Reptiles, Ruins & Chocolate in San Ignacio

After Caye Caulker, we realised that the rumours of Belize being expensive were indeed true. So we decided to make just one more stop, in San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border.

We didn’t have too much idea what to expect from the town, apart from some tips from some people who had just visited, but it turned out to be a really worthwhile place to visit.

The main reason almost everyone visits San Ignacio is for the nearby ATM cave. This is not a cave with a cash machine in it, but stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, and is a Mayan cave possibly used for human sacrifice, with bones and pottery visible.

But to us, it didn’t really appeal. It’s a long, long day (10 hours) and expensive ($70USD+ each). You also cannot take a single photo of the experience since an idiot tourist dropped their camera and broke a human skull a few years ago.

So as much as we like scrambling around in caves, and while it did sound interesting, we decided to skip this one. We don’t ALL have to do the same things do we?

Enough of what we didn’t do, here is what we did do!

On the outskirts of town, and luckily quite near our hostel (though still requiring a hot, sweaty uphill walk) is Cahal Pech, another Mayan site, abandoned in 800-900AD. These were our kind of ruins – they were good value ($5BZD), and we had them almost all to ourselves. After a slow start of overgrown pyramids, they became quite interesting, and there were plenty of things to climb and passages to explore.

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The only bad thing was that I managed to pull a muscle in my leg striding down one of the ruins, meaning for the next 2 days I struggled to walk downhill (yet uphill was fine!).

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Afterwards we visited the Cahal Pech resort a few minutes up the hill – where for a few dollars you can use their pool – we never managed to make it back though.

Our next day we spent at 2 other attractions close by – the first was the Green Iguana Conservation Project at the swanky San Ignacio Resort Hotel. For $9USD per person we were given a tour of the facility by a really informative guide who knew everything there was to know about the beautiful creatures. They are under threat from other species and also from people eating them, amazingly.

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We were taken into a large wire shed absolutely stuffed with green iguanas. Seriously enormous ones. It might sound cruel keeping them in a cage but in order to keep diseases spreading from outside iguanas, they have to keep them separate. When we entered there were 2 gigantic males fighting over a female on top of the enclosure. If they were allowed in there would be carnage.

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The iguanas are all eventually released back into the wild though when the time is right.

After stroking them and holding them, we were encouraged to feed them with leaves. This is where it got a bit scary. Once they realised there was food about they swarmed towards us, several jumping huge distances to land on poor Katy. And once they’re on, you can’t pull them off or their sharp claws will dig in – Katy got a scratch across her lip which needed an alcohol swab to ensure no infections.

Despite all this it was amazing to see the iguanas so close. You see plenty in the wild in Central America but never this intimately.

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The iguanas were friendly, but they are powerful wild animals so you did need to be careful. Afterwards we were taken to the next enclosure where the baby iguanas were kept – these little ones were much less stressful. The guide literally threw 3 or 4 onto each of us and they happily sat on us, absorbing our body heat!

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We next headed down the hill into town to a Mayan chocolate making experience. Run by a woman and her husband, it’s located in a tiny building, and over the course of an hour she gives you a short history of chocolate, followed by the chance to make your own! It was a tad expensive, at $12US per person, but where else could we do this??

She first presented us with a basket of roasted cocoa beans, which all needed to be shelled…by hand. This started off exceptionally slow but we got much better at it towards the end.

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Once they had all been shelled they needed to be ground down. The method for doing this is with a large stone roller on a large stone dish of sorts. The beans are placed on the dish and gradually ground down with a rolling action. I was surprisingly good at this but man is it hard work! The lady had to finish off for us. After around 10 minutes grinding we had a smooth paste which looked remarkably like chocolate – that’s because for all intents and purposes it was, 100% pure chocolate.

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Now there is a reason they don’t sell 100% pure chocolate, because it is so bitter it is inedible. The lady got a small blob and mixed it with hot water for us, which we first tried without sugar and almost spat it out. But adding plenty of sugar and/or honey mad eit taste delicious – the best hot chocolate we’ve ever had!

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Next she got some more of it and mixed in sugar, cinnamon and allspice and we ate it as a solid – again it was delicious. After one more hot chocolate there was enough left to take away with us (though it later leaked and we couldn’t use it…boo) and we were done! A fascinating hours lesson and highly recommended.

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Aside from this we checked out San Ignacio town (small) and the weekly market which was full of fresh produce – we cooked a delicious veggie curry since our hostel had a decent kitchen, and eating out in any of the proper restaurants was $10US upwards for a meal. The sole cheap eats we had in San Ignacio was some grilled chicken for $6BZD and some amazing pupusas from a Salvadoran vendor.

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The rest of the time we spent chilling at our hostel, called Old House. It’s only been open a few months, and is owned by a local girl much younger than us. She was away for a lot of the time we stayed but her friend running the place was great to talk to and various friends and family dropped by the hostel making it a real cool, social place. Of course it helps in Belize that we could talk to everyone in English!

Looking down the hill into San Ignacio town. Old House is the, well, old house on the left

Looking down the hill into San Ignacio town. Old House is the, well, old house on the left

So yeah, San Ignacio is a cool place to spend a few days, whether you want to visit the ATM cave or not.

Practical Info

The very uncomfortable chicken bus from Belize City to San Ignacio cost $8BZD each and mercifully only takes a couple of hours. You get dropped right by the market in San Ignacio.

Old House Hostel cost $22BZD per person per night when we stayed, a bargain for Belize.

Our chocolate making was with AJAW Chocolate & Crafts and we recommend them. Their Facebook page is here

To get to Guatemala afterwards, we took a bus to the almost border town of Benque for something like $1.50BZD each, then a taxi from there to the border for $10BZD.

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