Belize’s Cayo District

Table of Contents

Tourist cafe san ignacio Belize
Tourist cafe on San Ignacio’s Burns Avenue.

San Ignacio and Santa Elena

Belizeans from western Belize are fond of boasting that “the west is best!” And they sure have a lot to be proud about. Besides being home to the nation’s Capital, the City of Belmopan, the Cayo District, covering some two thousand square miles of verdant landscape, has some of the most scenic attractions in the country. You will find clear, meandering rivers, lush jungles, green hillsides, thundering waterfalls, huge cave systems, two of the most important Mayan ruins in the country, and the Mountain Pine Ridge forest just waiting for you to explore and experience. It’s rich with wildlife and a favored destination for eco tourists.

The Cayo district is the Belizean western frontier (you’ll be able to do more horseback riding than in any other part of the country). It is reached via the Western Highway (recently renamed George Price Highway), which begins on the outskirts of Belize City at the intersection of Central American Boulevard and Cemetery Road. A one-hour drive from Belize City gets you to the new Belmopan traffic circle. You can continue west, or take a turn left to Belmopan, where the downtown market area is a pulsating, thriving hub with bus terminal and taxi stands offering connections to every part of Belize. Located in this area are the Belize Bank, Atlantic Bank and Heritage Bank, restaurants, fast food and snack shops, gas stations, the central produce market, internet cafes and shops.

On your way from Belmopan to San Ignacio, you will pass the entrance to the modern-day Mennonite settlement of Spanish Lookout. If you want to get a look at what may appear to be a neat town in mid America, you may want to make a short visit. The run into Spanish Lookout is but 15 minutes from the highway. Spanish Lookout is a thriving agriculture community with two supermarkets, major grain production and storage facilities, mechanical and milling facilities, pre-fabricated home factories and several hardware stores.

Both English and Spanish are widely spoken in Cayo, which is home to large populations of Latinos, Creoles, Chinese, Lebanese, Guatemalans, Mennonites and Mayas. As with almost every town here, smaller groups of all other ethnic groups live there, like the Garifuna and East Indians. It is the country’s second largest district, with a population of some sixty thousand people.

West of Belmopan, the highway begins to climb out of the valley and the air gets noticeably cooler. It is a beautiful drive along rolling green countryside dotted with small, picturesque villages, with intriguing names such as Ontario, Tea Kettle, Central Farm and Esperanza (Hope), and, as you get further west, large tracts of cultivated farmland, many of which belong to the Mennonite community. You will also see fields of cattle grazing and several orange orchards. The Cayo District provides most of the livestock, poultry and grain consumed here.

hawksworth bridge belize
The Hawksworth bridge dates from 1949 and spans the Macal River that separates San Ignacio and Santa Elena towns in the Cayo District.

Seventy-two miles from Belize city are the twin towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio , separated by the Macal River and crossed via the country’s ‘s only suspension bridge, the Hawksworth Bridge. A new two lane concrete bridge is now finished a mile downriver. Several bus companies make return trips to San Ignacio and Santa Elena. The area is the gateway to the western border between Belize and Guatemala and surrounded by several villages. Saturdays will find the twin towns area bustling with shoppers and visitors. The area is very popular with tourists and you can find many hotels, guest houses and backpacker hostels. The towns have an excellent nightlife, stores, restaurants and cafes and is a staging ground for those planning to visit Tikal and other areas in Guatemala. An airstrip is located at Central Farm not far from San Ignacio and Santa Elena and this in itself has become a small tourist stop for those wishing to view the area by regular small aircraft or ultra lights.

xunantunich maya ruin
Xunantunich Maya ruin is one of the main tourist attractions in the Cayo District

About twelve miles further West you will find the Maya Village of Succotz with easy access to the impressive Xunantunich Maya ruin one of our Top Ten Maya Sites To Visit In Belize. On your way west, the ferry to cross the river going to Xunantunich is on the right. Succotz is a quiet village with not much to do, but it has a couple restaurants that serve typical Yucatec-Maya cuisine. Another three miles or so you are in Benque Viejo del Carmen town practically within walking distance of Belize’s western border with Guatemala at Melchor de Mencos. Benque is very easy going as most folks going in that direction are headed to or returning from Guatemala. Both Succotz and Benque make up for their staid atmosphere by hosting annual summer fairs that attract thousands of visitors from all over the country.

History Of El Cayo

Named El Cayo by the Spanish, San Ignacio is still usually referred to as Cayo by locals (and is the name often indicated on buses). Meaning “island”, it’s an apt description of the location, on a peninsula between two converging rivers, and a measure of how isolated the European settlers felt, with indigenous jungle inhabitants that valued their independence. Tipú, a Maya city at Negroman on the Macal River (five miles south), was the capital of Dzuluinicob, where the Maya resisted attempts to Christianize them. The early wave of European conquest, in 1544, made little impact, and the area remained a centre of rebellion for decades. Two Spanish friars arrived in 1618, but a year later the entire population was still practising “idolatry”. Outraged, the friars smashed the idols and ordered the native priests flogged, but by the end of the year the Maya once again drove out the Spaniards. In 1641 the friars again returned to Tipú – but expressing their defiance the Maya priests conducted a mock Mass using tortillas as communion
wafers. From then on Tipú remained an outpost of Maya culture, providing refuge to other Maya fleeing Spanish rule. It retained a good measure of independence until 1707, when the population was forcibly removed to Flores.

Like many places in Belize, San Ignacio probably started its present life as a logging camp. A map drawn up in 1787 states that the Indians of this area were “in friendship with the Baymen” – an intriguing situation, considering the strained relations of less than a century earlier. Later it was a centre for self-reliant chicleros, as the collectors of chicle gum were called, who knew the forest and Maya ruins intimately. When the black market price of Maya artefacts skyrocketed, many chicleros turned to looting. Until the Western Highway was built in the 1930s (though the section beyond San Ignacio wasn’t paved until the 1980s), local transport was by mule or water. It could take ten days of paddling to reach San Ignacio from Belize City, though later small steamers shortened the trip. Nowadays river traffic, which had at one point almost died out, is enjoying a revival. Perhaps the best time to visit San Ignacio is for Belize’s premier canoe race, La Ruta Maya, held in early March to celebrate Baron Bliss Day, when teams of paddlers race to Belize City over two days. Anyone can enter.

Things To Do Around San Ignacio and Santa Elena

Cradled in a valley carved by the Macal and Mopan rivers the sister towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena combine to form the country’s second largest population center. Drivers arrive at San Ignacio on the Western Highway 70 miles from Belize City in approximately 90 minutes. Towering over the Macal River, the colonial era Hawksworth Bridge is a one-lane suspension bridge built in 1949 and carries traffic east from Santa Elena to San Ignacio. Video above is of the very popular San Ian Ignacio Market Day that attracts lots of local, expats and tourists on weekends.

Benque Viejo del Carmen, a mestizo village two miles shy of the Guatemalan border, comes alive during its July fiesta, which honors the village’s patron saint with shows, food, and games. On Good Friday, Christians from around the country come for the dramatic Passion of Christ procession. More annual events include the San Ignacio Easter Fair, the San Jose Succotz Festival in March, and Cayo Expo in May.

San Ignacio visitors can actually walk to the impressive Maya site of Cahal Pech. But it is a hard walk uphill. Perched atop a hill just a mile from town, it rewards the 15-minute hike with a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley. A museum and visitors center displays Maya artifacts, open 8 am. to 5 p.m.

Bullet Tree Road leads to the 100 acre, archaeological reserve of El Pilar, which means “Water Basin” the site of an annual celebration of Maya culture each April. Hike or ride horseback to a pair of fascinating sinkholes. Resorts on the Benque Viejo Road, offers guided night jungle walks to observe nocturnal plants and animals. Maya guides demonstrate how sap is extracted from the sapodilla tree, source of chicle.

The grand Maya city of Xunantunich,which means “Maiden of the Rock” towers 130 feet tall, eight miles west of San Ignacio. Fit climbers reach the top of El Castillo, adorned by an impressive architectural frieze, for a sweeping view of Cayo to the east and Guatemala to the west. To reach Xunantunich from the village of San Jose Succotz, a hand-cranked ferry carries vehicles across the Mopan River. The archaeological site has a refreshment stand, gift shop, and visitor center, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To see remains of the first Spanish mission in Belize, take Chial Road (off Western Highway mile 75) to Negroman and the overgrown site of Tipu. At the end of the road at Black Rock River, a leisurely 40 minute hike past interesting black slate formations and 800 foot cliffs ends up at Vaca Falls. Spelunking expeditions combine history and adventure for healthy hikers with professional guides and the right equipment. Che Chem Ha Cave (Chumpiate Cave), in the Vaca Plateau area, houses one of the largest caches of intact pots in the ancient Maya world. Go on horseback to discover more pots, tools, and burial sites at nearby Flour Camp Cave (U’chen Tzub). The nearby Waterhole Cavern (Actun Chapat), harbors rare bats.

Tours And Tour Operators From San Ignacio

Numerous companies and guides in San Ignacio offer a wide assortment of tours – sometimes travelling as far as the Barrier Reef – though most operators specialize in one type of tour or destination. The best way to sort through the options is to identify what kind of tour you prefer and how much you want to spend. It’s generally cheaper to book directly with a local operator than through a hotel, but make sure anyone you choose to go with is a licensed tour guide. Some locations are difficult or impossible to visit on your own; particularly caving, for which a licensed guide qualified in cave rescue is mandatory, though also for the Maya ruins of Caracol. That said, several destinations are just as easy to visit on your own: if you have a
vehicle, you can reach local Maya archeological sites, the Belize Botanic Gardens, the Rainforest Medicine Trail and butterfly farms, some of which have guides on location. Be aware that for cave trips, you should go in a small group; six or eight people is typical.

The Belize Cayo District Is Expat Friendly

belize expat
Expat and Belize girl in San Ignacio examine Maya artifacts

The Cayo District is where you will find the highest concentration of expats outside of the Corozal and Ambergris Caye areas. Cayo has a lower cost of living compared to the pricey island life of Ambergris Caye Belize.  And many more open spaces suitable for farming, constructing a dream retirement home and access by road to all areas of Belize including the Peten and Livingston departments of neighboring Guatemala with its fabulous Rio Dulce at Livingston. The district lends itself to many activities you cannot find on an island – golf and horseback riding for example.

Article Updated December 2022