Deep in the Belizean jungle close to the border with Guatemala is the beautiful town of San Ignacio. The Macal River runs right through town, and it’s a popular place for exploring by canoe or kayak.
San Ignacio is at the heart of the Cayo district of Belize. It’s a great jumping-off point for exploring Belizean nature, culture, and history.
It’s also the perfect counterpoint to relaxing on the beaches of San Pedro or Caye Caulker, and mixing some adventure and culture in San Ignacio is a great way to round out a beachy Belize itinerary.
San Ignacio is located in an area of Belize where many Mayan ruins are located. It’s quite easy to visit many of these caves on a day trip!
Best Way to Do These Belize Day Trips
You can rent a car for Belize if you want to do these day trips on your own, or you can opt for a guided tour.
Personally, I’ve never rented a car in Belize and have always gone with guided tours, as I like the expert touch you get from a licensed tour guide.
I learn more about the history and the culture this way, as your professional guide has to have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of the history to be a guide in Belize!
It’s also a lot less stressful, especially for me as I often travel solo, since they handle pick up, drop off, and often a meal as well.
I tend to book my tours in Belize via Get Your Guide whenever possible, because they offer the best cancellation policy if my plans change (free cancellation within 24 hours of the tour!).
However, if you are traveling as a family or in a large group, you might find that renting a car is better suited for your needs.
If you are renting a car, I suggest picking up your car at Belize City International Airport for the best price. I use and love Discover Cars whenever I’m traveling outside of the United States.
Discover Cars searches through over 500 different car rental providers in order to find the best price for your rental. Check what’s available from Belize City Airport here!
Where to Stay in San Ignacio
I’ve written a full guide to the best eco-resorts and jungle lodges in San Ignacio, but here are my quick picks!
BUDGET | Cahal Pech Village Resort:It’s a testament to how green Belize is that you barely have to leave the city of San Ignacio to feel like you’re in your own personal jungle paradise!
There are lush trees planted everywhere and an infinity-style pool overlooking the river valley below. The Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech are located right nearby the eco-resort, a couple of blocks away!
MID-RANGE | Mystic River Resort: This resort offers some of the most incredible views you’ll ever see. It’s located in the jungles of Belize, up on a cliff with stunning views over the beloved Macal River.
Located 7 miles away from San Ignacio, all you need is at your fingertips, including an open-air restaurant, an inventive bar specializing in fun cocktails, a full-service spa, a pool with rainforest surroundings, and a yoga deck.
LUXURY | The Lodge at Chaa Creek: If you are after a once-in-a-lifetime stay in an eco-lodge in Belize… look no further. Chaa Creek is a next-tier incredible resort that’s known for its beautiful natural surroundings.
The rooms are incredibly airy and spacious, with high-ceilinged thatch roofing and thoughtful details like beautiful textiles and local flowers. Outside your bungalow, you’ll find countless trees and plant life surrounding you and wake up to the sounds of birds and monkeys in the jungle.
Located on the Macal River, Chaa Creek offers activities like canoeing and kayaking down the river. You can also go for a swim in their infinity pool, try some “jungle cuisine” in their dining room made from local organic produce, or admire the butterflies at their butterfly exhibit.
Best Day Trips from San Ignacio, Belize
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave)
Of all the day trips in Belize you could possibly choose from, this is my absolute favorite. In my mind, a trip to Belize without visiting ATM Cave just isn’t a Belize trip at all.
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave (called the ATM Cave for short) is an incredible cave system that you can only traverse with a licensed guide in a small group.
Permits and cave access to tourists are strictly limited in order to keep these caves preserved for future generations, as some parts of the cave were damaged in the past by tourists, unfortunately.
This is not an activity for the faint of heart! Doing an ATM Cave tour involves using a headlamp as your only light source, swimming through the cave, squeezing through some narrow parts of the cave system, and climbing up into the main cave atrium.
While I loved visiting the ATM Cave so much, if you have severe claustrophobia, this is not the San Ignacio excursion for you! The cave is dark and narrow in some places.
Despite some moments of trepidation, though, I found the ATM Cave absolutely worth it! Read my full review of the experience here.
Inside the cave, you’ll find ancient pottery fragments as well as skulls and skeletons. These are the remains of human sacrifices that the ancient Maya people left in the cave. The cave was considered part of the Mayan underworld, where people could connect to the gods who ruled over death.
Archaeologists believe this was done to appease their gods as their civilization faced challenges such as drought and fighting between rival groups. It seemed not to work: not too long after the sacrifices were left, the Mayan civilization would slowly disappear.
Another fantastic place to visit near San Ignacio on a day trip is the Caracol Ruins archaeological site.
These are the largest Mayan ruins in Belize, and they are relatively under-visited compared to many other ruins in Central America.
The ruins of Caracol are beautiful and impressive, and one of the coolest things is that you can climb the pyramids there, unlike many pyramids in Mexico which have closed off the climbing to tourists.
From the top of the largest pyramid in the Caracol complex, you can even look over the border into Guatemala!
A trip to Caracol is easily paired with some incredible nature as well. On a guided tour to Caracol, you can also hike through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, visit the Rio Frio Cave, and check out either the Rio-On Pools or the Big Rock Falls — all in a single day.
Trust me — you’ll relish a dunk in the waterfalls after spending the morning and early afternoon visiting the ruins in the hot Belizean sun!
Barton Creek Cave Reserve
Another fascinating cave system near San Ignacio is the Barton Creek Cave Reserve. Like ATM Cave, there is ample evidence of use by the Maya people.
Barton Creek is interesting, because the town itself is home to a Mennonite (Amish) settlement! There are actually a large number of Mennonites in Belize, over 10,000 of them actually — most of whom live in Cayo District.
Once you arrive at Barton Creek Cave, you’ll be able to explore it by canoeing through it! This is a great way to experience the caves in a peaceful way while learning about the history of this ancient Maya site — as well as Mayan traditions, rituals, and ceremonies — from a knowledgeable local guide.
Belmopan is the capital of Belize and it’s an easy day trip from San Ignacio.
For a capital city, Belmopan is rather small — the tiniest capital city in the Americas by population, in fact, with a population of under 20,000 people!
Belmopan is a good gateway to outdoor adventure, as you’ll find Guanacaste National Park right within the city.
This national park has some hiking trails and the beautiful Belize River runs right through the heart of it.
Belmopan is also close to other places you might want to visit: Ayala’s Natural Pool, St. Herman’s Cave, St. Herman’s Blue Hole, etc.
You can drive to Belmopan easily via rental car or take any of the buses heading towards Belize City, all of which will stop in Belmopan.
St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park
Belize is known for its Great Blue Hole of course… but it also has a lesser-known inland blue hole, located at St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park!
This tour of the Blue Hole is combined with Crystal Cave, a beautiful limestone cave system. The cave system is only accessible through a rainforest hike which ends at the entrance to the cave, so it feels very remote and magical.
The tour involves spelunking through the cave to discover all the beautiful geographic features of the cave, as well as artifacts from Mayan ceremonies that number some thousands of years old — including pottery, fire pits, and even human remains!
One of the coolest parts of this tour is visiting ‘Wonderland’, a room in the cave system that is completely covered in sparkling crystals, for which the cave gets its name!
After exploring the cave system, you’ll have a chance to swim in the beautiful Blue Hole to cool off and feel refreshed before heading back to San Ignacio in the evening.
If you’re looking for a full-day excursion from San Ignacio that will also get you a new stamp in your passport, be sure to save a day for a day trip to Tikal from San Ignacio!
This is one day trip for which I strongly suggest a tour. Navigating a border crossing by car is an experience many travelers have not have had before, and if there are language barriers it can be intimidating.
Personally, I have done the border crossing solo when traveling from Belize to Guatemala, but I am an experienced solo traveler fluent in Spanish.
I’ve also spent several months of my life in Central America and feel super comfortable traveling around. If you don’t have that sort of experience, booking a Tikal tour from San Ignacio is a much better idea.
The trip to Tikal takes about 2-2.5 hours by car, with some time for the border crossing, which your guide will help you navigate.
Tikal is located in a beautiful national park, and so you’ll see wildlife everywhere you look: everything from monkeys to iguanas and more.
Tikal is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s perhaps better-known as being a filming location for Star Wars!
This guided tour of Tikal includes all the main sightseeing of the ruins complex. With over 3,000 structures in the Tikal area, having a guide to help you narrow down the key things to see is really helpful.
You’ll get to see temples, ball courts, plazas, palaces, and pyramids — the largest of which is over 200 feet!
Cave Tubing and Ziplining
Cave tubing in Belize is a popular outdoor activity to do from San Ignacio, and there is no shortage of tours offering it!
Cave tubing is basically what it sounds like: floating on a river through caves in an inner tube! You’ll have to hike to the cave systems before hopping in your tube, but the hike to the river and caves in the Caribbean heat is what makes the dip into the waters so refreshing!
For people who want to pair cave tubing with something a little more adventurous, add a zipline experience! This combo tour of cave tubing and ziplining is the perfect option.
The Mayan archaeological site of Xunantunich is located a short distance from San Ignacio Town, practically on the Guatemalan border.
Xunantunich enjoys a beautiful location on a ridge, looking over the scenic Mopan River. Its name means “Maiden of the Rock” in the Mayan language, but this is a modern name; the original name is unknown. Supposedly, this name comes from the ghost of a woman who haunts it!
Xunantunich was an ancient city, which takes up about one square mile. Its best-known feature is the 130-foot-tall pyramid ‘El Castillo’, which is the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize (after the temple pyramid at Caracol).
If you want to book a guided tour, this tour is highly rated and you can customize it to meet your interests, adding on either cave tubing, river tubing, or horseback riding for a full-day tour, or just visiting Xunantunich for a half-day trip.
This is not so much a day trip from San Ignacio town as an activity inside it, but it’s so important it deserves a spot on this list!
The ancient Maya site of Cahal Pech is about 10 square miles and includes nearly three dozen buildings, the largest of all being about 80 feet tall!
It is believed by archaeologists to be one of the oldest Mayan settlements in Belize, and that the people who settled Cahal Pech likely came from Guatemala, perhaps around the Tikal area.
The Maya Ruins of Cahal Pech are a must-do while visiting San Ignacio, and it pairs well with a visit to Xunantunich above, since the two Mayan sites are only about 6 miles apart.
If you want some additional info, can hire a local guide to give you a private tour at the ruins themselves — a guided tour including pick-up and drop-off is not necessary here, as the ruins are within walking distance of town!
What to Pack for a Trip To San Ignacio
Mosquito repellent: San Ignacio has a tropical climate with mosquitos year-round, particularly in the rainy season. Protect yourself with mosquito repellent. As a backup, I carry around a few mosquito repellent wipes with me in my purse in case I forget to apply spray before leaving or that I can apply after swimming.
Bug bite aftercare: It’s also inevitable that you won’t be able to get away totally scot-free in terms of bug bites, so bring some after-bite relief too. This is hard to find in Belize, so definitely bring it from home!
Full-size travel towel: Many of these San Ignacio day trips involve water — cave tubing, kayaking, swimming, waterfalls, etc. You’ll definitely want to bring a small, foldable, quick-dry towel on any day tour with water activities. This travel towel is full-size but compact, and it dries super quickly even in Belize’s humid climate.
A guidebook: I use travel blogs a lot when I’m on the road but I also love having a guidebook to give me more specific, thoroughly researched information. Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook and Lonely Planet Belize is no exception.
Reef-safe sunscreen: Reef-safe sunscreen isn’t just for reefs! The chemicals in sunscreen are bad for every natural ecosystem, like caves and swimming holes. When I know I’ll be in any natural body of water, I use a reef-safe sunscreen like this one.
GoPro: If you go cave tubing or ziplining, you’re going to want a way to capture all of that action! The GoPro Hero 9 is the newest, best option in the action camera landscape. Be sure to consider whether you want GoPro accessories like a chest harness or head mount.
Don’t forget travel insurance!
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