Belize is known for its underwater adventures, but when I opted to spend a few days in the Belizean jungle at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, I discovered that there’s so much more to this country than the ocean.
The island’s air shuttle, Tropic Air, was closed due to COVID but since it was my first visit to the country, I welcomed the 3-hour cross-country drive from the airport. And having a driver who is a native of the country gave us a fascinating local’s view of the country’s history, government, culture, and foods of Belize. Most don’t realize that English is the native language of this Central American country so it’s quite easy to navigate.
We arrived at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel that would be home for the next few days. It sits on a hilltop just above (but within walking distance) the small town of San Ignacio on 17 acres of lush Belizean rainforest. The 26-room boutique hotel is family-owned and now run by two daughters of the resort’s visionary who built the property in 1976; the daughters, Miriam and Paulita, have completed extensive renovations over the years bringing the resort to true luxury standards. Hospitality is one of those elusive words paired with travel, but you understand the true meaning of it at this resort, as you really feel like you’re a guest in their home. They’re onsite, personable, engage with guests daily, and feel more like a friend than a host.
There are five rather spacious suites, some with adjoining options, and it occurred to me what a great destination this would be for a family trip – space to spread out, yet much needed privacy from others, and all the comforts of home. There are also 21 guest rooms spread across the property, all with unique views of the gardens and the rainforest. The accommodations are impeccably decorated and showcase local artisans from woodworkers to fine artists. The furnishings are modern yet authentically Belizean. I highly recommend adding the resort’s butler services to your accommodations. Whether you desire breakfast in bed or an intimate happy hour with margaritas and guacamole on your balcony, your butler will take care of it. We often arrived back to our room after an outing to find cold beers and snacks from John, our butler who seemed to intuitively know our cravings. I mean, what’s better than a cold beer after a day in the jungle?
As I sat on my terrace early the first morning, I could see guests and staff below me on the restaurant’s verandah with binoculars. I soon saw the attraction – toucans. This national bird of Belize is abundant in this part of the rainforest and they fly from tree to tree over the resort. It turns out that the resort’s own private jungle is quite the place for birdwatchers with 119 species found throughout the property. Early morning birdwatching sessions are the resort’s hallmark.
To unwind and get into the true jungle spirit, start by lounging at the pool listening to the sounds of nature while your butler quenches your thirst with a tropical cocktail. But it won’t be long before the walking trails of the jungle beckon. I took advantage of a cloudy afternoon to walk the resort’s medicine trail where the resident herbalist pointed out the local plants and herbs that the Mayans have been using for centuries to ward off illness. I feverishly (pun intended) took notes and secretly wondered how to sneak some of the leaves into my suitcase (I did not). I soon found myself in full-on forest bathing mode, surrounded by nothing but stillness, deep in the jungle (with my guide and bug spray).
The resort is also home to the Green Iguana Conservation Project. I always love meeting the locals when I travel and these locals, “species,” of iguanas were no different. Luis, San Ignacio’s iguana expert, has embraced the project and it’s fascinating to see how he has developed a relationship with each of the residents, like Gomez the dominant and oh-so-handsome and rather virile male, or Sexy Lexy, who was stricken with cancer and lost a front leg but won the heart of Luis. Iguanas were once an endangered species but programs like San Ignacio’s have helped save the species. Both resort guests and the public can see and learn about iguanas at every stage of life – there were 300 eggs in the process of hatching on my visit. And if you fall in love with your own Gomez or Lexy, you can adopt an iguana and foster it from abroad.
It was evident that the resort’s restaurant, The Running W, is a favorite among locals. I’m not sure if it’s the authentic rainforest setting or the food itself, but I imagine it’s a combination of both. The menu seemed to satisfy every craving my picky palate had, from beef and burgers (all sourced from the family’s ranch) to local seafood simply prepared to showcase the freshness. The dishes give a nod to hearty Belizean fare but also occasionally fuse with the owners’ Mediterranean heritage in what they call “Maya-terranean.”
If you want to learn about the history of Mayan foods, head to the nearby village of San Antonio and visit the Women’s Coop, a local nonprofit that supports the community. It’s a fascinating talk and demonstration on ancient foods and preparation methods, and you’ll get to try your hand (and build some arm muscles) at turning corn kernels into masa using a granite stone. Your hard work is rewarded with a traditional Belizean meal of tamales, tortillas, chaya, and more. The town of San Ignacio is a short walk from the hotel so if you want to sample authentic local fare, visit the Saturday morning market and bring your appetite.
While most travelers flock to Belize for diving, I found the land adventures to be surprisingly great fun. Despite my mild claustrophobia, I wrestled up the bravado to experience tubing through a Mayan cave. It was empowering and exhilarating. Go with a guide because you’ll be learning about the history of the Mayans while floating in darkness with nothing but a headlamp to see the cave’s markings. The resort has its own personalized tour company so you can customize any tours and excursions from visiting the ancient Mayan temples to ziplining over the jungle or rafting the rapids created by the rainforest runoff.
Sure, there are Belizean beaches with some amazing diving, but if you don’t venture into the jungle, you’ll miss so much of the country’s culture and history. And where else can you enjoy luxury accommodations and amazing food in the middle of a rainforest? You’ll understand why San Ignacio Resort Hotel’s tagline is “the only jungle in town.”
Image Source: Trivago