The San Ignacio Resort Hotel in Belize – Fit for a Queen
When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II toured Belize in 1994, she chose the San Ignacio Resort Hotel for her stay. Every guest is treated like royalty at this luxurious property in northwest Belize, close to ancient Maya sites and the natural beauty of the Mountain Pine Forest Reserve.
A Royal Welcome
The San Ignacio Resort Hotel sits high on a hill above the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, about an hour by car from Belize City. On the drive to the hotel, my guide pointed out the towering Ceiba trees along the highway. These giants that grow up to 70 meters high were sacred to the ancient Mayan people. According to Mayan mythology, souls travelled from the underworld, symbolized by the tree’s roots along the smooth bark of the trunk, which represented the everyday world, and up to the 13 levels of heaven in the tree’s leafy crown.
We pulled into the circular drive of the Spanish-influenced resort and were greeted at the door with a welcome chilled towel and a glass of sweet melon juice. An elegant staircase of tropical hardwoods and curlicued iron led to my suite on the second floor. Crossing the mahogany floor I opened the floor-to-ceiling windows to breathe in the warm tropical air. This 27-room family-run boutique resort is built on a hillside that overlooks the Macal River and 17 acres of virgin forest, earning it the title of “the only jungle in town”.
The next morning I was greeted by a pale pink sunrise half-hidden by palm trees as I stepped out onto the spacious patio. Several toucans took up positions in the trees around the sparkling turquoise pool, puffing out their yellow breasts and shaking the morning mist from their shiny black wings. They swivelled their distinctive long beaks in the greenery like weathervanes.
Belize is a perfect starting point for “twitchers”, as amateur birdwatchers are called. A two-hour introductory birdwatching tour starts each morning at 6 a.m. from the lobby. Serious birdwatchers might like to visit during the annual Belize Birding Festival in October. Cornell University’s Ornithology Department organizes the lectures. To hear birdcalls and info from around the world, check out their free app, eBird.
Lazy bird watchers like myself can simply watch the birds come to them while enjoying a fine breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and coffee on the outdoor patio of the resort’s Running W Restaurant. I also learned to appreciate “fry jacks”, the Belizean equivalent of beignets, lightly deep-fried pastry pillows, dusted with icing sugar. The Running W serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and features beef from the owners’ nearby ranch on the international menu.
To Market, to Market
Belize was known as British Honduras from 1871 until 1981 when it gained independence. English is still the country’s official language. About 18,000 people live in San Ignacio and Santa Elena where the local architecture is a mix of colonial, Creole and Spanish influences. Most homes sport colourfully painted plaster walls in shades of hot pink, yellow and acid green. Traditional houses on stilts nestle next to two storey homes with classical arches and carved wooden balconies. A winding road zigzags down the hill from the resort to the market by the river.
Every Saturday morning, the market fills with vendors from the surrounding countryside selling fresh fruits and vegetables, coconut oil, bags of spices and that trio of classic Central American staples: beans, rice and corn. Tables are piled high with pyramids of produce and surrounded by sacks of onions and potatoes. There are stalls of all kinds: clothing, shoes, and makeup, hammocks in a variety of sizes and colours, and a few souvenir shops with local art, wood carvings and engraved stones on display.
Prices are clearly marked, and haggling is unnecessary. The exchange rate is two Belize dollars to one US dollar, which is widely accepted. Change is returned in Belizean currency, so there’s no need to exchange money twice, although there is a Scotiabank in town.
Leaving the market to stroll towards Burns Avenue, the main pedestrian street, The Ice Cream Shoppe tempted me in for a sweet sample of ice cream. The local flavours were delicious; horchata is made with rice, and craboo is flavoured with small sour cherries.
Take Me Away
Back at the hotel, I checked in with concierge extraordinaire Onil about tours for the next day. The number one rated tour in San Ignacio takes place right on the resort’s own property. The Green Iguana Reserve is a hit with kids and adults alike. Tours leave every hour on the hour to visit these tame, friendly creatures. According to Cruz, my guide, many of them are rescue animals and they all have their own distinct personalities. Some even like to showboat a little, climbing up on to visitors for photo ops. Other tours on the grounds take guests on a medicinal plant trail, and a “critter of the night” walk.
The resort’s in-house tour company, Cayo Gial, can have you zip-lining through the rainforest, tubing through a cave, canoeing down the Macal River or horseback riding to Mayan ruins. There are two ancient Mayan sites very close to San Ignacio. Both are worth a visit. Cahal Pech has over 34 structures to explore, while Xunantunich, eight miles west of town, has El Castillo, a 40 meter (130 foot) tall temple. I chose to take a day trip to Thousand Foot Falls, the highest falls in Central America, in the Mountain Pine Forest Reserve, which also included a trip to a massive limestone cave and a refreshing dip in a waterfall.
I had a peek at the suite where Queen Elizabeth spent the night. It’s a luxurious room at ground level, overlooking the garden, but I would recommend the new River View and Jungle View suites for families. They each sleep up to six guests with spacious patios that overlook the grounds. The suites can be joined together to accommodate large groups, giving you private access to the pool, which is open 24 hours a day. Complimentary guided tours to the Green Iguana Reserve and the Medicinal Trail are included. So is the royal treatment.