by Cruz Cambranes

With social media gaining momentum, it has become easy to share information. Organizations like the Institute of Archaeology, Belize Archives, Museum of Belize and the various culture houses now have a platform to distribute information to their followers, exposing them to a wealth of information and sparking interest so that they can then visit their offices in search for even for information. I have always had an interest in history and over the years, I have gathered and stored photographs and other data, thus creating my own library. So about a year ago, when I heard that research was being gathered to create a book now known to us as “A Walk Through El Cayo”, I became excited. Shortly after the release of the book, my employer, San Ignacio Resort Hotel, pitched me an idea for a tour. This tour is to be conducted within the downtown area of San Ignacio, visiting iconic and historic places. So immediately I got to work, collecting further information and images; some I already had, but I turned to social media where I found in abundance.

Today, San Ignacio and Santa Elena, as well as Benque Viejo del Carmen, are celebrating 111 years since they became a town. The Government Gazette British Honduras, published on the 22nd of October 1904, states that a few days earlier, on the 19th of October, it was declared and granted township to both communities. San Ignacio at the time was referred to as “El Cayo” meaning the Faye or the island because it was bordered to the north by the Mopan river and through it passed the Macal River. It also raises the questions: Why was the town inhabited? Why did people flock out west to occupy these areas? The answer is in the industries that existed at the time. Logging was the main income earner. At first it was Mahogany and Spanish Cedar, but other woods followed, like Nargusta, Santa Maria, Billy Web, Cabbage Bark and many more including Pine from the Mountain Pine Ridge that started to be logged around 1944. There were a few other industries, like making palm oil it was extracted from the cohune nut. The cohune palm is a local tree in Belize’s broadleaf forests. The chicle industry was also in full swing. Men ventured into the jungle to extract the sap from the Sapodilla tree, prepared it by boiling it, and poured it into blocks which they would ship to the Wrigley Company in the United States of America.

At the time, the main form of transportation to and from San Ignacio was by using the Cayo boats. These boats would leave Belize City and travel approximately 180 miles, which would take 5 days upstream and 3 days to return to the city. The boat had seating for its passengers and at times came pulling a small barge filled with cargo. The boats arrived to a wharf where people would disembark and cargo was hauled away by mules. In this area, women also brought their clothing for washing. We know that in 1912, the first Pallottine Nuns arrived to this wharf on their way to Benque Viejo del Carmen, where they formed the first convent. Formal education was also brought by the Roman Catholic Church. The Hawkesworth Bridge, named after Sir Gerald Hawkesworth, a former governor of British Honduras, was completed in 1949, and with the road to Belize City already completed, the Cayo boats slowly drifted into history.

San Ignacio and Santa Elena today is a thriving community. Tourism and farming are the biggest industries that employ thousands in this area, however, industries like the exploration and exportation of crude oil are also prospering. Cattle ranching is still a booming commerce. The sale of livestock is conducted with Guatemala and Mexico. There are large meat processing companies like Running W Brand Meats and Country Meat Products that employ many people and produce beef and pork products. Farms just north of San Ignacio in Spanish Lookout supply the entire Cayo District with chicken, meats, eggs, and dairy products. Farms in the surounding areas also supply the farmers market in downtown San Ignacio with fresh vegetables every week. Tourism was born in this area around the 1970s and since then San Ignacio has become the tourism hub, a great place to stay and experience Belizean culture. Today you can find all sorts of accommodations; many hotels, resorts, river and jungle lodges can now be found in the sorounding areas. Tourist destinations have been developed like archaeological sites and caves that tour guides and tour operators can sell and conduct tours to these places. The downtown area, particularly Burns Avenue and the Welcome Center, have gotten a facelift and this has helped for the beautification of our town. We are still surrounded by our history. Historic buildings still stand, even after the downtown area was burned down during separate incidents in the 1970s.

When I set out to do this project, I knew it would have been difficult getting the pictures, mainly because things have changed so much, trees have grown, and buildings now block the view that we see in the old photographs. Then I had to figure out from where the pictures where taken. The best way was by using key points in the old pictures, like the Gálvez house or the Commissioner’s house, which have been there over a hundred years. Using the terrain was at times the only way to figure out the angle from where the photograph was taken, since nothing else in the picture was recognizable. I truly enjoyed putting these pictures together. I felt connected to the previous photographers, standing where these people once stood to take their photographs. I can’t help but to think that someone in the future will take pictures of their own and stand exactly where I once stood.