On the west bank of the Macal River, about 35km from Belmopan, San Ignacio is a friendly, relaxed town that draws together the best of inland Belize. Surrounded by fast-flowing rivers and forested hills, it’s an ideal base from which to explore the region, offering a pleasant climate, good food, inexpensive hotels and frequent bus connections. The town is usually referred to as Cayo by locals, the same word that the Spanish used to describe the offshore islands – an apt description of the area, which is set in a peninsula between two converging rivers. The early Spanish Conquest in 1544 made little impact here, and the area was a centre of rebellion in the following decades. Spanish friars arrived in 1618, but the population continued to practice “idolatry”, and in 1641 Maya priests threw out some Spanish clerics. Tipu, the region’s capital, retained a measure of independence until 1707, when the population was forcibly removed to Guatemala.
There’s little to do in San Ignacio proper, though relative to other Belizean towns, you can spend many pleasant days here, as it’s both relaxed and low-hassle and the streets of the centre are lined with good bars and restaurants, many of which are inexpensive. The Saturday market, meanwhile, is the best in Belize, with local farmers bringing in plentiful fresh produce. Numerous independent tour operators offer superb guided trips to nearby attractions, including Actun Tunichil Muknal and Caracol on the borders of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. There’s some turnover among tour operators, so it’s always worth asking at your hotel about what’s currently being offered. The town also has some of the best-value budget accommodation in the country, and you’ll almost always find space.