San Ignacio

Free things to do, cheap places to eat and where to camp for free

town locals chilling by the river-side

Attractions

  1. San Ignacio Market San Ignacio Town
  2. Bullet Tree River Bullet Tree Falls Village
  3. Xunantunich Mayan Ruin San Jose Succotz
  4. Cahal Pech Mayan Ruin San Ignacio Town
  5. ATM Cave Tour Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
  6. Green Iguana Conservation Project San Ignacio Town
  7. Big Rock Falls Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
  8. Rio Frio Cave Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
  9. Thousand Foot Falls Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
  10. Barton Creek Cave Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
  11. Caracol Mayan Ruin Caracol Archeological Reserve
  12. AJAW Chocolate Tour San Ignacio Town

San Ignacio is natural, humble & authentic

San Ignacio Town has a perfect blend of locals and tourists with a unique influence from our Guatemalan neighbors. The people are humble, helpful and proud to be from this region.

San Ignacio and the Cayo District are easily one of Belize's top backpacking destination. It's filled with friendly locals and is packed with pristine nature. You'll find rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, adventure tours, street food and beautiful scenery. As a bonus, it's way more affordable than the islands.

Contents

In this backpacking guide, I'll be recommending free things to do, cheap places to eat and even where to camp for free.

Free things to do in San Ignacio

If you've backpacked anywhere before, you'll likely agree that the best experiences are almost always free. Why is that though? From my experience, cultural exchanges that don't involve a monetary transaction, are more authentic because little to nothing is expected in return.

Visit San Ignacio Market

San Ignacio Town happens to have one of the most vibrant and diverse markets in the entire country of Belize. It's open daily from 7:00 AM to around 6:00 PM. Walking around the market, you'll see a rainbow of colors and an interesting mix of people. The aroma from the grilled and fried dishes will make you want to try everything in sight.

On weekends, the market is busier than most days. It's filled with locals visiting from the surrounding villages restocking on supplies, enjoying street food, and swimming in the river.

local vendors smiling at farmers market
Photo of San Ignacio Market by Shane Gorski

Chill by the Macal River (Behind the San Ignacio Market)

After you're done exploring the colorful San Ignacio Market, you can stroll down by the river-side and people watch. To this day, I enjoy buying food, taking it by the river, and people watch. Locals tend to park by the riverside, bring their food and family and chill. During sunrise and sunset, the birds are calming to watch and hear.

There's nothing as calming as watching the river flow with a lush green jungle as the backdrop.

town locals chilling by the river-side
Photo of locals chilling by the Macal River

Swim at Bullet Tree Falls (Mopan River)

Bullet Tree Falls is a small village located six minutes away (by car) from San Ignacio Town and you can swim all along the riverside for free. You won't find this on a trip advis0r list because it's a local thing. The water is clean and refreshing, especially on a hot, humid day.

kids swimming at river
Photo of Bullet Tree Village River

Hitchhike to Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

This reserve is filled with the most beautiful, untouched areas in Belize. You can find the following sites in this area: Big Rock Waterfalls, Rio on Pools, Rio Frio Cave, 1000 Foot Falls, Caracol Mayan Ruins. Keep in mind that the entrance to Caracol Mayan Ruin is $5.00 USD, and it closes at 5:00 PM. It's best to go early if you plan on hitchhiking. The guards at the site can likely give you a ride back in town or close to town. The most surprising part of all this is that a tour to one of these attractions cost $85.00 USD which is a lot more expensive than tours in neighboring countries.

I've hitchhiked to these places countless times on the weekends. Locals from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena are known to take recreational trips to the reserve on weekends.

If hitchhiking is not your style, you can check hostels if they have any organized trips to the reserve and offer to pitch in with gas/petrol. This isn't free but better than paying the full tour cost.

girl jumping into waterfall in belize
Photo of Big Rock Falls at Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

Everyone has a different travel style. Some travelers like checking off an ultimate bucket list, and other's like going off the beaten path. From my experience, lists have a tendency to disappoint because expectations don't always match up with reality. In this section, I'll give you my brutally honest opinion on popular activities recommended on trip advis0r.

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins (Unguided Tour)

Xunantunich is one of the many ancient ruins in Belize. This one is special though and worth exploring from my point of view. It's a much larger and impressive complex compared to Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins, another ancient ruin in San Ignacio.

Fun Fact: Xunantunich means Stone Woman in Yucatec Maya.

The visit to Xunantunich includes a short trip over a manually-operated bridge and a 0.5 mile or 0.8 km hike uphill. Upon arriving at the complex, you have a choice of exploring different sites within the area with El Castillo being the largest ruin. On a lucky day, you might even see or hear howler monkeys on the trees. Their howling sound like dinosaur growls in Jurassic Park.

If you're a fan of birding, Xunantunich is a birder's paradise. Hiking up the trail early in the morning is the best time to spot local bird species. After buying your tickets, you can ask the guard or any worker to point you to the birder's trail within the complex. After visiting the ruins more times than I can count, this new birding trail reignited my curiosity for wildlife.

  • Entrance Fee: $5.00 USD per person
  • Opening Hours: 8:00 to 16:00 daily
girl doing cartwheel in front of mayan ruin
Photo of Xunantunich Mayan Ruin by Patricia Eaton

AJAW Chocolate Tour

I'm not a big fan of tours honestly but being a huge fan of chocolate makes this experience a no-brainer. The short chocolate tour shows you how the Mayas created their traditional chocolate from their precious superfood, the cacao.

Fun Fact: AJAW is a Mayan word that means Elite.

The instructor of the family owned business is Adrian, and he is knowledgeable, passionate and authentic. If you appreciate raw flavors, this will tickle your senses in all the right places. The entire process is immersive and fascinating to say the least.

AJAW offers longer tours that take you to the cacao farm to see the origin of the process.

  • Price: $14.00 USD per person
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Opening Hours: 9:00 to 18:00 (Closed on Sundays)
  • Note: Tours are done every hour
  • Website: AJAW Chocolate
ajaw chocolate office view
Photo of Ajaw Cholate Office by Wesley & Bran Rosenblum
making chocolate at ajaw belize
Photo of chocolate making at Ajaw

Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins

Cahal Pech can be seen as Xunantunich's little brother, smaller and wilder in nature. After visiting this ancient ruin couple of times, I began to appreciate its intricacies. The site is like an ancient jungle maze that's smack in the middle of town. The site's neighbors are literally local homes with people going about their daily business.

Fun Fact: Cahal Pech means Place of the Ticks in Yucatec Maya.

My recommendation is to go in early in the morning or late in the evening to catch all the birds that perch on the trees. I visited during the pandemic and was lucky enough to spot a tiny owl on a tree along with rodents running around the ruin.

The pandemic gave these sites time to heal and wildlife was able to wake up again. Traveling right now lets you see this, and you might even get the entire complex to yourself.

  • Price: $5.00 USD per person (Half price for locals)
  • Opening Hours: 8:00 to 17:00 daily
woman in the background of mayan ruin
Photo of Cahal Pech Mayan Ruin

ATM Cave Tour (Mandatory Tour Guide)

For many visitors, the ATM cave tour is the #1 reason they come to Belize. The cave experience has gained so much popularity that it's bordering a natural wonder of the world I think. At first, I thought this cave tour was overhype but after finally doing it, I personally think it's bloody unreal that a tour of this nature exits. Let me explain why.

Fun Fact: ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal​, another Mayan word.

This tour takes you into an underworld journey for about four hours, where you'll visit the sites where the Mayas did weird rituals in order to satisfy their Gods. The sacrifices yielded results that can be seen within hands reach.

While in the cave, you'll be crawling through small cracks and swimming through crystal-clear water as though you were in a Lara Craft video game. It's a surreal experience and my words don't justify it but the tour guides' words will.

The cave tour guides are all knowledgeable, passionate and entertaining. Partially, because there are only 25 certified tour guides that can conduct the ATM tour in the whole country. Most are of Mayan heritage which makes it extra special.

  • Price: $125 USD per person
  • Duration: 3 to 4 hours (In the cave)
  • Driving Time: 2 hours total
three people outside of atm cave in belize
Photo of ATM Cave Entrance by R. White

Green Iguana Conservation Project

This is tour is rated as the number one tour in San Ignacio. But is it worth it? If you love iguanas, I think it is, but it's not as impressive as the marketing hypes it up to be.

Upon arrival at the reserve, which is behind the San Ignacio Resort, I realized the site was a lot smaller than I thought. It didn't reflect the vibrant pictures you find online, which are over edited in my opinion. The entire reserve is a small cage with the iguanas running around happily eating their grub for the day. Now, the best part of the tour is the guide who shares with you interesting facts about the tiny dinosaurs.

Personally I'm not a big fan of caged up animals if I don't know how ethical their practices are, but that's just me. If I find new research about this project, I'll be sure to include it in the future.

  • Price: $11.25 USD per person
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Opening Hours: 8:00 to 16:00 daily
  • Note: Tours available at 9:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00
  • Website: Green Iguana Conservation Project
green iguana sleeping
Photo of Green Iguana by Iguana Project

Cheap places to eat (Vegan options included)

If you enjoy unique flavors, Belizean food will surprise you with many of its dishes inspired by cuisines from all our neighboring countries. San Ignacio has a unique food options given its immigrant influence from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Remember, by spending your dollars at locally-owned small restaurants and food stalls, you're closer to directly supporting the local Belize economy.

San Ignacio Market

This local market is one of the best market's in the entire country. It's filled with food vendors that cook traditional dishes and serve them just like locals eat them at home. Local dishes include rice & beans, tamales, salbutes, panades, pupusas, fresh juices, coconut water, baked goods and other dishes.

Vegan Option: For dishes that include fillings like tamales, salbutes, or pupusas, ask for the filling to be beans or vegetables instead. And for dishes like rice & beans, ask for the meat to be replaced with veggies.

There are a number of food stalls within the compound, all serving equally delicious dishes. My personal favorite are pupusas, which you can see in the picture below.

  • Average Price: $2.00 USD per plate
  • Opening Hours: 7:00 to 14:00 daily
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps

Restaurante Típico Salvadoreños

Because of my intimate love affair with pupasas, my friends recommended me this food spot. Their specialty is pupusas, which are small tortilla looking food that is packed with one of a combo of these fillings: beans, cheese, mora, chipilin, or meat.

Vegan Option: I recommend getting pupusas with mora/chipilin filling which is a type of green leaf that resembles Spinach.

The restaurant serves other dishes like panades, burritos, and salbutes which are greasy but tasty. The drinks are good but may have too much sugar. If you're on a budget, I recommend taking your own water because drinks cost as much as the food.

  • Average Price: $2.50 USD per plate
  • Opening Hours: 10:00 to 20:00 daily (Closes earlier on Wednesdays)
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps
pupusas with restaurant name in the background
Photo of Restaurante Típico Salvadoreño by Roni Martinez

Cenaida's Belizean Food

Cenaida's is a special little food joint found in center of town. It's always filled with local people because the food is good and cheap. They have a wide range of dishes on their menu including specials for the day.

Vegan Option: My favorite is the traditional rice & beans. I normally ask them to give me vegetables instead of the meat, and it's immediately vegan.

The rice & beans dish has a ton of flavor since it's cooked with coconut milk over a fire heart, which is the traditional way of preparing it.

  • Average Price: $4.00 USD per plate
  • Opening Hours: 11:00 to 21:00 daily (Closes earlier on Wednesdays)
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps
rice and beans served at cenaidas restaurant
Photo of rice & beans served at Cenaida's Belizean Food

Mike's Kitchen

While the local's recommend foreigners to eat at Pop's Restaurant, Mike's kitchen is where all the locals go for breakfast. It's located right in front of the San Ignacio Market beside Lydia's. For breakfast, they offer beans, eggs and fry jacks. And for lunch the offer the traditional Belizean rice & beans. Nothing fancy, but the flavors are rich.

Vegan Option: For breakfast, I suggest asking the staff to replace the egg with roasted veggies to enjoy with your fry jacks and beans.

  • Average Price: $2.00 USD per ice cream
  • Opening Hours: 5:00 to 9:00 daily
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps
fry jacks, beans and roasted veggies
Photo of dish served at Mike's Kitchen

Ko-ox Ha-nah

Ko-ox Ha-nah means let's go eat in Mayan language. It's one of the most popular spots in San Ignacio but for a good reason. It's centrally located, and they offer fair prices and good service.

Vegan Options: Their menu includes vegetarian options which can quickly be changed vegan by asking them to remove the cheese or eggs.

  • Average Price: $5.00 USD per ice cream
  • Opening Hours: 8:00 to 20:30 Daily (Closed on Sundays)
  • Website: Koox-Hannah
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps
  • Extra: Offers Wifi

Authentic Flavors

This restaurant is family owned by a lovey Garifuna lady. Her dishes are all locally-inspired with an emphasis on Garifuna cuisine. The plates include ingredients like coconut milk, curry, plantains and cassava.

Vegan Options: This place has vegan options the last time I checked.

  • Average Price: $5.00 USD per plate
  • Opening Hours: 6:00 to 22:00 Daily
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps

Cayo Twist

This isn't a restaurant, but they sell vegan ice cream (non-dairy). Who would have thought this existed in the little town of San Ignacio? They sell all sorts of flavors and I love them all especially the ones with local ingredients like the rum and raisin & soursop. Give this place a visit and have fun trying out all the flavors. You'll love them :)

  • Average Price: $2.00 USD per ice cream
  • Opening Hours: 18:00 to 20:30 (Closed on Tuesday and Wednesday)
  • Location: Open in g00gle maps

Hidden Gems (You won't find on g00gle maps)

There are street vendors you won't find online because locals find them through word of mouth. I stumbled on these little hole in the walls because I lived in San Ignacio and my friends told me to check it out. Who knows the place better than locals right?

No Name Fast Food

There's a small place beside Tai San Store (Chinese Supermarket) where food vendors setup their tent and sell good old fast food.

This place is crowded every night. It's hard to miss it. The menu has choices like: burritos, panades, salbutes and other fried food. It's cheap and tasty. The only caveat is that it only opens at night. All you have to do is put in your order a foreign lady that speaks Spanish will start working on it right in front of you.

Fun Fact: Locals call street food nice and nasty because the special flavors supposedly come from the vendors not washing their hands. Belizeans have an interesting sense of humor.

fast food joint with no name
Photo of No Name Fast Food Place

Creole Bread Lady

Creole bread is one of the tastiest bread in Belize. The secret sauce is in the coconut milk. From my experience, most of the vendors selling creole bread are creole moms selling to put their kids through high school or college.

If you're in San Ignacio, take a walk across the metal bridge and walk to main highway in Santa Elena Town. You'll find vendors lined up selling creole bread and other homemade treats like sweet bread, powder bun and coconut crusts. Each bread cost around $0.50 USD each.

If you don't want to walk too much, there is a vendor right in front of the San Ignacio Market. She sits at the other side of the pedestrian ramp selling creole bread and coconut crust.

Choco Banana Lady

This is a small shop that I found while walking the streets of Santa Elena one day. They sell chocolate-covered, frozen bananas with nuts on top. It sounds simple, but it's delicious, and it only costs about $0.50 USD each. As mentioned before, this store isn't on the maps but I linked a store that's beside the shop.

Garnaches Lady

This is another place a friend recommended me when I moved to San Ignacio Town. Locals love partying and drinking on weekends and then have a craving for tasty cheap food. Garnaches happen to be the perfect snack to get after a long night. It's a circular tortilla chip with beans, cheese, and hot pepper sauce. It's tasty, cheap and can be made vegan by leaving out the cheese. The vendor comes out at night, but you can catch her in front of the Tai San Chinese Store.

Fun Fact: Belizeans have an internal rivalry among people that eat ganaches with ketchup and people that hate eating it with ketchup. It's similar to the pineapple with pizza debate.

girl preparing garnaches
Photo of vendors preparing garnaches

Paradise Ice Cream

This is an old local store that sells homemade dairy ice cream with locally sourced ingredients. It's cost about $1.00 USD. Try the local flavors of sour sop or rum and raisin. The store is in front of Courts Belize and is open almost every day.

paradise ice cream shop
Photo of Paradise Ice Cream Shop

Free and paid places to camp in San Ignacio

Camping in Belize is easy if you know where to go. Unlike other countries, there aren't much illegal camping zones and the police don't worry about campers since it's not a common activity.

Here are a few spots in the Cayo District that most travelers have camped on with little problems.

Bullet Tree Village

In this small village, you can camp anywhere along the river. Be sure to ask permission from the locals. This village is six minutes away by car from the center of San Ignacio Town (4km or 2.5 miles). If you take a colectivo taxi, it would cost you $1.00 USD per person to get there.

Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve

This reserve has multiple areas to camp but if you want to legally camp and have access to a bathroom, I would suggest staying at Pine Ridge Lodge where you would pay $5.00 USD per night which is cheap. This place offers small cottages in addition to the camping ground.

All the other attractions in Mountain Pine Ridge like Big Rock Falls, Rio on Pools, Rio Frio Cave have signs that say No camping but if you stay late enough, no one will bother you on weekdays since most people leave as soon as sunsets. Moreover, officials don't guard any of these places at night except for Caracol Mayan Ruin.

If you wish to camp somewhere away from the reserve, there are two villages you must pass before entering the Reserve called Cristo Rey Village and San Antonio Village. The people here are kind, and they will gladly help you find a camping spot or even give you a small area in their yard to camp.

Hopefully, this long guide helps you experience an authentic side of San Ignacio and the Cayo District.

Until next time :)