Traveling to Belize without coming inland is like getting a soft serve ice cream and not eating the cone. Come on! Eat the cone!
I spent a significant portion of my life on, in and around the water and I readily admit that the Cayes of Belize are inviting and hard to leave once you get there. As a matter of fact, I suggest coming inland first. Inland Belize has a lot to offer and I do not claim to be familiar with all of it. A great source of information for all areas of Belize is www.belizeforum.com. A great source for what western Belize has to offer is me.
Let’s start with leaving Belize City. I highly recommend it. There are several ways to do that and your budget, schedule and desires all play a factor. Consider the following:
Bus. If you arrive at the airport, a taxi to the bus station is $25US (usually for 3 people) then a bus to San Ignacio will be about $5US, per person. This entire evolution may take much of the day. It’s inexpensive but there are other reasonable options.
Private shuttle. A private shuttle from the airport to San Ignacio can be as little as $23-35US per person and takes about an hour and forty five minutes from the time you walk out of the airport doors. Try William, firstname.lastname@example.org or Elias, email@example.com. I know them both personally and they can usually be booked for the prices mentioned.
Rental car. I have rented cars here in Belize many times but never from the airport so I’ll refrain from comment on who to rent from. I do know this, you want a good, mid-sized vehicle like an SUV or even a small truck like a Toyota Hilux. The airport rental companies may try to put you in a mini SUV with 4WD. Many people rent them and they are good on gas but I prefer a more substantial vehicle for Belizean roads. I assure you that will wish you went with a larger vehicle if you intend on exploring a bit. Expect to pay about $75US per day. If you are going to be out and about, active and getting around the area, a rental is a good value. If you are going to arrive at a destination, pull the plug and vegetate you will be paying $75 a day for a rental to sit in a driveway and it’s not a good value. If you have no idea what you are going to do or you know that you want to alternately explore and vegetate you should take a shuttle to San Ignacio and consider renting a vehicle there, as needed. I use Matus Auto Rental but Safe Tours Belize are good people with good vehicles.
Lodging. The San Ignacio area has a great deal to offer, from high end resorts like the incredible Chaa Creek to a wide range of options for the traveler on a tighter budget. We are going to look at the less expensive options.
A great place to stay just outside of San Ignacio is The Parrot Nest Lodge located in the village of Bullet Tree Falls. The accommodations are simple, set among lush tropical gardens, and right on the Macal River. There are even a couple of tree-houses you can stay in. Free river tubing and some of the very best food in the San Ignacio area are a couple more highlights. “The Nest” is owned and run great people and staying there is more like staying with friends than staying at a commercial establishment. San Ignacio is a 7 minute cab ride away and it only costs a dollar or two to get to town. Expect to pay about $40US per night to stay at Parrot Nest Lodge.
Downtown San Ignacio is a very cool place and if you want to stay right downtown I recommend Rosa’s Hotel. Rosa’s has private bathrooms with hot & cold water, rooms with AC & cable TV or several even cheaper rooms without AC. A free continental breakfast is available and the upper veranda, overlooking San Ignacio, is a great place to catch a nice breeze and enjoy the free wifi.
Staying anywhere downtown has it’s advantages but one minor disadvantage is the noise that any downtown area brings. At Rosa’s I love that the AC or the fan helps drown that out. Rosa’s Hotel is run by the very competent Tony Hovis who is always ready to help visitors with local insight about tours, restaurants and nightlife. A room will at Rosa’s will cost you between $27.50 and $37.50US. It is a great value and puts you right in the heart of the action in San Ignacio.
If you are feeling a little more adventurous you should check in with local legend David Simpson of David’s Adventure Tours. Not only is he one of the longest established tour operators in the area but his Maya heritage becomes readily apparent when you visit his family property, El Guaca Mayo (The Scarlet Macaw). Located on a very large, unexcavated, Maya ruin, you are unlikely to be able to see something like this anywhere else in your travels. Additionally, he has lodging available on site for $36US per night, per person. It’s a pretty rustic situation but it includes dinner, breakfast, transportation and a guided tour of the property which is only accessed by canoe. David’s office is easily found in downtown San Ignacio and the phone number there is 011-501-804-3674.
Ok, time for some shameless, self promotion. Barton Creek Outpost was named one of the top 5 “Highlights of Belize” by the Lonely Planet Guidebook and they also said, “It’s the kind of place you visit for a day and stay for a week.” The Outpost is a backpacker hotspot and is set in one of the most beautiful inland locations in Belize. Camping is super-cheap, rental tents are available and there is a new dorm-style bunkhouse that overlooks a beautiful creek in a jungle setting. The food is consistently amazing and the people that come through are usually as cool as the other side of the pillow. There are free jungle hikes as well as big adventure in the form of guided hikes to remote waterfalls, cliff jumping from another set of falls, rock climbing (nothing technical) & horseback riding is available through nearby Mountain Equestrian Trail (MET). Don’t take my word for it though, Google search Barton Creek Outpost Belize and see who is saying what. The Outpost is located about 16 miles outside of San Ignacio and is not always easy to get to but the website has a page devoted getting there. If you are coming to western Belize, check out the Outpost.
Maya Ruins. I enjoy exploring ancient Maya Runs as much as the next guy and the biggest one in Belize is Caracol. Having said that, I hardly ever go there because the 57 mile dirt road is usually like the surface of the moon. If you want to go, driving to Caracol is an adventure within itself and there are several excellent spots to check out on the way back, more on that in a sec. There are also several tour companies that will take you, more on tour companies in a sec. As an alternative to Caracol, the large Maya ruin Xunantunich (The Stone Maiden) is very impressive, easy to get to and about 7 miles west of San Ignacio on the highway. A taxi there can be as cheap as $2US per person and the bus is a little less. Some of the best trinket/craft shopping is also found right outside of the Xunantunich entrance.
The Maya ruin Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks) is essentially in San Ignacio, small, very cool, generally tick-free and worth your time as well. Don’t be fooled into walking though, a cab is cheap and worth it. Entrance into these places in currently $5US.
These are not the only excavated ruins in the area. If you are student of the Maya and want more, more, more then you can easily find it.
Tour Companies. There are quite a few tour companies around here, some are very good, some are the opposite of that. I will recommend a couple that I know personally and have extensive experience with.
Pacz Tours is a very good all around good company. They have good vehicles, professional guides, are safe and very well run. Pacz offers trips to nearly every site in western Belize and it’s hard to go wrong using them for anything and everything.
Kin Winik is small operation run by John Chuc, a Mayan tour guide with 20 years guiding experience. John offers personalized tours at good prices, is very knowledgeable, dependable and I highly recommend him. Check out his website for more info.
David’s Adventure Tours has been around a very long time and is personally run by local legend, David Simpson. I spoke about him above and I recommend him for a memorable experience with lots of local flavor. David can often be reached at 011-501-804-3674. His office is easy to find between the bus station and the market in San Ignacio.
John and David are each going to provide you with a very personal, customized, excellent adventure. Pacz tours is probably a bit more polished, has a bigger budget, a fleet of vehicles and you are likely to be on your very well run tour with a group of others. It would be difficult for me to choose any of these above the others. I highly recommend all three.
Day trips in the area.
ATM Cave. The crown jewel of western Belize. The most highly sought after tour in the area. The most marketed trip in the west. It’s worth it. Go see it. If you stay at the Outpost I can probably get it for you cheaper than you can get it yourself. I recommend Pacz for this tour. Cost: $65 – $85US pp.
Mountain Pine Ridge. To come to western Belize and not see Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls should be a crime. And by “see” I mean spend the day climbing on, swimming in, jumping from and physically enjoying. If you stay at the Outpost we can help get you there. If not, I recommend David Simpson and John Chuc. Cost: $65 – 90US, pp and well worth it. If you have a rental you can find them both yourself.
1000 Foot Falls. Don’t be fooled. Miss it for sure! It’s a long drive to see something from a view point of 1000 yards away with no way to actually get to it and enjoy it. I’d decline to go if someone told me they’d take me for free and buy me lunch.
Rio Frio Cave. Worth a stop if you are already driving by it, coming back from Caracol for example. Worth a miss if you have to travel to get there.
Bol’s Cave. You will have to drive by it to get to the Pine Ridge. It’s warrants a visit and houses an amazingly large collection of Maya artifacts. Most tour companies don’t stop there because the people that run it do not offer reasonable compensation for tour companies to stop. It’s worth paying your guide to stop there. Try $7.50-10US for the guide and $15US to see the cave. It’s worth it.
Barton Creek Cave. It’s 200 yards from the Outpost so if you are with us already you shouldn’t miss it. If you are not at the Outpost, truthfully, Big Rock Falls and Rio On Pools are a better time although more physically demanding. Cost: $50–90US.
Horseback Riding. Mountain Equestrian Trails was featured in the book, “1000 Places To See Before You Die” with good reason. If you like to ride you cannot do better than an adventure with MET. They have great lodging, excellent food, and the family that owns it are simply the best. The cost of lodging is a bit higher than some other places but let’s face it, quality is usually worth the price.
Ok, to review….eat the cone, miss 1000 foot falls and stay at Barton Creek Outpost. Any questions?