Recently I had the opportunity to spend a week in San Ignacio, Belize. It is one of my favorite locations in the country. The mountains in the western portion of the country are breathtaking, and home to copious amounts of wildlife and vegetation. The colors are so intensely brilliant that they can be blinding. So what do I do when I’m there? Mainly work. I know, not the most exciting response in a location as amazing as Belize. But, where better to work? There are so many things to do in your down time, it makes working seem like a vacation.
The ruins in this part of the country, on the boarder with Guatemala, are stunning. There are a number of significant finds that dot the country side. My favorites include Caracol and Xunantunich. Xunantunich is closer to the city of San Ignacio, only about 5 miles outside of town, and accessible by a small, hand cranked river ferry. The ferry is a walk on ferry that allows passengers to enter first, with vehicles behind. The ride is only about two to three minutes long, but necessary to visit the site.
Once off the ferry, you will walk up a hill to the visitor’s center. Pay your entrance fee (the set rate is $5.00 US for visitors at all Mayan sites country wide) and enter with a guided tour or on your own. I highly recommend taking advantage of one of the local guides. All guides are Tourism Board certified and are required to pass a rigorous examination prior to becoming a guide. Many of the guides at Xunantunich are graduates of nearby Sacred Heart Junior College, located in the heart of San Ignacio Town.
Your guide will then proceed to take you to the various plazas, temples and areas of Xunantunich. The most impressive temple is located near the center of the city complex and is crested by a tower and beautifully detailed frieze featuring beautiful Mayan carvings. My favorite part of this particular site is the intact ball court that still exists. You can get an idea of the level of skill that the famous (maybe infamous) ball game that the Mayans are known for. This game is a bit of a cross between basketball and soccer, and was played by the most elite athletes in each society. At the end of the game, the WINNERS were willing sacrifices to the Gods. Why the winners? Because you offer your best warriors to the Gods, not your second best. Carefully climb the steps to the top of the temple to the top of the site and appreciate the view up close, as well as a view of Guatemala as you are about 5 minutes from the closest border in Benque.
At this time, I would not recommend traveling in Guatemala by car, but that I my preference. If I chose to travel there, I would take Tropic Air. While I have visited Guatemala by car, it was over a decade ago now, and I have been told that the long and lonely car trip can be dangerous for tourists now. Don’t take chances. I have never felt unsafe on the Belizean side of the border, but you should always make sure you are aware of your surroundings, not placing yourself in situations where you could experience issues (just like in any major city world wide) and avoid travel with other people.
Caracol is another amazing ruin in the province of Cayo. Again on the western border with Guatemala, but about 2 hours south from San Ignacio by car. This journey can be grueling and is located in a very remote portion of the country. The border is very porous and there is a great deal of informal crossing in the jungles – stay with your guide. The observatory is my favorite feature of this site. The depth of knowledge that the Mayan cultures developed by simple observation and application of their theories never fails to astound me. Their knowledge of time, the Earth’s rhythms and cycles, and the detailed workings of how the Earth and sky exist in relation to each other is nothing short of mind numbing in its complexity – but before modern civilizations ever stepped foot on the continent, their knowledge base was more in depth than leading scientists of the day in Europe. Fascinating!
Animals and plants are at home in the jungles that surround the sites. You quickly realize just how quickly the jungle will reclaim space that humans borrow when you visit the excavated sites and view some of the unexcavated or recovered temple mounds. I love that the country has a commitment to learning what they can and protecting what they have. In my last visit to Xunantunich, a troupe of Howler Monkeys were lazily hanging out in the tops of trees waiting on the heat of the afternoon to dissipate a bit. I have seen them in the trees at Caracol, but particularly enjoyed viewing the coatimundi forage for food in the later hours of the day. These days, I would suggest being out of the park no later than 4:00. The jungles are dense, the boarder is largely a suggestion, and the location is very remote. You are required to wait for an armed escort into the area (for your safety) and then again back out of the site. Go with an organized tour company that has experience in this region, that is prepared for small emergencies (too much sun, twisted ankles, etc.) and is Tourism Board certified to make sure you capitalize on your adventure. This is one of the most wildly serene and remote locations I have visited in this part of the country. It is best to allow the locals to interpret the site and help you navigate here.
Cahal Pech (place of ticks in Mayan) is a charming (yes, something with the word tick in the name can be charming) small site that is located in the heart of town. There are guides at this site, and they are knowledgeable, but you can explore on your own if you want. The site has great small temples that you can climb (be careful coming down – especially in the rain) as well as lovely flowers and some animal life. This small enclave was home to up to 20,000 Maya in its height. It is very easy to walk from down town San Ignacio up the hill to this site in 10 to 15 minutes depending on the location of your guest house.
While you want to take great photos and have amazing adventures that are Instagram ready, be sure you think about your health and comfort when visiting the sites. There will be little shade, so wear a hat, sun glasses and good shoes. Do I sound like your Mother yet? I should, and she’s right (wasn’t she always?). The Central American sun is no joke and will blind and burn quickly. The glare in the mid afternoon can give you a headache and make it difficult to navigate the steep, sharp rock facades of the temples you will certainly want to climb. Be sure to take plenty of water for each member of your party. If you are visiting in the hotter part of the year, it will be critical for your health. You will sweat out the majority of what you take in and it happens very fast. No one wants to suffer heat exhaustion in the middle of a jungle with little access to timely medical attention. If a rain shower pops up during the afternoon, go ahead and visit. Rain showers (especially in the dry season) are quick and cool down the ambient temperatures. The downside is that they also make the rock faces very slippery – hence the good shoes. The last items you will want to consider are bug spray and sun screen. My suggestion if you are a pasty pale tail like myself is to use SPF 50 or higher.
I love to visit the Mayan sites. I learn something new or find a new species of plant or animal life each time I go. Bird lovers will delight in the environment in general, but especially in the preserves around the Mayan sites. The government is tremendously protective of these areas, much to the benefit of the furry and feathered residents. There are snakes and tarantulas but no self respecting snake or tarantella will show themselves without someone going to look. Please don’t. Let the wild life do their thing and enjoy your visit to the sites. Guides earn minimal salaries from their jobs, so please, tip generously.
If you want to learn more about service in Belize, visit Ardenti Global Learning. I have personally seen their project results in the communities I work in and would highly recommend them as a service learning provider. I do not have any affiliation or financial arrangement with Ardenti, all opinions are my own.