San Ignacio, otherwise known as “Cayo,” is a lively backpacker hub on the Macal River. Most people stop here as they pass to and from Guatemala.
San Ignacio is also the perfect base for exploring several nearby Mayan ruins, including Caracol and Xunantunich. Since the town is so close to the border with Guatemala, a visit to the Tikal archaeological site is also easily doable. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on a Saturday, the San Ignacio Market draws farmers and vendors from all over to sell local fruits and veggies, crafts, clothing, and even medicinal herbs.
Much of San Ignacio’s activity focuses on Burns Avenue (otherwise known as “the strip”) — the main street cutting through town, lined with candy-colored shops, restaurants, and bars. Grab a sidewalk table and a drink, enjoy the sun, and take in the parade of fellow backpackers and locals passing by. It’s one of the greatest pleasures you’ll have while backpacking in San Ignacio.
This San Ignacio travel guide will give you the best places to visit, tell you how to save money, get around, give you costs, and help you plan the best travel experience in San Ignacio!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in San Ignacio
1. Visit Xunantunich
2. Float into the Barton Creek Cave
3. Explore Cahal Pech
4. Canoe the Macal River
5. Visit Actun Tunichil Muknal
Other Things to See and Do in San Ignacio
1. Visit the market
If you’re in town on a Saturday or Tuesday morning, head to the town’s busy market on the banks of the river. The market is open every day, but these days are the busiest. Farmers from all over the Cayo District come here to sell fresh fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. Other vendors sell crafts, artwork, and even medicinal herbs. The Cayo District is made up of many different groups of people, including the Maya and Creole, so the market turns into a whirlwind of activity as the locals come together to share gossip and news.
2. Spot wildlife at the Green Iguana Exhibit
The San Ignacio Resort Hotel runs a conservation program for the Green Iguana, to create awareness and educate visitors and locals about these endangered creatures. You’ll get some hands-on interaction with the iguanas while learning about their entire life cycle, from egg to rearing. The resort itself sits at the top of a hill amongst 14 acres of rainforest with 150 species of birds, various wildlife, and 70 species of trees and plant life. Admission is 23 BZD, and tours are offered daily at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm.
3. Walk the Medicinal Jungle Trail
Directly facing the Green Iguana Exhibit is the entrance to the Medicinal Jungle Trail. The trail isn’t tough, and it only takes about 45 minutes to walk it, but along the way you’re likely to encounter iguanas, anteaters, and a huge variety of birds. If you’re with a tour guide from the Green Iguana Exhibit, he or she will explain all the surprising medicinal uses of the plants along the trail.
4. Go to the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch
Green Hills is the largest butterfly display in Belize. It’s home to about 30 species native to Belize, as well as a collection of passion flowers, heliconias, and orchids. Jan and Tineke are the friendly Dutch couple who operate the place, and they’ll tell you anything you want to know about the butterflies. Admission is 40 BZD, and it’s open daily from 9am-4pm.
5. Explore the Belize Botanic Gardens
The Belize Botanic Gardens sprawl across a full 45-acre area, with about 1,000 different plant species native to Belize. Take your time to wander the two miles (three kilometers) of trail amongst the fruit trees and Maya medicinal plants, and enjoy the solitude by the two ponds. Admission is 15 BZD, and guided tours (around 1.5 hours) are 30 BZD. It’s open daily from 8am-4pm.
6. Visit the San Ignacio House of Culture
Located behind the Town Council building in a former hospital, this small museum has works from Belizean artists on display, as well as regularly scheduled history and cultural exhibitions. The House of Culture open Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm and admission is free.
If you’re heading to other parts of Belize, check out some of our other city guides:
San Ignacio Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There are only a handful of hostels in San Ignacio, and prices start at about 25 BZD for a bed in a dorm that holds more than eight people. Free Wi-Fi is standard, but breakfast is not. However, nearly every hostel has excellent kitchen facilities or a BBQ area for cooking your meals. Private hostel rooms average 70 BZD per night, but not all have ensuite bathrooms.
Budget hotel prices – Rooms at three-star hotels (including resorts) with free Wi-Fi, swimming pools, air conditioning, and free breakfast start around 70 BZD per night. That’s as budget-friendly as it gets for a hotel here.
However, you have lots of Airbnb options in San Ignacio to choose from. Private rooms start from 70 BZD but most average about 120 BZD. You can find full apartments or homes averaging about 160 BZD per night.
Average cost of food – Belizean cuisine leans heavily on beans, rice, cheese, and tortillas. Rice and beans is a common lunch choice, and you can always find tamales, panades (fried meat pies), (onion soup), chicken stew, and garnaches (beans, cheese, and onion in a fried tortilla) pretty much everywhere you go.
Street food like pupusas (flatbread) and tacos are less than 2 BZD each, and you’ll find lots of options at the San Ignacio Market.
Meals at Belizean restaurants will cost around 10 BZD for dishes like rice and beans, or ceviche. I recommend eating at Cenaida’s or Pop’s, but there are also tons of places to eat on Burns Avenue. A beer to go with your meal shouldn’t cost more than 4 BZD.
If you want western food like pasta and burgers, expect to pay between 20-30 BZD per dish. The Guava Limb Cafe is a good option for western food, as is Erva’s Restaurant.
If you plan to do some cooking, you’ll find the best prices in the market. A week’s worth of groceries will cost you about 80 BZD for items like veggies, chicken, and eggs.
Backpacking San Ignacio Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking San Ignacio, I’d budget about 70 BZD per day. That will cover staying in a hostel dorm, eating street food, an occasional local meal at a restaurant, a few beers, public transportation, and a few paid activities.
On a mid-range budget of about 200 BZD per day, you’ll get a private room in a hostel or Airbnb, any kind of budget restaurant meal you want, a few taxis, and more paid activities.
If you want to go luxury, you’ll spend around 440 BZD per day, with the bulk of that being guided day tours. You’ll stay in a comfortable hotel with a pool, eat out for all your meals, drink whatever you want, and take as many taxis as you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though — the sky is the limit!
Use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might pay less every day). We want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in BZD.
San Ignacio Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
There aren’t many ways to save money in San Ignacio, as it’s a very small town with limited accommodation and dining options. But if you want to try, here are some ways to save when you visit:
- Shop around – There are many activity and tour providers in town, so be sure to shop around.
- Hitchhike – It’s a common custom among the locals to simply hitchhike everywhere they need to go. You see old ladies, children, and families on the side of the road looking for a ride. It’s just what they do. My friends and I met great people thumbing it across the country without spending any money at all.
- Happy hour – Most bars have a happy hour in the late afternoon and offer two for the price of one drinks.
- Couchsurf – If you plan ahead, you can usually find really nice Couchsurfing hosts all throughout the country. This way, you not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy here. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw.
Where To Stay in San Ignacio
There are a few comfortable and sociable hostels in San Ignacio. My suggested places to stay are:
How to Get Around San Ignacio
Bus – Most of the town is easy to walk around, but to explore more of the Cayo District you can also take shuttle buses. Just show up at the lot on Savannah Street and find a bus headed your way. You’ll only pay about 1 BZD for a 15-minute journey, including to the various ruins.
Taxis – Taxis are very affordable here. One trip will cost a minimum of 2.50 BZD and shouldn’t cost more than 5 BZD anywhere in town. For a return trip to ruin sites like Xunantunich, a taxi will cost about 20 BZD round-trip.
Hitchhike – It is common for people to hitchhike in Belize, and the locals will be eager to get to know you. HitchWiki has a lot of information on hitchhiking in Belize if you plan to explore the area around San Ignacio.
When to Go to San Ignacio
San Ignacio is hot and humid year-round. The hottest months are from April to June, with temperatures usually about 93°F (34°C) per day, with warm nights rarely dripping below 66°F (19°C).
If your primary reason to visit San Ignacio is to see the Maya ruins, the cool season is the best time to visit. This is from November to February, with daily temperatures around 85°F (30°C) or less. It’s still hot, but it’s less humid, and you’ll find it much more comfortable to walking around and exploring the sites. The ruins (and the town) are more crowded during this time, but it’s not unbearable. Prices are slightly inflated, but overall, it’s still cheap to visit.
How to Stay Safe in San Ignacio
San Ignacio is a safe place to backpack and travel around. It’s a small town with low crime. Petty theft is your only real concern. Don’t flash around your expensive belongings and stay vigilant at a night, especially if you’ve been drinking.
You can read about these travel scams and make sure you don’t fall for any!
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in San Ignacio!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
San Ignacio Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to San Ignacio. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Belize, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
San Ignacio Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
San Ignacio Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood
This is the true story of Levison Wood’s 1,800-mile trek across the Americas, through eight countries from Mexico to Colombia. He works his way down through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – meeting refugees in Nicaraguan camps, friendly locals, and dangerous wildlife along the way. Some of his tales are harrowing, but mostly you’ll want to be right there with Wood, enjoying secret waterfalls and making awkward negotiations with policemen.
Understanding Belize, by Alan Twigg
Despite its small size, Belize has a fascinating history and a cultural background with roots in Creole, Maya, English, East Indian, Mennonite, Chinese, Lebanese, and more. In this book, Alan Twigg starts from Belize’s early days as a pirate hub to its colonial period to its current position as a prime place for Mayan archaeology. It might seem like a dense book but it’s full of original photography and makes for a good base of knowledge before your trip to Belize.
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, by Bruce Barcott
This is the true story of Sharon Matola, an animal rights activist who cared for orphaned animals at her zoo in Belize. When a multinational corporation began building a dam that would destroy the nesting ground of the only scarlet macaws in the country, Matola became the symbol of resistance, leading a crusade to stop the company in its tracks. With some brave locals, she sparked protests around the globe and took the company to court. The author, Bruce Barcott, does an excellent job of telling the story.
If Di Pin Neva Ben, by Timothy Hagerty
If Di Pin Neva Win is a collection of Belizean oral tradition that recounts tales and legends that reflect Belize’s amazing cultural diversity. They include supernatural stories, mythical animals, and entertaining tales that originate from Africa, the Maya kingdom, and Europe. It’s a good read to browse before your trip if you want a better understanding of Belizean folklore (and you can read it in bits and pieces).