I faced some polite judgement from other backpackers for my decision to stay in San Ignacio for a whole week and I can understand their confusion.
After all, Belize is world renowned for its reef, its chilled out coastal towns and its Caribbean culture. San Ignacio is two hours inland from Belize City, much closer to Guatemala than it is to its own capital. With none of the beach-based activities that most destinations in Belize offer, why linger in this small town?
Its modern connection to an ancient civilisation
The Maya believed that their world was flat and upheld at its four corners by their gods. San Ignacio is perfectly situated among four of the most important centres of their world – Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and the famous Tikal. The town is also still home to many indigenous Maya who, despite attempts by invaders throughout history to quell the civilisation, practice their traditions fervently. Ajaw Chocolate’s tour in town and Benny’s traditional Maya menu in nearby Benque Viejo are excellent examples of how ancient Maya practices are helping to encourage tourism to the area, as well as filling the inquisitive visitor’s stomach!
Its jungle-clad surrounds
If you only spent a few days in San Ignacio, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ruins and caves were its two key features as a destination. However I quickly realised there was so much more to see: From Green Iguana rescue centres and agricultural college tours to countless hikes and bird watching, on a bigger budget, I could have spent even more time exploring this wonderful region. Mercifully, the natural world doesn’t recognise our self-imposed human boundaries and I still saw my first bright red Summer Tanager in the hills surrounding the town.
Its mystical underworld
The Maya didn’t only practice their detailed rituals atop their temples. The underworld held just as much importance for them. San Ignacio’s local geology – a knotted maze of caverns, crystallised stalactites and underground rivers – would not only have influenced the development of the Maya faith, but also acted as an instrument for regular sacrifice to their gods. From San Ignacio, a day trip takes you to a cave system that’s still a working archeological site. 1,300 year old pottery and skeletons adorn the most beautiful caves I’d ever seen.
Its Saturday Market
One of my fondest memories of San Ignacio will be frequenting the same places as the locals. The town’s Saturday market was a showcase for this social integration that seemed as fluid as we all wish it always was. Corn salbutes, garnaches and panades were sold at 50 cents each and tasted fresh and delicious. Tourists and locals alike hunched around small tables laden with checked cloths and of course, habanero hot sauce. On a backpacker’s budget, this market was also a necessity, with fresh fruit and vegetables the cheapest I’d found in Central America so far.
Its people and their warmth
Despite all the activities that San Ignacio offered, I also had a great time doing nothing – a cold afternoon beer outside Eva’s bar on the main street. In late afternoon everywhere has Happy Hour and a happy hour it was. Maybe it was San Ignacio’s small size, its close-knit community or just the fact that I lingered so much longer than many tourists, but by the end of the week I had actually made friends and was on first name terms with the locals.
Sometimes it’s great to linger!
The seven days I spent in San Ignacio were spent happily at D’s Hostel – run by Rafi – the most friendly, knowledgable and charismatic local personality you could wish for. (As always, these are not affiliate links and all opinions are my own).