Cradled in a valley carved by the Macal and Mopan rivers the sister towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena combine to form the country’s second largest population center. Drivers arrive at San Ignacio on the Western Highway 70 miles from Belize City in approximately 90 minutes. Towering over the Macal River, the colonial era Hawksworth Bridge is a one-lane suspension bridge built in 1949 and carries traffic east from Santa Elena to San Ignacio. Video above is of the very popular San Ian Ignacio Market Day that attracts lots of local, expats and tourists on weekends.
Benque Viejo del Carmen, a mestizo village two miles shy of the Guatemalan border, comes alive during its July fiesta, which honors the village’s patron saint with shows, food, and games. On Good Friday, Christians from around the country come for the dramatic Passion of Christ procession. More annual events include the San Ignacio Easter Fair, the San Jose Succotz Festival in March, and Cayo Expo in May.
San Ignacio visitors can actually walk to the impressive Maya site of Cahal Pech. Perched atop a hill just a mile from town, it rewards the 15-minute hike with a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley. A museum and visitors center displays Maya artifacts, open 8 am. to 5 p.m. Bullet Tree Road leads to the 100 acre, archaeological reserve of El Pilar, which means “Water Basin” the site of an annual celebration of Maya culture each April. Hike or ride horseback to a pair of fascinating sinkholes. Resorts on the Benque Viejo Road, offers guided night jungle walks to observe nocturnal plants and animals. Maya guides demonstrate how sap is extracted from the sapodilla tree, source of chicle.
The grand Maya city of Xunantunich,which means “Maiden of the Rock” towers 130 feet tall, eight miles west of San Ignacio. Fit climbers reach the top of El Castillo, adorned by an impressive architectural frieze, for a sweeping view of Cayo to the east and Guatemala to the west. To reach Xunantunich from the village of San Jose Succotz, a hand-cranked ferry carries vehicles across the Mopan River. The archaeological site has a refreshment stand, gift shop, and visitor center, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To see remains of the first Spanish mission in Belize, take Chial Road (off Western Highway mile 75) to Negroman and the overgrown site of Tipu. At the end of the road at Black Rock River, a leisurely 40 minute hike past interesting black slate formations and 800 foot cliffs ends up at Vaca Falls. Spelunking expeditions combine history and adventure for healthy hikers with professional guides and the right equipment. Che Chem Ha Cave (Chumpiate Cave), in the Vaca Plateau area, houses one of the largest caches of intact pots in the ancient Maya world. Go on horseback to discover more pots, tools, and burial sites at nearby Flour Camp Cave (U’chen Tzub). The nearby Waterhole Cavern (Actun Chapat), harbors rare bats.
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