With 4 days in the Cayes now behind us, we headed inland. I’d heard of a great chocolate shop in San Ignacio, directly on our way to Flores in Guatemala, it would be silly not to go. We also knew there were some great deep caves in the jungle and much less touristy ruins (compared to Tulum and Tikal). Although a tourist hub, many people skip San Ignacio, preferring to take the direct shuttle bus from Belize City to Flores. We were so glad we didn’t as this little town really has a lot to offer to easily cover in two days.
San Ignacio is actually the second largest settlement in Belize after Belize City. It earned its original name ‘El Cuyo’ meaning Island in Spanish from being surrounded by rivers and a creek, but then the creek dried up and now there is only one river which requires the Hawkesworth Bridge, the only suspension bridge in the country, to cross it. Before the Spanish, Belize was inhabited by the Maya and several ruins survive today showcasing their existence. Closest to town is Cahal Pech, but there are others including; Caracol, Xunantunich and El Pilarl.
After the fall of the Maya, ongoing squabbles between Spain and Britain over Belize continued until the mid 20th century when Belize began seeking independence from Britain. According to some reports, Mennonites hailing from Mexico who settled in Western Belize indirectly supported Belize’s eventual independence through providing food, by farming the land untouched by earlier settlers.
Nowadays Mennonite communities are responsible for over 80% of Belize’s agricultural produce; mainly grains, dairy and oranges. We saw glimpses of Mennonite culture as we passed white farm gates with neatly manicured meadows and fields. But Belize is not without its troubles, Guatemala still claims it owns some or all of Belize and we saw evidence of this on alot of Guatemalan maps showing Belize as the 25th state of Guatemala!!
After leaving Caye Culker on the first water taxi of the day (about 630am) and having to pay another port tax at Belize City port, we made a beeline for the bus station. Belize City isn’t the nicest of places, so we did this connection during the day. Given the amount of hassle we got at about 9am in the morning I can only imagine what it’s like at night!! Yes there is a shuttle bus by ADO from Belize City direct to Flores that goes through San Ignacio, but it doesn’tt actually stop there. So instead we took a Belize ‘chicken bus’ (pimped out old American school bus) for $8 BZ each from Belize City to San Ignacio. The bus had to be full before we set off, so we spent the 4-5 hours folded into our seats with our bags balanced precariously on top of us. There was a pit stop at a funny little town called Belmopan (which actually turns out to be the capital, even though its smaller than Belize City or San Ignacio) for a quick pee and some snacks.
We arrived in San Ignacio, heading straight to The Old House Hostel – which was part way up the steep hill leading to Cahal Pech. A great little place, lovely verandah to chill out in the evening, well equipped kitchen, nice spacious rooms, shared bathroom and the coolest ‘Ginger Ninja’ cat in existence. This is not a party hostel, but it is also not a boring hostel as everyone is sociable and eager to make friends. Once room sorting and bag dropping was done, and I had finally convinced the Ginger Ninja that there were better things to do than provoke Sam and lie on my scarf, it was time to head out and explore!
The ruins of Cahal Pech stand as an impressive testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Maya people of pre-colonial Belize. At the ruins site there is also a small museum with interesting historical perspective on this area of previously Maya county. Most people focus on Chetumal, Tulum, Tikal, I for one am really glad we included this in our trip as it gives perspective on just how far reaching the Mayan civilisation actually was, and the squabbles that ensued between different Maya settlements! According to one calendar in the museum, there were many conflicts between Tikal in Guatemala and one of the sites, Caracol, in Belize, resulting in the capture of one of Tikal’s great leaders, ‘Double Bird’ who was then sacrificed by Lord Water of Caracol.
Some discoveries have lead to the belief that Cahal Pech was predominantly used for ritual purposes, featuring the earliest carved Stela in Belize, coming into existence around 200 – 100 BC. Stela are believed to be altars, possibly used in some form of sacrifice or worship. Since most of the Maya codeces were destroyed with the invasion of Spanish Catholics, any inscriptions that are found are all but impossible to decipher, so no one can work out what the stela were really for. Further discoveries at these sites show Maya used vessels to consume cacao as a drink, and also proof of trade between settlements has revealed dried cacao seeds were used as a form of currency.
After exploring the ancient delights ofCahal Pech, it was time to explore another site of San Ignacio, the Ajaw chocolate shop, well worth a visit with some interesting products to try. Made by hand by those who run it, they also host workshops and chocolate tastings within the space. They use beans from Maya Mountain, from farms in the south of Belize and actually have listed on the walls some useful words in Quechua Mayan language. We grabbed some samples to take, which went down all too quickly, not just because they started melting as soon as we left the shop! We were delighted to find they too had that traditional Belizian zestyness we had originally discovered with Belize Chocolate Company, despite being a very dark chocolate at around 80%.
As is the way in the tropics; where there is chocolate there is rum, so understandably that evening we’d sniffed out a rum store hosting rum tastings. We were taken through all the rums in the famous Belize ‘Traveller’s Rum’ range (yes, including the paint stripper rum that had so ruined me on Caye Caulker!). With this tasting we were also treated to a talk on the history of rum production in Belize. Given that sugar had been cultivated in Belize since 1848 by Yucatan immigrants, it wasn’t until only 70 years ago that rum making actually started here, this is due to the fact Belize was taxed heavily for molasses – the by product of sugar – which was then sent to other British colonies for rum making. As a result, locals were unable to afford to keep the molasses in the country and so would sell it on. We also learnt about the heads, hearts and tails of rum and what constitutes a good rum. My favourite was ‘Travellers’ rum – 1 barrel, 5 year aged.
Now feeling somewhat merry from the tasting, we wandered down to the main square where a live band were setting up. It turned out we were here just in time for the annual long boat race, which starts from the little river in San Ignacio, with competitors rowing all the way to the mouth of it, by Belize City. Given that the race kicked off at 5am the next day, we sensibly decided we would just come for the pre-race kick off party.
Still on a Fry Jack obsession, we scouted a couple of good places here, but directions left a lot to be desired, given we were told ‘just go to Chicken Road 1 and you’ll find it there on the left’. We didn’t find any semblance of anything food stall-esq, but we did find a garden full of little kids who seemed to be twerking to someone’s gangsta rap booming from within the adjoining house.
We eventually found what we think was the right food place, a little shack on the main road, without a sign, no where near what we thought was ‘Chicken Road 1’. I realise this is not helpful, but if you ask at your hostel they may be able to give you better directions. We did, however, find a knockout place for dinner. Down in the main square we come across a couple of street food stalls that seemed to be ran by an entire family; father mother and the kids, packed to the rafters with food and locals. We tucked in here, it was affordable and tasted sooooo goooooood!! (Add directions)
Next morning was a relatively early start, which would have been fine if my stomach hadn’t decided to morph into soup the night before, resulting in my staking claim to the porcelain throne for a lot longer than I was comfortable with. Eventually free, and with enough Imodium and rehydration salts to restock half of Boots, I boarded the bus. I had finally reached my bod’s limit of Fry Jacks.
The ATM (Actun Tunichil Minal, or ‘Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre’) tours are marginally cheaper than the ‘crystal cave’ tours, still included crystalised skeletons, and are (apparently) less intense. Having said that we still found ourselves swimming through a very deep and intricate waterway in the dark, on occasion having to squeeze through impossibly thin cracks in the rock with cut throat sharp edges, to get through the whole system.
Bats abound a plenty and we found them high up in the belly of the caves, along with ridiculous looking predatory spiders (that actually look like a cross between a crab and a locust!), fresh water crabs and an array of tropical fish – including some that happily nibbled at the sunburn on our shoulders. After swimming, wading, squeezing and climbing up bare foot over large boulders, we reached our destination – a plateau strewn with Mayan artefacts, skeleton parts and, at the very top, a well preserved crystallised skeleton from god knows how long ago. Sadly, as a result of some daft tourist dropping their camera on a crystallised child’s skull and breaking it (you can still see the hole even now), all cameras and recording equipment are banned, to prevent the same misfortune happening again. Many artefacts have been found incredible well preserved, and one pot in particular (creatively called ‘The Monkey Pot’) bears a ‘signature’ resembling a monkey.
Be warned – you must pee before entering the cave (there will be no toilets inside and you cannot pee in the water, you’re all swimming through it so that would just be gross). Before leaving the tour bus make sure you’ve locked away all valuables in your bags and don’t have anything of importance on you that can get soggy. There’s always one person who leaves their wallet in their pocket – don’t be that person!
The cheapest Option
Chicken bus San Ignacio to Benque Viejo Del Carmento > taxi to the boarder > exit Belize and enter Guatemala (there should be no fees to pay for either) > a taxi from Guatemala boarder side to Melchior de Mencos > chicken bus to Santa Elena > Tuk Tuk over the bridge to Isla de Flores.
The fastest Option
Taxi from San Ignacio to Belize boarder > exit Belize and enter Guatemala > walk over bridge past the army barracks on your left, first road on your left after the barracks takes you to the ‘Colectivos’ (minibus / minivan) area on your right hand side > Colectivo to Santa Elena > Tuk tuk to Isla de Flores.
We took the fasted option, as there were four of us. Based on a tip off from our taxi driver, we exchanged money at the boarder – on the Belizian side for better rates. Look for the man with an ID card around his neck stating he is an official money exchanger, and always calculate your rate on your phone first to double check they aren’t trying to be sneaky. We then drifted through immigration; receiving our exit stamp from Belize from one booth, and walking two steps over a grubby yellow line to the Guatemala booth (literally just next to the Belize one) to receive our Guatemala entrance stamp, granting us 90 days. (Guatemala is part of the CA-4 or Central American Four; comprising Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, so these 90 days cover you for all of those countries (although Honduras believe they are no longer part of it, so they charge you entry fee to Honduras). Anyway, it’s worth checking your itinerary to make sure you are not staying over a total of 90 days though these four countries).
Well that was easy, or so we thought. Walking past the lorries and other large vehicles towards the bridge and the collectivos, we were approached by armed guards who directed us to a small trestle table under what seemed to be some sort of old hanger. From what we understood, we were not allowed to pass over the bridge until we had entered this other area to pay our ‘Guatemalan entry fee’. According to many reports this payment is subject to change (we paid Q20 – Quetzales / $3USD each in early March 2018), is actually a scam, and I’m sure if our Spanish was good enough we could have talked our way out of it. But we figured it was not worth the hassle of an argument with a gun in your face in pidgin Spanish.
Once paid we made our way over the little bridge until we saw the Colectivos on the left. Then it was haggle, haggle, HAGGLE!! All online reports had said to pay no more than 60QZ per person which should include 5QZ for the Tuk Tuk driver. Warning: the minibus driver will try and scam you at the end saying a higher fee which will not include the tuk tuk fee.. Stick to the price you haggled to and pay the Tuk Tuk driver separately.