If you've backpacked anywhere before, you'll likely agree that the best experiences are almost always free. Why is that though? From my experience, cultural exchanges that don't involve a monetary transaction, are more authentic because little to nothing is expected in return.
After living in the area for a while, I found these free activities to be the most fun
San Ignacio Town happens to have one of the most vibrant and diverse markets in the entire country of Belize. It's open daily from 7:00 AM to around 6:00 PM. Walking around the market, you'll see a rainbow of colors and an interesting mix of people. The aroma from the grilled and fried dishes will make you want to try everything in sight.
On weekends, the market is busier than most days. It's filled with locals visiting from the surrounding villages restocking on supplies, enjoying street food, and swimming in the river.
- Cost: Free
- Location: San Ignacio Market
This Macal River is literally behind the San Ignacio Market. After you're done exploring the colorful San Ignacio Market, you can stroll down by the river-side and people watch. To this day, I enjoy buying food, taking it by the river, and people watch. Locals tend to park by the riverside, bring their food and family and chill. During sunrise and sunset, the birds are calming to watch and hear.
There's nothing as calming as watching the river flow with a lush green jungle as the backdrop.
- Cost: Free
- Location: Behind San Ignacio Market
Bullet Tree Falls is a small village located six minutes away (by car) from San Ignacio Town and you can swim all along the riverside for free. The river is called the Mopan River. You won't find this on any trip advis0r list because it's a local thing. The water is clean and refreshing, especially on a hot, humid day.
- Cost: Free (Maybe a taxi)
- Location: Mopan River at Bullet Tree
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve is filled with the most beautiful, untouched areas in Belize. You can find the following sites in this area: Big Rock Waterfalls, Rio on Pools, Rio Frio Cave, 1000 Foot Falls, Caracol Mayan Ruins.
I recommend going to Big Rock Falls because it's the closest attraction from San Ignacio Town. There are no public buses to the reserve as yet. The only bus that travels to this area goes to San Antonio Village and only goes once a day and then comes back to town.
So how the hell do I get there?
Hitchhiking - I've hitchhiked to the reserve countless times on the weekends because locals are known to take recreational trips to the reserve on weekends. During the week, you can also hitch a ride from tourists visiting, but the wait will be long. Trust me.
Carpooling - If hitchhiking is not your style, you can check hostels if they have any organized trips to the reserve and offer to pitch in with gas/petrol. This isn't free but better than paying the full tour cost.
Rent a Car - Sadly this is expensive in Belize at approximately $75 USD a day. Amazingly it's cheaper than going on a tour.
Tour Company - This is my last recommendation because it's both expensive and too touristy. If you're pressed for time, this might be the best option though. Tours start at $85 USD to a single attraction.
- Cost: Free (If hitchhiking)
- Location: Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve
And now, here's my honest opinion on some popular paid activities
Everyone has a different travel style. Some travelers like checking off an ultimate bucket list, and other's like going off the beaten path. From my experience, lists have a tendency to disappoint because expectations don't always match up with reality. In this section, I'll give you my brutally honest opinion on popular activities recommended on trip advis0r.
Xunantunich is one of the many ancient ruins in Belize. This one is special though and worth exploring from my point of view. It's a much larger and impressive complex compared to Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins, another ancient ruin in San Ignacio.
Check out our post on Xunantunich & Cahal Pech if you haven't decided which you want to visit.
The visit to Xunantunich includes a short trip over a manually-operated bridge and a 0.5 mile or 0.8 km hike uphill. Upon arriving at the complex, you have a choice of exploring different sites within the area with El Castillo being the largest ruin. On a lucky day, you might even see or hear howler monkeys on the trees. Their howling sound like dinosaur growls in Jurassic Park.
If you're a fan of birding, Xunantunich is a birder's paradise. Hiking up the trail early in the morning is the best time to spot local bird species. After buying your tickets, you can ask the guard or any worker to point you to the birder's trail within the complex. After visiting the ruins more times than I can count, this new birding trail reignited my curiosity for wildlife.
- Entrance Fee: $5.00 USD per person
- Tour Details: Unguided with optional tour guide
- Opening Hours: 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM Daily
- Location: San Jose Succotz
I'm not a big fan of tours honestly but being a huge fan of chocolate makes this experience a no-brainer. The short chocolate tour shows you how the Mayas created their traditional chocolate from their precious superfood, the cacao.
The instructor of the family owned business is Adrian, and he is knowledgeable, passionate and authentic. If you appreciate raw flavors, this will tickle your senses in all the right places. The entire process is immersive and fascinating to say the least.
AJAW offers longer tours that take you to the cacao farm to see the origin of the process.
- Cost: $14.00 USD per person ($28.00 BZD)
- Duration: 1 hour
- Opening Hours: 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM (Closed on Sundays)
- Tours Available: Hourly
- Location: Benque Viejo Road
- Website: AJAW Chocolate
Cahal Pech can be seen as Xunantunich's little brother, smaller and wilder in nature. After visiting this ancient ruin couple of times, I began to appreciate its intricacies. The site is like an ancient jungle maze that's smack in the middle of town. The site's neighbors are literally local homes with people going about their daily business.
My recommendation is to go in early in the morning or late in the evening to catch all the birds that perch on the trees. I visited during the pandemic and was lucky enough to spot a tiny owl on a tree along with rodents running around the ruin.
The pandemic gave these sites time to heal and wildlife was able to wake up again. Traveling while no one is moving around has its perks. You might even get the entire complex to yourself.
- Cost: $5.00 USD per person ($10.00 BZD)
- Tour Details: Unguided with optional tour guide
- Opening Hours: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Daily
- Location: Cahal Pech Hill
For many visitors, the ATM cave tour is the #1 reason they come to Belize. The cave experience has gained so much popularity that it's bordering a natural wonder of the world I think. At first, I thought this cave tour was overhype but after finally doing it, I personally think it's bloody unreal that a tour of this nature exits. Let me explain why.
This tour takes you into an underworld journey for about four hours, where you'll visit the sites where the Mayas did weird rituals in order to satisfy their Gods. The sacrifices yielded results that can be seen within hands reach.
While in the cave, you'll be crawling through small cracks and swimming through crystal-clear water as though you were in a Lara Craft video game. It's a surreal experience and my words don't justify it but the tour guides' words will.
The cave tour guides are all knowledgeable, passionate and entertaining. Partially, because there are only 25 certified tour guides that can conduct the ATM tour in the whole country. Most are of Mayan heritage which makes it extra special.
- Cost: $125 USD per person ($250 BZD)
- Tour Details: Mandatory Tour Guide
- Duration: 3 to 4 hours (In the cave)
- Driving Time: 2 hours
- Total Time: 5 to 6 hours
- Location: Seven Miles El Progresso
The Green Iguana Conservation Project is rated as the #1 tour in San Ignacio. But is it worth it? If you love iguanas, I think it is, but it's not as impressive as the photoshoped images hype it up to be — in my opinion.
Upon arrival at the reserve, which is behind the San Ignacio Resort, I realized the site was a lot smaller than I thought. It didn't reflect the vibrant pictures you find online, which are over edited in my opinion. The entire reserve is a small cage with the iguanas running around happily eating their grub for the day. Now, the best part of the tour is the guide who shares with you interesting facts about the tiny dinosaurs.
Personally I'm not a big fan of caged up animals if I don't know how ethical their practices are, but that's just me. If I find new research about this project, I'll be sure to include it in the future.