Backpacker hubs are some of the most interesting places in the world. Not only do they attract fascinating individuals, but the prices are cheap and the attractions are plentiful. Belize is a Caribbean country on the northeastern coast of Central America. Located between Mexico and Guatemala, the country has become a haven for immigrants and travelers from all over the world. In the western part of the island, the Cayo District is one of the most touristed destinations in the country, however, it is not as mainstream as the southern town of San Pedro.
A Background On San Ignacio
The cultural and economic hub of the Cayo District is the backpacker town of San Ignacio. What makes San Ignacio especially special is the fact that there is a vibrant local and regional vibe that undergirds the city's international presence. The city's thriving economy and colorful markets attract immigrants from all over Central America, mainly from Guatemala. The ethnic makeup of residents includes mestizos, Maya, and Garifuna. Interspersed among the South-Central Americans, there are a surprising number of Lebanese and Chinese people who settled in Belize at various points in history. Additionally, there are always lots of outgoing and eccentric travelers from all over the world walking the streets, often from places like Australia and the United States.
Why Does San Ignacio Attract So Many People, Specifically Backpackers?
During British colonization, the fertile land of the Cayo District was utilized for growing mahogany and chicle. Mahogany is a reddish-brown timber wood famous for being extremely durable, resistant to rot, and rich in color. Chicle is a gum tree with a wide variety of commercial uses. These highly globalized "cash crops" and industries in San Ignacio attracted economic migrants from the surrounding region, which is what gave rise to the city's reputation for richness and diversity. Before the British claimed Belize as a protectorate, the Spanish were in control. San Ignacio used to be known as El Cayo. The changes in the identity, nationality, religion, economy and language that San Ignacio experienced over the years have imprinted a lasting legacy of dynamism and vitality on the fabric of the city, making it inherently attractive to the most free-spirited adventurers from the farthest reaches of the world.
What To Do In San Ignacio
Ancient ruins, river caves, lush forests, and biodiversity are just some attractions available in the areas surrounding San Ignacio. Caracol is an ancient Maya archeological site about 25 miles (40 km) from the town. Founded in 1200 BC and located at the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Caracol was one of the most important political centers of the ancient Maya civilization. The city was massive, covering over 125 square miles (200 square km) and hosting a huge population of up to 180,000 people. At a time when the global population was estimated to be around 100 million, the city of Caracol hosted a significant fraction of the whole human race, not so different from a modern metropolis like Tokyo, Shanghai, or Mumbai. Visitors can explore the ancient cosmopolis and maybe even feel the hustle and bustle of Maya city life.
Another attraction worth visiting is Cahal Pech, an ornate, palatial, hilltop home for a Maya elite family who may have inhabited it as early as 1200 BC. Much like modern elites, the Maya oligarchs chose to live lavishly at an altitude on the outskirts of the city, overlooking the common folk from the top down. Strategically located high on the bank of the Mascal River, the residence is comprised of at least 34 structures, including temples, living rooms, bedrooms, meeting rooms, and many more. The tallest on-site temple is about 82 ft (25m) in height, indicating the elites took their spirituality very seriously, and possibly even derived their wealth from the deities they chose to worship.
- A Curious Thought: Could it be that the elites of today worship the same deities as the elites of prehistory?
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Apart from ruins, there are a number of caves to explore around San Ignacio. The Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is probably the most famous in the area. Archeological evidence suggests that it was used for mystic rituals such as human sacrifice. This is corroborated by the presence of preserved skeletal remains in the main chamber. Most notable, the skeleton of a 17-year-old adolescent was found in the cave, embalmed in such a way that, thousands of years later, the bones have calcified to give the bones a mysteriously sparkling and crystaline appearance. As a result, the skeleton is known as the "Crystal Maiden". It was named, of course, before technology had advanced enough to determine the biological sex of the skeleton. In addition to the glistening remains of human sacrifice, the cave is extensively decorated and rife with ceramics, stoneware, and bizarre arachnids such as the amblypygid.
Barton Creek Cave
The Barton Creek Cave is another point of attraction near San Ignacio. This cave is truly something to behold, and it can only be accessed by boat. A stream runs through the deep, dark interiors, stretching on for about 4 miles (6km). Based on the recordings of various instruments, scientists estimate that the cave continues to extend for at least another 4 miles (6km), but these farther reaches are inaccessible to people. Given that archeologists have found extensive evidence of ritual activities in Barton Creek Cave, who knows what went on in the deepest passages of the cave system, where the sunlight has never reached?
It should be clear by now why San Ignacio is such a special place. Not only is there a rich culture to immerse oneself in, but the region is also full of historical sites and mysteries to explore and uncover.