Right on the border with Guatemala, most visitors are drawn to San Ignacio to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves (otherwise known at the ATM caves). Voted the best caves to visit in the world by National Geographic, we decided to stop off in San Ignacio and see for ourselves. This article aims to educate you about the best things to do in San Ignacio.
Having been hiking in Cockscomb Wildlife Basin and staying the park with no access to WIFI, we turned up in San Ignacio with only a vague idea of our plan. Once we found our accommodation, it was on the owner’s recommendation that we signed up to do the tour.
Travelling on quite a tight budget, the ATM caves cost $95 USD per person. We did have to stop and think about whether we should do this activity. However, we can confirm that this price totally justified as your transportation, park entry fee, equipment, but guide and lunch are included. In addition, it’s one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever done and should not be missed.
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How to get to San Ignacio
San Ignacio is extremely easy to get to. Close to the Belize / Guatemala border (only a 10-minute taxi ride away) you have to pass through the town to leave the country.
There are regular buses from Belize City if you are coming from Caye Caulker or Mexico. Only an hour from Belmopan, buses run frequently to San Ignacio if you are coming from the south (Dangriga / Hopkins / Placencia).
If coming from Guatemala, you will likely be coming from Flores. The trip to the Belize border takes about 2 hours in a colectivo and there are regular departures. San Ignacio is a short ten-minute taxi ride away from the border.
You can also get direct transfers from San Ignacio to Flores (and visa versa). Transfers are direct, quick and are still cheap at about $15 USD per person. But it’s triple the price of doing the trip yourself by collectivo.
What to bring:
- Water bottle for the journey there on the bus. You can not take it into the caves though. A Water to Go bottle not only saves you money but you drastically reduce your single-use plastic usage and always have access to drinking water. Get 15% off with the code ‘EATWITHWALKER‘.
- Shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Your feet must be protected.
- Shorts if you are a girl. You will need to be covered up. Wear a T-shirt if you are a guy. You need to look respectful so please take this into consideration.
- Change of clothes/shoes after visiting the caves.
What not to bring:
- Your camera. Sadly tourists used to be able to take pictures, until 3 accidents caused some major damage to artefacts in the cave. This led to a total camera ban. All this will be explained as you walk through the caves. The pictures used in this article were not taken by us, but were provided by our tour company Mayawalk. The photos were taken before the photo ban was put in place.
Equipment provided by Mayawalk:
- Helmet with a head torch
- Life jackets if it’s been raining and there is a lot of water in the caves
- They even had some shoes you can borrow if yours aren’t suitable
This is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Upon arriving at our lovely accommodation we spoke to various guests who told us about visiting the caves and what an unforgettable experience the tour had been.
Our lovely B’n’B owner told us that her brother worked for a great company that had been doing the tour for years; Mayawalk. Mayawalk prepare you well and tell you exactly what to bring.
We found them to be an extremely professional company. Great guides with so much experience and knowledge and the drivers were fantastic too always making us feel safe. We were split into two groups so that our guides could give us a more intimate experience.
If you get vaguely claustrophobic you might find some parts hard but the guides are incredible and help anyone feeling out of their comfort zone. There is some swimming involved so if you are not a strong swimmer, let the guides know so they can help you.
The price is $95USD but that is a standard price when you speak to other operators in town. As previously mentioned it includes your park entrance fee, top of the range equipment, knowledgeable guides, transportation and generous lunch. A lot of other companies charge the same but don’t offer nearly the same experience.
Mayawalk is always one of the first groups to enter the caves. We wandered through the caves at a good pace, stopping to be told some incredible facts about Mayan culture, the history of the caves and what the caves represented to the Maya. Allowing our imaginations to flourish, our guides bought the caves alive. They gave us an insight into the rituals and practices previously performed in these caves.
Whilst we were in the caves we had lots of groups moving past us and back in the time that we were still exploring. There is the ‘pinnacle’ of the experience at the very end of the cave and we saw a lot of the other guides were marching their groups through to see this site. Most groups didn’t get the same level of detail during their visit.
At one section our guide had spent about 10 minutes showing us some rocks and the shapes they form in the shadows. They could tell the Maya had filed down these rocks and he moved his torch. This allowed us to stand in the footsteps of the Maya. We were seeing what they had seen hundreds of years before in that cave.
As we made our way out of the caves half an hour later, we walked past another group at this same point. Our explanation had taken 10 minutes. This other guide just said to his group – “some people see things, others don’t”.
At that moment we realised how spoilt we’d been going with Mayawalk. Their guides are so passionate about what they do. It is important to them that you learn more about the Maya and the history of the caves.
As previously mentioned no cameras / iPhones / water bottles are allowed. Too many tourists have damaged the artefacts in the cave so a blanket ban has been enforced on taking any items into the caves.
In a way, we feel like not constantly reaching to take pictures enhanced our experience. It meant we were fully present in the moment. There was no worrying about your phone as you waded through the water, climbed rocks and navigated tight crevices.
Mayawalk realises that most people want a way to remember this incredible day, so they offer to send you pictures of the caves that they took before the camera ban was enforced. It’s a really unique experience, so it’s nice to have the pictures for our memories.
When you get back to the bus there are showers you can use. You have a chance to change into dry clothes before lunch is served. For lunch, we had rice, beans, chicken and coleslaw. The servings were huge and the rum punch provided afterwards is moreish but potent. We all had seconds of both the food and the rum punch!
What else is there to see in San Ignacio?
Just outside of town, only a short taxi ride away you can find some ancient Mayan ruins, Xunantunich. The locals are extremely proud of these ruins and if you’re interested in Mayan history you can get some great pictures. Enjoy the lack of crowds!
From the main temple, from the very top, you can see Belize and Guatemala. When we visited there was hardly anyone there which made it feel extremely exclusive.
By the entrance, there is a very interesting museum which gives lots of detail about the site and how long it had been occupied. It was so detailed we found there was no need for a guide.
If you’ve been travelling around Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, you might ask why bother visiting more ruins. Firstly it’s very easy to get to. Then there is a little adventure as you cross a hand-pulled bridge to get across the river to the ruins.
The museum is great explaining the age of the site and Mayan culture. Plus you’ve practically got it to yourself so you can take your time taking pictures and enjoying the views.
At only $5BZ entrance per person and $10BZ per person for a return taxi ride, it’s a nice, cheap way to spend an afternoon.
Tip: there are specific tourist taxis operating in San Ignacio. The number plates will have PVO written vertically on the left-hand side. These are the cheapest taxis (any others will charge you lots more so only use the PVO taxis). Always check the price before getting in. If they try and charge you more than $5BZ per person – be firm and state what price you’re paying.
It should go without saying, but if you find any artefacts/pottery at the site, do not take it. Not only is it illegal but it’s not cool to take someone else’s history.
We stayed in a fabulous place called J & R Guest House. A good-sized double room with private bathroom, the price was very reasonable. The place had great WIFI, which was brilliant. Outside there was a big table and chairs on the balcony. There was a small kitchen with lots of utensils, a fridge and gas hob for cooking.
The owner was extremely helpful, always offering up to date advice. She told us about the difference between the cheap taxis and which ones will charge triple the price. Her recommendation to use Mayawalk for the ATM caves cemented our respect for her.
Off the main streets, the roads are slightly quieter which we appreciated. However, earplugs are always recommended as there is always a rogue cockrel nearby at dawn! There is also a laundry place on the corner near the house. Although not cheap, when we collected our clean laundry they only charged us for one load, not two.
We’d recommend J & R Guesthouse to anyone passing through that wants an affordable double room with cooking facilities. We found this accommodation was miles cheaper than any of the hostel options in town.
A lovely little town, San Ignacio is a great base to see the ATM caves and Xunantunich. We haven’t mentioned the sight seen at the end of the ATM caves because we think that some things should be a surprise.
If you fancy a proper adventure we can’t recommend the ATM caves enough and for the most professional company, Mayawalk wins hands down. Don’t be tempted by companies $10USD cheaper – the additional detail and lunch alone are worth the money.
Have you visited caves? Where were they and did you enjoy the experience?
Let us know in the comments below.