On the west bank of the Macal River, 35km from Belmopan, SAN IGNACIO is a friendly, relaxed town that draws together much of the best of inland Belize. The beating heart of Cayo District and the focus of tourism in western Belize, it offers good food, inexpensive hotels and restaurants and frequent bus connections. The town's best feature, however, is its location on the Macal River, amidst beautiful countryside and near several reserves. It's an excellent base for day-trips and overnights to the surrounding hills, streams, archeological sites, caves and forests. Several local tour operators run excursions south into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and beyond to the ruins of Caracol.
Just downstream from San Ignacio, the Macal and Mopan rivers, after tumbling down the northern and western slopes of the Maya Mountains, join to form the Belize River; the forested hills that begin at this confluence roll all the way south to Toledo District and west across Guatemala. The evenings are relatively cool here, and the days fresh – a welcome break from the sweltering heat of the coast – and there's a virtual absence of mosquitoes and other biting insects. The population is typically varied, mostly made up of Spanish-speaking mestizos, but with significant populations of Creoles, Mopan and Yucatec Maya, Mennonites, Lebanese, Chinese and even Sri Lankans.
Although you can easily use San Ignacio as a base for day-trips, numerous guest houses and ranches in the surrounding countryside offer cottage- and lodge-style accommodation and organized trips. On the whole, standards are very high, and most lodgings cater mainly to upmarket, package tourists who come here after a spell on the cayes – a phenomenon known as a "surf and turf" holiday. Most provide a very comfortable night's sleep and good home-cooking – even gourmet dining – as well as horseback riding, birding, canoeing and other trips into the surrounding area. All can be reached by road and are well signposted from San Ignacio, though to get to a couple of them you'll have to cross the Macal River in a canoe or small boat.