When I first announced my plans to head to Belize after several months in Guatemala, one of the first questions I got was whether I’d be able to have any “real” experiences in a county that elicits images of swaying palm trees, immaculate beaches and touristic experiences.
But although Belize — conveniently the only country in Central America whose official language is English — has a long coastline, one of the world’s best barrier reefs and vast supplies of clear, cerulean waters, it’s identity stretches far beyond the dispatches most often received.
My first glimpse of that reality came in San Ignacio — a little river town on the Western border that will live on as one of my favorite locales in my Central American travels thus far. Here, you’re only about 70 miles from the coast as the crow flies, but you’ll feel much farther away, surrounded by dirt roads, Mayan ruins — even within city limits — and a variety of cultural experiences. Walk down the main street and it will be immediately obvious that you’ve left Guatemala, even though you’re just over the border. Expect to smell curry, spice; you stop seeing much corn; that carbohydrate sustenance replaced plentifully by rice and beans. In addition to the expected Mayan and Hispanic influences, you’ll find a big population of Chinese, Asian Indians, Mennonite Germans and of course many of Creole backgrounds that lend great flavor and distinction to the food. You can hardly soak it up in a week, but I tried.
Here are some of my favorite finds:
Hi-Et Guesthouse: This multi-room guest house has some of the area’s best prices, boasts luxuriously soft sheets and bedding (a rarity in Central America) and gets a lovely cool breeze at night.
Find Hi-Et here.
The Wine House: If you’re craving a glass, this is the only spot in town to get it — solid wines to drink on the spot or to purchase for taking home.
Find the Wine House here.
Vivian’s Cafe: The java isn’t anything special but it’s one of the few places in town with both air conditioning and WiFi.
Find Vivian’s here.
Rodriguez BBQ: Little more than a grill under a tent along the main road in Santa Elena — San Ignacio’s sister city, just across the bridge — you’re sure to have a cheap, tasty meal, likely barbecue chicken with pineapple sauce and a fluffy, oversized tortilla.
Find Rodriguez here.
Xunantanich: Just a couple hours away over the Guatemala border, Tikal’s sprawling campus of Mayan ruins gets more attention but while it’s just a fraction of the size, Xunantanich competes when it comes to beauty and glorious views. Don’t neglect to climb to the top of X, the site’s highest temple, and don’t rush down either. Sitting atop the cool stone, imagining life in the courtyard below 2,000 years ago is an experience worth remembering.
Find Xunantunich here.
The New French Bakery: It might not look like much, but the pastries — particularly the donuts and stuffed croissants are excellent and no more than $1 (about $0.50 USD) apiece.
Find the New French Bakery here.
Farmer’s Market: Go on a Saturday, when the market’s size multiples to include throngs of food stalls (pupusas are plentiful and great) and vendors selling everything from fruit wine to carved slate artwork to wooden goods to ice cold coconuts. Don’t neglect to snap a pic at the beautiful river vista behind the market platform.
Find the farmer’s market here.
Montero’s BBQ Grill: Little barbecues, often attached to a house, are all over San Ignacio, usually trumping the higher priced restaurants in the town’s center in flavor and skill. This is another good example, with a super friendly owner and perfectly grilled chicken with all the fixins.
Find Montero’s here.
Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts: Ever wanted to learn to make hot chocolate the way the ancient Mayans once did? This is your place, offering a short class on a traditional grinding stone for just $25 (about $12.50 USD).
Find Ajaw here.
Cahal Pech: This smaller Mayan ruins site is walkable from the city center (hill-climbing is required but walkers will be rewarded with some of the city’s best views) and an intriguing way to spend a couple hours. There is a small museum as well.
Find Cahal Pech here.
Travellers Mayan Juice tasting room: The price of $30 Belize ($15 USD) is a steal considering this breezy class will cycle through at least eight different spirits with hefty, you’re-not-going-back-to-work-after-this pours. Bonus: there are indoor swings. You can also do a hot sauce tasting with Marie Sharp’s many excellent varieties in the same building.
Find Travellers here.
Lydia’s Fast Food: One of many fast food restaurants lining Savannah Street, the prices are more affordable than the popular-with-tourists Pop’s Restaurant and the fryjacks (you’ll get a huge basket of the freshly fried dough wedges) are on point.
Find Lydia’s here.
Branch Mouth Park: Where the Mopan and the Macal Rivers join and become the Belize rivers, on nice days this park is the destination for barbecues, swimming and tubing in the water. A very local experience.
Find Branch Mouth Park here.
Guava Limb: It hardly needs introduction after landing on a Travel Channel feature a couple years back, but while it’s among the highest priced spots in town, it is indeed very cute with a charming, candlelit covered patio and an intriguing menu different than anything else around town.
Find Guava Limb here.
Princess Casino/San Ignacio Resort Hotel: A casino in San Ignacio? Even the idea of it is jarring when compared to the town itself, but there it sits, just up hill from the center. And it’s not bad, either — clean and professional with a bar, lots of machines and a handful of tables. Go lose all the money you’ve saved.
Macal Park: Visit at golden hour for light bouncing off the trees and a symphony of birds.
Find Macal Park here.