few nights. We preferred this for a somewhat quieter travel pace. We first stayed two nights at the Yaxha Ruins, then one night at Tikal and eventually two nights at the Isla de Flores peninsula before traveling back to Belize.