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#434561 - 04/01/12 08:40 AM Our Sojourn in San Ignacio
Marty Offline

Chicken bus to western Cayo

Day 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

Yesterday we returned from a five-day trip to San Ignacio, which is a town in the Cayo District in the western part of Belize. We had never visited this part of the mainland before and were looking to do some hiking, birdwatching, and escape some of the traffic and general busy-ness of high season in San Pedro. San Ignacio does get tourists (especially eco-tourists, adventure-seekers, and backpackers), but it is not the big tourist destination that Ambergris Caye is, and we were craving some recharge time away from crowds.

Sign in front of bus with fares -- nice because most buses don't have this helpful chart

As usual, we planned to do this trip on a fairly tight budget, so we chose to take the ferry to Belize City, then a "chicken bus" to San Ignacio. This is not the most luxurious or fastest way to travel around the country, but it is very budget-friendly. So, on Monday morning, we caught a ride to town from Mr. Raymond here at Grand Caribe. We dropped Paisley off at Pampered Paws for boarding, where she was happy to see her friend Bess the Doberman in doggie day care. She trotted right off and never looked back -- she really seems to enjoy her stays at Pampered Paws as she gets to play all the time. She returns home completely exhausted!

Barry in front of Police Station and welcome sign


After a ride with many stops, we arrived at the bus terminal in San Ignacio at around 2:30 pm. Since it's dry season here in Belize, the parking lot was very dusty. Many of the streets in town are unpaved or having construction done, so there was quite a bit of dust wherever we walked, actually. Better than rainy-season mud, I suppose!


Burns Ave. outside Casa Blanca

After unpacking a bit and settling in, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town and getting our bearings. In addition to shops, grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants, there's a great fruit and vegetable market square where vendors sell their wares. Both the variety and cost of produce is noticeably better than in San Pedro since Cayo is where many of the farms in the country are located and produce doesn't have to be shipped so far, or on a ferry, to get to this market.

Beautiful banks of Macal River with Hawkesworth Bridge in distance

The Hawkesworth Bridge leading out of town into Santa Elena


There are two bridges in San Ignacio Town, both one-way. The "New Bridge" leads into town, and the other, a suspension bridge called the "Hawkesworth Bridge", is older and leads out of town. Both bridges span the Eastern Branch of the Belize River, also known as the Macal River. The river is absolutely gorgeous, and the lush green banks form a park of sorts that attract locals and tourists. What a lovely place for a picnic it would be! We wandered around there for quite awhile enjoying the beautiful view of the river and the huge trees on the banks. Some locals were swimming and splashing in the water, and a large group of frolicking grackles were enjoying it as well.


Lovely view from Hawkesworth Bridge

Click here to read the rest of the article and see LOTS more photos on the BeBelize Blog

#434630 - 04/02/12 08:46 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Day 2: Uphill to Cahal Pech and Lost in Benque

Today the plan was to walk to a nearby Maya site, Cahal Pech. It is one of the sites here in Belize that doesn't require a guide, which we appreciated. Belizean guides are incredibly knowledgeable and very reasonably priced for the service they offer, but being from the US, we are used to doing things on our own and taking as much time as we like to linger over things that especially interest us but aren't necessarily the focus of a guided tour, especially birds. We are more amateur naturalists than history buffs, as regular readers of this blog probably know. We are also fairly frugal, so anywhere we are not required to take a guide, we probably won't. We also liked the fact we could walk to the site, rather than take a taxi. With all the restaurant meals we'd be eating, we knew we could use the exercise, and we just plain enjoy walking.

We trekked up a long and dusty hill


The walk to Cahal Pech was nearly all uphill, something we're not used to these days living on the flat island of Ambergris Caye. It was a warm and sunny morning, so I was definitely sweating it out, but the views from up high were excellent.

Cahal Pech is at the top of the hill under dense tree cover, as seen in the middle of this photo


When we arrived at the site, we entered a small museum and paid our very reasonable $5 BZD ($2.50 US) entrance fees. The museum housed some interesting artifacts as well as historical information about the site.


Upon leaving the museum, we entered the most glorious jungle with huge trees, beautiful foliage, birds singing, and a cooling breeze. The temperature dropped at least ten degrees as we escaped under the tree canopy. We felt as if we'd been transported to a completely different world from the dusty city so close by.

The site itself was much more modest in scale than Lamanai, but it was still impressive. It was originally the home of a single Maya family, not an entire village. Pretty nice digs for one family, right on top of a huge hill, where they certainly had amazing views of the valley below. We enjoyed exploring the excavated ruins and scrambling up high for better viewing, but we always kept our eyes open for birds in the many overhanging trees. The temperature in the shade was absolutely perfect.

At Cahal Pech parking lot overlooking San Ignacio and Cayo District of Belize


After spending hours watching birds and wandering the ruins, we finally bid so long to Cahal Pech and began the long walk downhill. It was definitely easier on the way down, and the views were great.

While we were eating, Barry asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of the afternoon. I figured we'd just wander around town more and maybe back down to the river. He suggested that instead, we hop on a bus to Benque, a border town not too far from San Ignacio, to check it out. He wanted to eat dinner at a good Mexican restaurant he'd read about in our Lonely Planet guide. Of course, we didn't actually have the guide with us, as we'd printed out only the pertinent pages from the pdf file to carry with us on the trip. So we didn't actually remember the name of the restaurant, just that it was Mexican, supposed to be good, and in Benque. Well sure, why not? It was a small town, so we could certainly find it. What did we possibly have to lose?!

We walked down to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus to Benque (full name Benque Viejo del Carmen), a mestizo village just two miles shy of the Guatemalan border. The bus ride over only set us back $1.50 BZD each. On the way, we passed the hand-crank ferry over the Mopan river to the great Maya ruin Xunatunich.

When we arrived in Benque, we started walking around with our eyes peeled for a Mexican restaurant. This after walking to and from Cahal Pech already, and all around inside the site. I didn't even wear walking shoes as I figured Benque was small, and how hard could it be to find what was probably the only Mexican restaurant in town? But we were there plenty early and had plenty of time, so we just checked out some of the town sights as we walked around. I don't think we saw another tourist in town as any staying here were probably at Xunatunich or Tikal, a national park and large Maya site over the border in Guatemala, for the day.


Mopan River

We wandered down to the brilliant green Mopan River, where I fell in love with a perfectly manicured property (with home tucked into the trees) across on the other side.

There are very few street signs in town (Burns Street being one of the exceptions), so we asked a local man on a corner in our very rudimentary Spanish if he could point to Arenal Road. Luckily, it was the dirt road right behind him, but there was no sign of the restaurant. We asked him about it ("Comida Mexicana?"), and he pointed off in a couple of directions, said a few words in Spanish, and shook his head. We still aren't quite sure what that was about, so I told him "No entiendo" (I don't understand), but we thanked him and headed into a grocery store right there to ask further.


When we got back to San Ignacio, we just barely had time to get to Mr. Greedy's on the section of Burns Ave. under construction before Happy Hour ended at 6pm. We'd heard they had good pizza ("with the only hand-tossed Italian crust in Belize"), and their veggie pizza did not disappoint. They even made it easy for me to transfer my olives to Barry's slices, by not putting them under the cheese as is usually the case in the US. It wasn't Mexican, but it was delicious, and we'd earned every bite after the many miles we'd walked on this day. And yes, there were NO leftovers!

Click here to read the rest of the article and see LOTS more excellent photos on the BeBelize Blog

#434716 - 04/03/12 11:04 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

There were signs like this scattered around El Pilar giving details on different portions of the site. They were right about how nice and cool it was under the tree canopy.

Day 3: Bikeless in Bullet Tree Falls and El Pilar

We decided to start the day with breakfast at Mr. Greedy's, where we'd eaten pizza the night before, as we noticed that the prices were a bit less than at Ko-Ox Han-Nah. We had delicious breakfast burritos, orange juice, and excellent coffee. The burrito was only $8.75 BZD (approximately $4.36 US), which included one large mug of coffee, a great deal.

Our plan for today was to rent mountain bikes in Bullet Tree Falls, just a few miles from San Ignacio, and to ride up to El Pilar, an Archaeological Reserve and partially excavated Maya site, which we'd read had many hiking trails, excellent birding, and few tourists. Perfect! Our Lonely Planet guide suggested that mountain bikes could be rented at Cohune Palms River Cabanas to navigate the eight-mile gravel road to the site, and we thought that sounded like a perfect way to burn off some of the restaurant meals we'd been eating.

It was too early to catch a bus to Bullet Tree Falls according to the schedule we'd seen, so we hopped into one of the many waiting taxis on Burns Avenue and asked the driver, Mike, to take us to Cohune Palms. Unfortunately, upon arriving there and talking to a worker, we found out they did not have any mountain bikes to rent. Perhaps they had in the past, but no longer. Kinda reminded us of the Mexican restaurant being closed the day before -- was this trip doomed to be one of many disappointments? (Answer: no.)

So, we moved onto Plan B and asked Mike if he could take us up to El Pilar. At first he seemed a bit unsure, as his taxi was a small Geo that did not have 4WD, but I guess he figured he better give it a try as the fare would certainly be much better than he'd make in a day hanging out in San Ignacio with many other cabs competing for not many tourists. He quoted us a price of $50 US to drive us there, wait for us to hike and bird-watch, and drive us back to San Ignacio, so we decided to go for it. This ended up being a great decision as it was a very difficult slog up a messy, rocky road, and even on mountain bikes would have been a challenge. Had Plan A worked out, we might not have had any energy left for hiking after biking the mostly uphill, messy road, as it turned out. This photo does NOT do the road justice. Many portions were steeper, with deeper ruts and larger rocks. Mike really had to take it slowly and carefully in his little car, and he bottomed out on some of the worst parts. Fortunately for us, he made it to the top!

The rocky road to El Pilar

We got to the check-in point and paid our $10 BZD entry fees. We found out later that we were the first visitors to the site in three days! And we were the only ones here this day as well. Our own private 100-acre park -- what could be better for a couple of tourist-weary island residents?!

We bid Mike goodbye and took off into the jungle. This place was amazing! Trails, stairs, overlooks, ruins, huge shade trees, and birds galore. You'll notice in the photos that I am wearing my biking clothes since we'd thought we'd be getting here on two wheels instead of four.

El Pilar entry building and Mike's taxi


Maya Ball Court (unexcavated)

There were a lot of trails -- we hiked all of the ones that didn't go off to never-never land, since we had Mike waiting for us with the taxi!

We saw a cave up in this unexcavated mound and thought it deserved a closer look.

Back of cave

This overlook had an amazing view of Guatemala to the west. Barry took these photos panorama-style.

We came upon a rest area with picnic tables and decided to sit for a few minutes and eat the snacks we'd brought -- peanuts and fiber wafers. It felt good to sit down after all the walking.


Near the very end of our hike, Barry spied this feather on the trail. Since we'd just seen and identified our first-ever Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot the day before at Cahal Pech, we knew it was a tail feather from this wonderful bird. I felt sad because I doubt the bird could fly or live without this beautiful feather, so assume it had met its maker.


We had to wait until they'd all safely crossed before we could get going. So cute!


After our big day of hiking, we were pretty lazy for what was left of the day. We walked up the under construction section of Burns Ave. for dinner at "Flayva's". Barry got the jerk chicken, and I had grilled fish. We both chose rice and stewed beans and sauteed veggies for our sides, so we ate healthfully, since our entrees also came with veggies atop. It was absolutely delicious! After dinner we stopped for a little gelato at a stand along the road. It wasn't nearly as good as at Tutti Frutti's in Placencia, but it was nice to have a little taste of something sweet after dinner.

Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos on the BeBelize Blog

#434813 - 04/04/12 10:17 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

ATM cave opening

Our Sojourn in San Ignacio - Day 4: Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour

Even before leaving on our trip to San Ignacio, we had booked an Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave tour through River Rat Expeditions, after reading great recommendations and reviews online stating that they were THE tour company to see ATM with. Thursday was our last full day in the Cayo District, and an excellent day it was indeed.


Hiking to the cave

After driving over to Teakettle Village in their SUV, we parked, then took a two-mile hike along a well-worn trail through the jungle to the cave. It was a beautiful hike, and nice and flat since it went alongside the water. We had three river crossings that were fun -- the water was so clear, with many river rocks visible below our feet.


I'm not sure what he was telling me here. Probably something like "If you think THIS water is cold, just wait until you get into the cave!"

When we arrived near the cave, there was an open area with picnic tables, and Gonzo and Becky served us a nice lunch that Gonzo had carried over in his backpack. A local lady makes the lunch for them, and today it consisted of traditional Belizean stew chicken, rice and beans, and some fresh fruit. So, we were well stoked for our big trip through the cave. Gonzo hooked headlamps onto our helmets, and we headed over to the cave.

Gonzo prepping our meals


The opening to the cave was absolutely beautiful, but the first challenge we had was swimming through the deep 68-degree water at the entry. That woke me up and got me breathing fast and my heart pounding. We wore quick-dry clothing since we'd be wet for the entire trip through the cave, and walking in water of varying depth from inches to chest-high. We were also required to wear close-toed shoes to avoid hurting our feet, and to grip the many rocks you have to climb and scramble over.


Deep water here

We were very fortunate to have our waterproof camera along, meaning that we could take photos even in the "wet" portions of the cave. All other cameras were placed into Gonzo's dry bag ahead of the tour and were only taken out in the "dry" portion of the cave, far into our hike.


The many perfectly round holes in the ceiling of parts of the cave are made by bats nesting (and eliminating), explained Gonzo. Unfortunately, we only saw one bat. He said there weren't many left in the cave now; they had apparently moved on.

The cave is filled with beautiful rock formations, stalactites, and archeological artifacts like pots and other vessels. Gonzo and Becky were the perfect guides for this tour as they are both archaeologists, so they were able to provide so much information about the items that have been found in the cave. Fascinating!

Gonzo by Maya pottery

As we got deeper and deeper in the cave, we started seeing some human remains. Remains of fourteen individuals have been found in ATM. Creepy but very interesting. Gonzo and Becky told us that it is not fully known whether these remains resulted from human sacrifices made by the Maya people or whether the cave served as a natural burial site, or both.


The penultimate chamber contained the much-discussed "Crystal Maiden", nearly full skeletal remains of what was long-thought to be a female, but very recent research has claimed is actually a male teenager, based on studies of the pelvic bone structure, we were told by Gonzo and Becky.


We headed back out of the cave much more quickly than we came in, since we didn't stop to look at everything. Moving faster kept us much warmer than on the way in.


We retraced our steps hiking on the jungle trail and over the river crossings back to the River Rat van, and I enjoyed a nice conversation with Becky on the way back. Gonzo and Becky were the BEST to tour the cave with, and we would highly recommend River Rat for anyone wanting to experience this amazing adventure.

This space seemed to have gotten tighter than on the way in!

Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos on the BeBelize Blog

#434816 - 04/04/12 10:44 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
seashell Offline
Excellent trip report!
A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they build their nest?

#434898 - 04/05/12 10:21 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

We saw this sign on our walk to breakfast -- wonder if the mayors from 1996 to the present feel slighted?

Our Sojourn in San Ignacio - Day 5: Return to San Pedro

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and today was our day to return to San Pedro. Not that that is such a bad place to go, by any means, but we'd been having so much fun on our various excursions in San Ignacio and the Cayo District of Belize, we hated for our time there to draw to a close. We really love spreading our wings by visiting new places and are so fortunate our retirement is allowing us the precious time to do this!

We tried a new place for breakfast this morning recommended by Becky and Gonzo, "Pop's". It was the least expensive place yet and full of locals, so it had to be good -- and it was. Barry got -- what else -- a breakfast burrito (with a choice of meat this time; he chose ham); and I got waffles with bananas and one egg on the side. The restaurant was just a short walk around the block from the Casa Blanca, our home for the past four days. We even got to see Pops himself serving some of the folks, though he did not wait on us.


The coffee was great!


Next it was time to find a bus to Belize City. There are several different bus lines that arrive and depart at all different times, but so many of them go through San Ignacio that there's really no need to check a schedule -- if there even is one. Just walk on over to the bus "terminal" (parking lot) and look for a bus with a "Belize" sign in the front, indicating that it's heading to Belize City. If there's not one there when you arrive, there's pretty likely going to be one pulling in very soon. Sure enough, when we got there, one was just loading up.

Note the "Belize" sign in the front window -- this indicates this bus is heading east to Belize City


We had planned on catching the noon ferry from Belize City back to San Pedro and hoped this delay wouldn't cost us. Fortunately, it didn't cause us to miss the ferry, but we were in the back of the massive line, and the ferry was PACKED. There were more passengers on this ferry than we'd ever experienced before, and we've taken the ferry quite a few times now. The main seating area was full by the time we boarded, so we got to ride up top with the captain, which was actually a lot of fun.

Our view of Belize City from the upper deck of the ferry


Since it took so long to load up the massive quantities of luggage and passengers, the ferry was late leaving Belize City and Caye Caulker. We were on a tight schedule once again as we planned to catch the Coastal Express water taxi back to our condo north of the bridge on Ambergris Caye. We'd thought we'd have a large time window, but being delayed by approximately 15-20 minutes cut into this window. Also, because of the large number of ferry passengers, Barry had to check his backpack, which we normally don't do.


When we debarked the ferry in San Pedro, we decided that Barry would wait for the luggage to be unloaded while I walked over to Pampered Paws to pick Paisley up. There was so much traffic (golf cart, taxi, and bike) in the streets of San Pedro at this busy after-lunch period during high tourist season that I had a difficult time even walking the block and a half to and from Pampered Paws, especially once I had Paisley on her leash with me; but I finally made it back to where Barry was waiting, and he hadn't even retrieved his backpack yet.


Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos on the BeBelize Blog

#435018 - 04/06/12 09:49 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Our Sojourn in San Ignacio: Beautiful Birds

We added quite a few birds to our life lists on our recent trip to San Ignacio and the Cayo District of Belize. We also saw many we'd seen before. It is hard to get decent bird photos with a 12x zoom, but here are the ones worth sharing.

We saw both male and female Rose-Throated Becards numerous times as they were adding onto their interesting round nest in a tall tree. Both birds would fly into the woods, then come back with nesting material to add to the top of the nest. The nest hole is in the side.


Here I am watching the nest-building. We watched for quite awhile until it appeared that the pair were not going to come back for awhile.

Photos from Cahal Pech, El Pilar, Near Roaring Creek/ATM Cave

Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos on the BeBelize Blog

#435036 - 04/06/12 11:12 AM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
ScubaLdy Offline
This was so wonderful. You two did a marvelous job of photographing and reporting your adventure. Since we are almost neighbors I would love to have you come down to birdland and swap stories with me. I have had some very interesting new birds this last couple of weeks; Mangrove Warbler, Hepatic Tanager and White-collard seed eater.
Take only pictures leave only bubbles

#435050 - 04/06/12 02:56 PM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Marty]
Katie Valk Offline
Isn;t that a blue crown mot mot? They nest in holes they make in limestone
Belize based travel specialist

#435133 - 04/07/12 01:37 PM Re: Our Sojourn in San Ignacio [Re: Katie Valk]
BeBelize Offline
Originally Posted By: Katie Valk
Isn;t that a blue crown mot mot? They nest in holes they make in limestone

Yes, Katie -- Marty just pulled a photo off the blog page and then a separate section about the nesting Becards. If you click on the link to the actual blog, you'll see that. It is a bit confusing since he only pulled excerpts!
Former Belize expat traveling the USA & Mexico


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