One of the most appealing things about traveling is its unpredictability. It is easy to research and imagine, but until people actually immerse themselves in a place, they won’t ever truly understand it. Recently, when my friends and I planned a trip to the Central American country of Belize, we thought we knew where the geography of bliss was. Home to the world’s second largest Great Barrier Reef, Belize’s Amerbergris Caye was going to serve us well. With its white sand beaches, emerald waves, diverse marine life, and coconut palms, we pictured ourselves relaxing the days away in whimsical comfort. But the island gave us no such euphoria. Unexpectedly, we instead found enchantment in an small interior town called San Ignacio.
Tucked away in a valley between two rivers, San Ignacio is a quaint little town filled with culture and beauty. It is surrounded by rolling hills and jungle vegetation. There is a soft stream that runs through downtown, connected by an emblematic old yellow steel bridge. The central business district consists of small alleyways that showcase its vernacular colonial heritage. The town is populated by a mosaic of ethnicities that includes Mestizos, Kriols, Lebanese, Chinese, and Amerindian.
(Click on pictures to enlarge)
Everything in San Ignacio is calmer. No one is in a hurry and you shouldn’t be either. The traffic is mild and cars roll gently through the streets. You rarely feel rushed to cross an intersection and walking is the preferred mode of transportation when in the city center. The atmosphere here is tranquil and the air feels clean (most of the time). If you want food, expect to sit and wait for hours. But that’s ok, because you’ll adapt and maybe even learn to enjoy it. Supper in San Ignacio seems less about the act of eating and more about enjoying the company you are with and the people that surrounds you.
The town is a haven for backpackers. It is an environment that encourages social interaction. “Where are you from? What are you doing in San Ignacio? Where have you been?” Everyone is curious and everyone wants to converse. Companionship seems natural in San Ignacio. We even had breakfast next to Grant Imahara of Mythbusters.
The food here is wonderful. Meats, fruits, and dairy are all raised, grown, and produced locally. There is minimal processing, with a direct farm-to-table approach. There is no corn hidden in your dinner, just real food. One of the days while we were having breakfast, a local farmer personally dropped off his eggs for our restaurant’s morning service. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. On Saturdays, there is a local fruit and vegetable market that opens to the public. Nothing is heavily preserved and everything is cheap. Just outside of town, I found personal solace upon seeing cattle grazing openly in their natural environment, surrounded by acres of sprawling green grass. Yes, they will still be slaughtered, but at least their days won’t be subjected to the harsh confines and diets of our American-style CAFOS. I have always said that I am willing to pay more for meat that comes from an animal that was taken care of. Here in San Ignacio, I received ethical meals without intensive capital expenditure.
San Ignacio’s surrounding area is rich in history. There are two ancient Mayan sites that are nearly within walking distance. Cahal Pech, which dates backs to 1200 B.C.E, was a former hilltop palace home for the Mayan elites. Xunantunich, located less than one mile from the Guatemala border, was a former ceremonial site for the archaic civilization. Here, you can freely climb to the top of the largest pyramid and enjoy a splendor view of the land. Also just south of town is the Mountain Pine Ridge, a place of waterfalls, caves, and wildlife. We drove about two miles directly into it and although it was the most treacherous ride we have ever experienced, it generated a memory that will stay with us for a lifetime.
Life is simpler in Western Belize. It is a portrait of society before globalization. There are no McDonald’s or Taco Bell here; no Wal-Mart or Belle Tire; just small mom-and-pop shops trying to sustain themselves in this capitalistic world. Most people in San Ignacio live in poverty. Seeing homes built from straw and planks of wood, and families bathing and washing their clothes in creeks is a humbling experience. It disciplines us into appreciating what we have and encourages us not to waste our gifted opportunities back home.
A primary reason why we dislike Amerbergris Caye is because it is too developed, loud, and artificial. San Ignacio is peaceful, authentic, and charming. The most popular destinations aren’t always the most glorious. The road less traveled is sometimes the most scenic trek. During my stay in San Ignacio, I learned a lot about myself and what I value in life. I felt comfort and peace. I have missed it ever since I left, but I am confident this town will find a way to charm me back again, someday. – Ping Zhou