Many years ago, the first time we crossed the Hawkesworth suspension bridge (built 1949) approaching San Ignacio, we felt a little like John Wayne ridin’ into Dodge City. It had the look and feel of a real western frontier. There’s the old, colonial-style police station on the left and to the right, down the main street, it seemed as though everyone was staring at us. But the stares turned to smiles, and from that time on, the town just grew on us.
The name San Ignacio is almost synonymous with the Cayo. In fact, the town was originally named Cayo as well, and the “old timers” still call it that. This is the Spanish equivalent of caye, or island, and is so named because of the “island” formed by the Mopan and Macal Rivers. When combined with its sister city, Santa Elena on the other side of the Macal, the total population of over 11,000 makes this the third largest metropolis in Belize (after Belize City and Orange Walk).
This town is the center of activity for the whole area, and little happens in the Cayo District that doesn’t originate in San Ignacio.
Before the first roads were built in the late ’40’s, all goods and people moved by river transport, in “African Queen” style boats. The town was the hub of the logging and chicle industries. Chicle production has died out and the logs now move by truck instead of floating downriver, but San Ignacio has changed with the times. Tourism, citrus, ranching and small industry drive the town nowadays. A river trip that used to take two weeks from Belize City now takes an hour and a half on the Western Highway.
San Ignacio’s location as a trading post began thousands of years ago during the time of the Maya, and has continued through the centuries with the arrival of the Spanish, followed by the British and the tourists. Every Saturday morning around dawn, all of the modern traders set up for the weekly market, which lasts until noon.
Tours to many Maya ruins originate here, and the only road to the wonders of southern Cayo begins just east of town…your access to Mountain Pine Ridge, Chiquibul Forest Reserve and Caracol, the largest Maya site in Central America.