Tucked away in Central America, Belize (the country formerly referred to as the British Honduras) is a small country the size of New Jersey and the population of Tulsa, Oklahoma with the natural beauty that can hang with any country in the world. It's small size and population belies the fact that the country sits along one of the most biodiverse regions in the world (on the coast, it hosts the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world; inland, it contains an extensive subterranean cave/river system and lush, thriving jungles); it contains a treasure trove of rich Mayan history and archaeological sites; and it beguiles its visitors with some of the most eco-conscious accommodations to relax after a day spent in adventure or exploration. Although it is young in its heart (having gained its independence only in 1981 from the monarchy), the country's deep and storied Mayan history and the admixture of so many varied cultures as part of the British Commonwealth make Belize a true melting pot of people and cuisine. As a vestige of the Commonwealth, it is the only Central American country with English as its primary language.
For the first-time visitor to Belize, it is perhaps best broken up into 2 parts: beach/coast and jungle/inland. The areas to stay along the beach include Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Placencia, Hopkins, etc. Of these, the higher-end properties dot Ambergris Caye and Placencia. While there are many options to stay in the jungle (inland), San Ignacio in the Cayo District serves as the epicenter from which to explore and would be our recommendation. To be able to do both areas (beach and jungle) well, we'd recommend 7-8 days as you do lose some time in the transit and check-in/check-out process. Unfortunately for us, due to time restrictions, we only had 5 days. Rather than try to squeeze both and do them haphazardly, we chose to fully explore the jungle/inland on this trip knowing full well that those azure waters we gazed at flying out of the country would surely be the siren song that would beckon us to come back to Belize and explore its coast/islands. For most tourists, Belize is still under-the-radar. It seems to deliberately eschew the big-box Caribbean resort for something more intimate and low-key with luxury eco-conscious resorts, quaint hotels, and plenty of hostels and AirBnBs. If you are going to Belize and spending a few days in its jungle, we hope our recommendations help complete your trip!
The drier season roughly runs from late November to late April. As expected this coincides with the high season.
The jungle/inland area tends to be slightly cooler than the beach/coastal areas.
Our trip was in January. Just be aware that sometimes in Dec-Jan, there can still have an occasional cold front (that may drop temperatures to highs of 70s) that come through that could slightly put a cramp on soaking in the sun. This can be a blessing for hikes in the Jungle and Mayan Ruins though. If your focus is the beach, Feb-April maybe the best.
GETTING TO/FROM SAN IGNACIO:
The vast majority of you will be flying into Belize City International Airport (BZE). From there you will have 2 options we would recommend to get into / out of the Greater San Ignacio Area:
Airplane Transfer with Tropic Air - Leaving San Ignacio and heading back to BZE we used Tropic Airlines to save time by flying from San Ignacio into BZE (30 minute flight). You can also use them to fly to the Belizean Islands from San Ignacio as well. In many ways this is kind of an excursion in and of itself. Our one word of advice is if you are flying directly from San Ignacio into BZE so you may catch an international flight, be aware that with these small planes the weather has to be pretty good so make sure to have plenty of buffer. We had a foggy, windy morning and we had a 2 hour delay for our Tropic Air flight but our large buffer saved us for our international departure. Tropic Air was very professional and they were willing to arrange a road transfer if we so desired. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Airline_Review-d10533105-Reviews-Cheap-Flights-Tropic-Air-Belize
Private Vehicle Road Transfer with Belize Shuttles - We landed in BZE after any available small flight air transfers into San Ignacio; thus, we chose to go with Belize Shuttles for a private vehicle road transfer for a door-to-door drop off from the airport to our hotel (Ka'ana Resort). We chose Belize Shuttles because family had recommended them and they were #1 on TripAdvisor. They had great customer service. Our driver waited for us patiently outside the terminal even though our flight (from the US Mainland) was delayed by >1 hour. He also stopped at a grocery store near our hotel upon our request so we could pick up water and other supplies for some of our upcoming excursions. It is about a 2 hour drive or so from BZE to San Ignacio. And we would definitely recommend a private transfer (just your own group) instead of a large shared van with a bunch of tourists. The reason is because many of the eco-lodges/resorts are far from the highway and if you had to wait for each tourist to get dropped off you would lose a lot of time on getting to the hotel itself. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g291968-d8255470-Reviews-Belize_Shuttles_and_Transfers-Belize_City_Belize_District.html and https://belize-shuttles.trekksoft.com/en
WHERE TO STAY:
Ka'ana Resort - our home for 4 nights, this was truly one of the nicest hotels we've ever stayed at. A true Shangri-La in the heart of the Belizean Jungle, one should stay here for its luxurious accommodations, outstanding customer service and attention to detail, and even for practical considerations which we will describe. As an eco-luxury lodge, Ka'ana really focuses on sustainability and they have their own large organic garden to source as many of their own vegetables as possible. They have complimentary yoga classes and a well-maintained pool. The grounds are expansive with special adornments throughout including a gorgeous swingset on a massive tree and rustic firepits that make for some great memories and photos. A key point is you get a really good complimentary breakfast everyday and they will pack it for you to take with you on your excursions which often leave very early in the AM. We stayed in the Master suite which has its own individual front deck with a hammock and a back deck with an enclosed lounge area and a bonus outdoor shower. Indoors you have a luxurious bed with plenty of closet space, local art, and a large bathroom with double vanity. The hotel has several different theme nights; during our stay they had a cocktail night, a Mayan food night, and a BBQ night. You can book some unique tours through them, but we booked the majority of our tours through MayaWalk Tours. From a pragmatic standpoint, the hotel has amazing wifi which is not always easy to find in the Cayo District. Moreover, unlike a lot of the other luxury eco-lodges in the area, Ka'ana sits right on the highway which means its easier/cheaper for cabs to take you into San Igancio for dinner (we always figure its good to have some dinners outside of the hotel we are staying in) or for tour groups to do a direct pickup/dropoff. A lot of the other luxury eco-lodges are far from the highway on unpaved roads precluding easy cab access or direct pickup/dropoffs for tour groups. As Robert Frost said: "yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back", for most of us you may only trek to San Ignacio once in your life. If that is the case, we couldn't recommend this hotel anymore to make that stay spectacular. http://www.kaanabelize.com/ https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g291971-d650430-Reviews-Ka_ana_Resort-San_Ignacio_Cayo.html
Rumors Resort - due to a travel scheduling change, we had an extra night to stay in the area and unfortunately Ka'ana Resort was already fully booked. For our last night we stayed at Rumors Resort. While it is a world away from Ka'ana in terms of luxury and beauty, it is a good choice for the budget conscious traveler who wants good wifi, a good bed and solid room, affable customer service, and easy access to the highway to do all of the adventure excursions (these benefits are described above in the Ka'ana section). They were also very easy to get a hold of via online chat or phone and accommodated us with an early check-in. http://rumorsresort.com/ https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g291971-d2622911-Reviews-Rumors_Resort-San_Ignacio_Cayo.html
San Ignacio Resort Hotel - while we did not stay here, some of our family members have stayed here on a different trip to Belize and really enjoyed it. We did check out the grounds of the hotel during our time doing the Green Iguana Conservation Project. The pool was big, which is a rarity in this area. If you are looking for a place in San Ignacio proper (outside of AirBnbs), this is would be a great choice. https://www.sanignaciobelize.com/ https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g291971-d308841-Reviews-San_Ignacio_Resort_Hotel-San_Ignacio_Cayo.html
WHERE TO EAT IN SAN IGNACIO:
We would certainly recommend staying in a hotel that gives you a good complimentary breakfast; and if they can pack it for you on your excursions even better. So all of our breakfasts were at Ka'ana. For lunches, many of the all-day excursions (certainly ATM Cave and Tikal) through MayaWalk Tours include lunch. But if you are looking for a lunch spot many of the below work well for both lunch and dinner. While we ate 2 dinners at our hotel, one of the advantages of staying in San Ignacio proper or on one of the hotels along the highway (such as Ka'ana) is that you don't have to eat every meal at the hotel/resort. We easily were able to take a cab from our hotel into town (generally $5-$10 USD one-way). Remember that prices at these restaurants are in Belizean Dollars with a conversion rate of $2 BZD = $1 USD. The restaurant scene is very casual in San Ignacio. It is not tasting menus and white table cloth service. It is instead of a happy mix of college backpackers, adventurous couples and retirees, and a subset of Eat, Pray, Love types traversing the jungle hideways and all dropping by at a low-key eatery for a bite.
Guava Limb Cafe - arguably one of the best restaurants in the Cayo District that appears to be a renovated home. It was so good we went there for 2 different meals on a 5 day trip
Ko-Ox Han nah - the name is a mouthful. The lines are long. But the food is worth it. A true favorite of the college backpacker crowd. Just in our spot in line, we met a group of folks from England, Canada, USA, and Denmark.
Erva - another great spot and very well priced. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g291971-d1456253-Reviews-Erva_s-San_Ignacio_Cayo.html
WHAT TO DO IN SAN IGNACIO:
So you came to San Ignacio to explore, experience, and imbibe history and nature. Don't worry, it delivers! We had 5 nights, 4 full-days in Greater San Ignacio. Realistically, you probably would be fine having 4 nights, 3 full-days here and then heading to the Islands for another 3-4+ days/nights if your schedule allowed. As we said before, we just didn't have that flexibility so we decided to max out on our time in Western Belize.
Day 1 - ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave - Secrets of the Mayan Underworld. A spelunking experience unlike any other, this is 1 of the 2 "must-do" activities here. We did this tour through MayaWalk Tours which was first-rate and phenomenal. Lunch is provided by the tour-group post caving. We recommend you schedule this for the first full-day you have available because sometimes heavy rains may cause this tour to be closed so scheduling it early allows you some flexibility to come back to it another day if there are weather-related hiccups. A key point is NO CAMERAS (SLR, phone, GoPro, etc.) are allowed on this trip. In order to protect the precious Mayan artifacts and human remains preserved for thousands of years that you will see firsthand in this cave, the Belizean Government has a strict no-camera policy. There are rumors this may eventually even be closed as a tour for the majority of visitors so make sure to take advantage of this tour now! Now we love preserving our memories through photographs so this was definitely a tough pill to swallow; however, rarely in modern society do we ever experience anything without the ubiquitous halo of technology. By being forced to do this entire experience without technology you really got to be immersed in the experience and truly grasped the gravity of what you were seeing: an unadulterated world of subterranean river systems and caves that Mayans were exploring for centuries over 1000-1500 years ago (long before the Renaissance or Columbus' maiden voyage) to speak to the gods and perform blood-letting rituals and sacrifice. ALL OF THE ATM PHOTOS WE SHOW ARE USED COURTESY OF MAYAWALK TOURS; they distribute their prior photos to all current tour patrons and they serve as a great representation of what we saw and experienced. The day starts around 7-8 AM and ends around 3:30-4:30PM. When you get to the park entrance / staging area we get our safety equipment including headlights, helmets, and life-jackets and one last bathroom break and then we begin a hike through the jungle and cross/wade through 3 streams before we get to the cave entrance. During the hike (and throughout the day), our guide gave us plenty of history of the Mayans and their use of the caves. Once you are in the caves, you are going to experience something you will never do in most places. This is not a cordoned off museum experience or specially made concrete steps in a cave on a tried-and-true path as you often see in the US. You will be swimming/wading through the underground river system, squeezing through narrow crevices, and light scrambling up/down rock formations that are 20-30 feet high. That being said we saw people into their 70s in here and you don't need to be a great swimmer especially with the life-jackets. You will finally reach a large area of the cave which is dry and full of pottery artifacts and human remains/skeletons some of which are so well preserved it is astonishing. Unfortunately, previously technologically distracted tourists stepped on some artifacts, dropped their cameras on human remains, and even tried to take selfies with skeletons over 1000+ years old; hence the NO CAMERA policy. This is truly a one-of-a-kind caving experience that would likely not be allowed in many countries for a variety of legal/liability and historical reasons. You will truly be awed by the physical experience and the echoes of well-preserved history peering back into early human civilization. We hope that as long as tourists are respectful of the experience, it keeps continuing. https://www.mayawalk.com/belize-atm-cave-tour and https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g291969-d300696-Reviews-Actun_Tunichil_Muknal-Cayo.html
Day 2 - Tikal National Park (Guatemala) - As it is at the top of any "best of Mayan Ruins", Tikal National Park is the other "must-do" activity here. Tikal was once one of the most powerful kingdoms with the Mayan sphere which stretched across Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, etc. Archaeologists say that Tikal reached its zenith between 200-900 CE and had a complex understanding of astronomy and math. It boggles the mind that this civilization rose and fell with such impressive STEM knowledge while much of Northern Europe was still in a simpler state. The site is expansive and isn't even fully excavated. There are a number of impressive pyramids and ruins dotting the national park and you are still allowed to climb several of them so definitely take advantage of it while you can. Star Wars fans will recognize that Tikal National Park was staged as Rebel Base in Episode 4 and you get to re-enact the very location of the sentry in that scene. We again used MayaWalk Tours for this tour and they make this entire tour seamless. As you cross country borders into Guatemala: the tour fee includes entry/exit visa costs into/out of Guatemala including taking care of the paperwork, costs of entry into Tikal National Park itself, morning coffee, an included lunch, about 4 hours of round-trip driving, and of course a knowledgeable guide. When you add all of that up, you realize that initial price point makes more sense. Again we have nothing but praise for this tour group which was amazing. This was a long day roughly going from 6:30AM-4:30PM but absolutely worth it. https://www.mayawalk.com/belize-tikal-mayan-ruins-tour and https://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g292015-Tikal_National_Park_Peten_Department-Vacations.html
Day 3 - Green Iguana Conservation Project & Xunantunich Mayan Ruins - We spread this out over 2 days because we had some time to kill. But realistically, if you were so inclined, you could do all of this in one day. If you were to do this in one-day we recommend the following:
Green Iguana Conservation Project - In the AM, go to the Green Iguana Conservation Project for a quick stop. They have tours on the hour every hour at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (see above) and you will spend about 45 minutes for the whole thing. You get to observe, hold, and learn about green iguanas. They do some good work rehabilitating injured iguanas as well. https://www.sanignaciobelize.com/belize-iguana-tour and https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g291971-d1592346-Reviews-Green_Iguana_Conservation_Project-San_Ignacio_Cayo.html
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins - In the mid afternoon, head to Xunantunich Mayan Ruins. These are essentially in the Greater San Ignacio area so even if you saw Tikal, this is still worth checking out as its a hop, skip, and a jump away. If you have already done Tikal, we recommend you do this on your own (without a tour group) as you will save some $ (especially if you are travelling in a group of people). We basically took a cab on our own from the hotel down the Western Highway (about 20-30 minutes) to a ferry crossing along the Mopan River. At the ferry crossing (there is no bridge), you can pay the cab driver extra to put his car on the ferry and then he will quickly drive you up the hill to the entrance to the ruins in 2 minutes. The ferry is actually a man-powered manual crank to move across the river, which was a fun experience! We had never been on one of these before. Alternatively, you can just walk up the hill about 20 minutes to the ruins from the ferry crossing on your own. We would time getting to the ruins around 1-2PM and spend about 2 hours here. We believe the last ferry leaves around 4-4:30PM so make sure to get back down to the ferry in time. There are cabs that can take you back to San Ignacio when you cross the ferry back onto the Western Highway. This is one of the most impressive well-excavated Mayan archaeological sites in Belize and it's in your backdoor if you are staying in San Ignacio so definitely check it out. Climbing to the top of El Castillo pyramid offers a great view of the jungle. In fact, it is impressive enough that many cruise ship passengers from Belize City will take excursions from their ship to Xunantunich. But since many of them leave after lunch to head back to the ship, it is best to avoid the throngs of these tourists and come in the afternoon since you'll have more flexibility. As a side note, at the ferry crossing there are guides you can pay for a small fee that can give you some history about the ruins and site; however, since we already had gotten plenty of history on our Tikal and ATM tours, we decided to explore this on our own. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g291969-d300170-Reviews-Xunantunich-Cayo.html
If you were looking for other activities to do, there are plenty of other options including exploring the unique Belize Zoo or going kayaking or cave tubing. For ideas, I would refer to either TripAdvisor or the MayaWalk Tours website.