As we landed in Belize City on Christmas day, there was so much excitement and anticipation between the 5 of us. A new adventure was about to start. We were finally in a new part of the world where we have never been before!
We arrived at the international airport of Belize. This airport is pretty small and you actually walk directly on the runaway to get on and off the plane. We realized immediately that it was extremely humid and hot. A big change from the colder weather we left behind!
As soon as we arrived in the country we felt surrounded by kindness right from the start! At the airport, at the rental car office, with the people we spoke along the way, but most of all on our arrival at our first hotel. They all welcomed 5 very tired travelers with open arms!
The first stop of our Belize exploration was on the mainland, direction San Ignacio. This is a little town in western Belize, at about 20 minutes from the border with Guatemala. Many visitors go to visit the Tikal Mayan ruins while here, we did as well check out our post!
San Ignacio is the capital of Cayo District, which is the third-most densely populated of the six districts of Belize. The town is known for its close proximity to some of Belize’s famous Mayan ruins. It is also a great place for outdoor activities such as caving, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, and more.
We didn’t really have anything planned before arriving to Belize. Usually we like to figure things out directly on location. What we did learn right from the start was that there are many adventurous activities that you can do here. However, are not recommended for young kids, so in some cases we were limited in doing things all together. Unfortunately we love doing things together! But as usual we made it work anyway!
Downtown San Ignacio
San Ignacio is on the west bank of the Macal River and a couple of miles upstream from its confluence is the Mopan River. Both rivers meet together and form the Belize River. In town people speak both English and Spanish. San Ignacio welcomes large populations of Mestizos, Creoles, Chinese, Lebanese, Guatemalans, Mennonites and Mayas.
Downtown has a popular open-air market that gets very busy with locals as well as tourists. It was nice to walk around, enjoy an everyday moment into this little town, imagining for a few hours what it would be like to live here. Do you ever try to picture yourself living in the place you are visiting? My husband and I often do. What would our lives be like, what would we be doing here. A little daydreaming is always good and who knows if it may one day become a reality, it did for us in the past!
On our first official day in the country we visited Cahal Pech. This is a small set of maya ruins and the name means “Place of the ticks”, in the Yucatecan Maya language. This name was coined in the 1950’s when the area around the site was used for pasture.
As you walk up to the entrance you are stopped by tour guides offering their service to visit the ruins. We decided to go on our own because our kids have no patience at spending hours listening to someone talk. Plus we have no patience in trying to listen while running after them. The place is not too big so you can explore on your own without any problem There is also an indoor museum displaying artifacts, a site plan, and lots of history. So you can read up about it before or after your visit to the site and get all the information you want! I often take pictures of the things I’m more interested in so I can read it with more calm when everyone is asleep!
The tickets cost is BZD$10.00 (US$5) and it is open 7 days a week during daylight hours. The entire visit takes 1 to 2 hours at most for a thorough exploration. Our kids loved climbing all over the place so we defiantly stayed the full 2 hours.
We got one great tip that day from a tour guide that was taking a big group around. I admit it, we hung around the group for a while to listen to what he had to say. He said NEVER to put hands in any holes in the ruins, you will get bitten by very mean snakes!
We have also another great tip based on our personal experience. Be careful where you put your feet, fire ants are everywhere! Cosimo stepped on a pile of mud and in a fraction of a second his shoe was full of them……not a fun experience!
Iguana Conservation Project
While we were visiting Cahal Pech, we met an American family that told us to absolutely stop by the San Ignacio Resort Hotel down the street to see the Iguana Conservation Project and believe me it was so worth it!
This project is located on the grounds of the hotel. They offer tours into the Iguana Exhibit every hour. The purpose of this project is to protect the threatened Green Iguana but at the same time educate people on these animals.
During our tour, we were able to go in the exhibit, hold the iguanas, feed them and ask as many questions popped in our minds. Our kids were fascinated by these reptiles and by the way they behaved around them.
Luca was so amazed that every time one moved, all he wanted to do was pull it by the tail (not the best idea….). As the guide explained to us, Iguana never attack but actually defend themselves. They do it by whipping their tail at you with such force that they can make you bleed! Luca risked big, but luckily these Iguanas are used to visitors and are a little more patient with young kids!
The Iguana Conservation Project follows a continuous, cyclical course of rearing the Iguanas from the egg to juvenile stage. It later sets them free by releasing them into their natural habitat. Tours are offers daily from 8am to 4 pm every hour on the hour and the price per person is $9 USD.
Let me add a little tip about the San Ignacio Resort Hotel: if you really enjoyed the tour and it is lunch time you should definitely try the Hotel’s restaurant! It is amazing and as you’re sitting on their outside terrace enjoying your meal you might also get to see some iguanas climbing up the tree!
We finally headed to Xunantunich, which is Belize’s most-visited Mayan site. It was an ancient Maya town, consisting of 9th century Maya ruins. Xunantunich means “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman” in Maya.
Local legend says that around the end of the 1800s, a gentleman from the village of San Jose Succotz went hunting near the site. Crossing the base of the Castillo, he was struck by the appearance of a beautiful statuesque Maya maiden, dressed in traditional “huipil” and “pik,”,and dazzling in the rays of the rising sun. The woman stood motionless by the mouth of a cave which extended beneath the large structure. Stricken by her appearance, the man threw his gun aside and ran downhill to the village. After recounting his tale several villagers led by their native priest returned to the site. Arriving at the large mound they found the mouth of the tunnel, but the stone maiden had disappeared. Thereafter locals claim that the woman has appeared to several others but none have been able to follow her into the cavern.
The ruins are situated on a hilltop overlooking the Mopan River. It forms six groups with about 25 temples and palaces. In order to reach it you have to take a ferry (free) and you can reach the site by foot (about 45 minutes), car or horse. Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial center. IT occupies only 300 square meters but the periphery covers several square kilometers.
El Castillo rises 130 feet above plaza level making it one of the tallest buildings in Belize. We were able to go to the top and the view was amazing. From up there you can see the whole valley and on a good day also Guatemala!
As you walk up to the site, you can hear some very strange noises. My kids thought they were lions! No worries we haven’t encountered any lions in Belize! These were the famous howler monkeys! They are notorious for their loud howls, which can travel three miles through dense rainforest. Their noises can seem ok for a bit, but they can actually get on your nerves after a while!
The ticket to visit Xunantunich is BZD$10.00 (US$5). In case you do want a guide you will have to hire him when you get to the ferry, you won’t find any at the location. There is an indoor museum here as well displaying lots of information. The entire site can take up to 4 hours depending on your exploration, we stayed about 2.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (also known as ATM)
This was without any doubt one of the most adventurous parts of our trip! Unfortunately we were not able to do it as a family, because Luca was too young. Emma too, decided last-minute to stay with me because she was a little scared. So father and older son got to do it alone. They were exhausted when they got back!
Actun Tunichil Muknal, translated as “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” is a Mayan sacrificial burial site. This site is within a cave system and to get access to it people have to cross 3 streams, climb over rocks, wading and swimming through water that is at times over 1.5 metres deep and pretty cold. The cave was a sacred site for the Mayans and it has many examples of well-preserved pottery, ceramics and stoneware, as well as several sets of human sacrificial remains. One of which (“Crystal Maiden”) has been almost entirely covered in limestone crystals by the water in the cave.
In order to visit the site you have to be accompanied by an official guide. Unfortunately cameras are banned due to significant damage caused to a skull when a tourist dropped his camera on it. These are a few snaps that Mass was able to capture before the guide took his camera (yes we don’t listen!).
The cave was discovered in 1992. It was opened to the public in 2000, and the artifacts within are in the same place as they were when the cave was first explored by researchers.
We were glad that Emma decided not to go, because the adventure was pretty tough. In many moments also Cosimo had a hard time. When we asked information about this tour, they didn’t explain to us that it was going to be this challenging. After experiencing it with our 8-year-old son, Mass would not recommend it to kids under the age of 9. Only if they are not scared of a little adventure. That day he saw many people of different ages stay behind because they didn’t feel physically able to go on. You have to deal with cold water, at times pretty deep, walking and climbing in a very dark cave, passing through very narrow rock passage……not everyone’s cup of tea!
Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm at Chaa Creek
While Mass and Cosimo were being adventurous, Emma, Luca and I where enjoying a tour at the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm! I had never seen these beautiful butterflies so close. It was truly a magical moment to be surrounded by them. Every time the sun shined over the net they would fly in every corner. Their blue would shine all over. Then I would turn around and see my 2-year-old trying to catch them by their wings! Oh my gosh what a nightmare it was stopping him from doing that! Finally he found a dead one on the ground and played with that so the live ones were safe!
At Chaa Creek, which is also a beautiful resort, their goal is to encourage learning about the environment. The butterfly farm offers people the opportunity to see the cycle of life of these beautiful blue butterflies, also known as the “Belizean Blue”. They begin their cycle as a pale green egg, which looks like a dewdrop. Soon they change into a caterpillar, then into a dormant pupa, and finally into a dazzling beauty that delights the public in butterfly houses throughout the world.
If you are curious to learn more about this beautiful species of butterfly you should definitely come here. The butterfly farm is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm and guided tours are offered in conjunction with tours of the Natural History Centre and begin on the hour every hour with the last tour starting at 4:00 pm.
A little tip about Chaa Creek. It is a little far out so if you are taking a cab to get there I recommend you ask them to stay and wait for you. Otherwise you will be waiting for a while before another one is going to be back to pick you up and you will have to bargain on the price!
Click here to see more of our posts from our travels in Belize!!!
Check out the lovely hotel we stayed at Maya Mountain Lodge!!!