Copal Cleansing, Iguana Induction & Bob’s Special: One Overnight in San Ignacio

by Carolee Chanona
carolee copal cleanse San Ignacio resort

Like so many innermost towns, San Ignacio holds a strong reassurance. The 16,000-some person municipality sprawls the banks of the Macal River, jutting out from across the Hawkesworth Bridge seemingly dancing to its own Latin-inspired, languid rhythm: open-minded, bohemian, budget-friendly, agricultural and adventurous. The only drivable suspension bridge in Belize links San Ignacio to its sister town, Santa Elena. At the weekend, folk gathers from both to brunch on authentic Salvadoranean pupusas, stewed chicken-filled burritos and refried-bean slathered Fry Jacks at the ubiquitous Saturday Farmer’s Market in San Ignacio, followed only by a stroll down the main Burn’s Avenue with fresh, iced horchata in hand.

Strolling Burns Avenue in San Ignacio Town. Photo by Duarte Dellarole

San Ignacio’s coming of age began several years ago with a trickle of eco-adventures, steadily gaining momentum for their offerings over the past few years. There are plenty of cute hostels and B&Bs tucked into the hilltop ascents and descents, but there’s only one jungle in town to stay at.

Hear me out.

Owned by the Bedran family, San Ignacio Resort Hotel was one of the first resorts to open in the area in 1976, starting as an events center in the now-Bedran Hall, then gradually evolving into the contemporary 27-room resort where I sit eating my new favorite meal—the Bob’s Special—and watch Collared Aracaris mooch across the alfresco restaurant’s metal railing.

Staying At The Only Jungle In Town

Two keel-billed toucans—Belize’s national bird—watched me unpack traveler’s fatigue from their perch in the Trumpet Tree, within arm’s reach (or rather, a wing’s length) of a ginger fizz as the welcome drink on our balcony. That morning, the harmonizing songs of flycatchers tumbled through the air, overpowered only by the droning symphony of cicadas shaking their tiny maracas at dusk.

The one and only pool at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Image courtesy property.

At the helm of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, managing sisters Mariam and Paulita have built on the family legacy, establishing incomparable standards in service. Encompassing a 17-acre estate, guests can take full advantage of all the on-property amenities, and on-site dining at Running W Restaurant as some of the best in San Ignacio with meats from the family ranch. There’s also a lobby bar for sundowners, casual drinks, and pub-friendly dining that spills outdoors. The cultural immersion you’re craving, though? It’s a few steps away from their always-inviting pool, offered as the Tea Tasting Medicinal Tour.

A Medicinal Plant Tour, Ending in Tea Tasting

For the most part, we’ve all been indoors for the better half of the 15 months passed. Now, there’s a renewed appreciation of oxygenating time in the great outdoors, which Belize checks all the boxes for. Bellies full from the Running W Restaurant, we headed down the onsite trail, whose gravel-filled route gives way to the coolness of the earth and each medicinal plant, labeled with its scientific and colloquial name. Guide extraordinaire and resident naturalist Luis recounts his first experience with medicinal plants: the pheasant tail.

Luis San Ignacio resort hotel iguana herbalist

Besides being the resident certified herbalist at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, Luis doubles as a manager and primary caretaker for the iguanas inside the Green Iguana Conservation Project.

Luis began in hospitality at a very young age—14 years old to be exact—where he worked to afford his studies. In truth, he innocently spoke out of turn to a guest that complained of back pain, “I know something that could help!” Luis put all his faith into memories of his grandfather: he’d go out, pick a pheasant leaf to match the size of the discomfited area, then activate it with heat.

Without much thought to signed waivers or even guest allergies, it was too late now—the guest was desperate for relief and Luis was eager to help. Not sleeping a wink that night, Luis raced into work the next morning to be greeted with the best news of all: pain no more. That singular experience was a catalyst for Luis, and the rest was history as he leaned heavily into what Belizeans refer to as bush medicine; learning all he could about the hundreds of trees, plants, fruits, and vines in Belize that have been traditionally used for medicinal purposes.

snake plant San Ignacio resort medicinal trail

Shadowing Dr. Rosita Arvigo before earning his certification as a herbalist, Luis—who designed and oversees the Medicinal trail onsite SIRH—now has a wealth of knowledge on plants, just as his Maya ancestors did. Even the plants without a labeled sign, Luis knew a use: from toothache to back pain to chickenpox and even male impotency, natural remedies are found right in Belizeans’ backyards. Take the Snake Plant, a common ornamental plant named after the plant’s patterned appearance coincidentally doubles as a way to delay the spread of a snake’s venom. Fresh leaves can be chewed on, buying extra time to reach proper medical attention for anti-venom.

Next up, copal cleansing.

Copal (Protium copal) is considered the sacred tree of the ancient Maya who used the resin as a ceremonial incense, warding off evil spirits and the evil eye—a harmful, envious glance. Luis carefully added the resin to the indigenous clay holder along with burning coal and explained the ceremony (and mindset) to do so. Encircling the smoke around you, inhale deep and envision the copal cleansing your spirit of any ill-intentions (which includes your own personal doubts, self-sabotage, and the like).

Over the same open fire, Luis added a handful of freshly picked allspice leaves to begin steeping in at least a gallon of water. Anti-inflammatory by nature, allspice (Pimienta officinalis) is most known for its digestive qualities, preventing bacterial infections, and even having its main property eugenol show antiseptic and anti-fungal properties. Continuing on with traditional clay cups, Luis carefully spooned the hot tea—cooled only by my breath as I sipped slow, despite the “feels like 96° Fahrenheit” forecast in this Western corner of the country. Thanks, humidity.

But that’s where the on-site Running W Restaurant comes in like a knight in shining armor, once again. Or rather, our bright young server Dimas, who quickly learned our names after just a few hours on the property.

A few short steps past the onsite Tennis Court and we were back at the Running W Restaurant with an icy refresher in hand and under a most-welcomed ceiling fan. We spent the next 20 minutes savoring the ginger-lime-mint slush before retreating to the lobby and waiting for the next Green Iguana Project tour slot.

Surprise, surprise: it was Luis again.

Up Close & Personal with Belize’s Green Iguanas

The mission of the nonprofit Green Iguana Conservation Project has been the protection of the threatened species since its inception in 1996, in an effort to widen their status between threatened and endangered. Not counting the 250 incubating, there are almost 20 adult green iguanas in the enclosed ‘San Iggy Hotel’, swaying in slow motion with their heads to the sun, and over 30 juveniles solar-charged by midday—as active as ever. If you’re brave, you’ll find out for yourself; Luis dropped at least 10 of these green guys (and gals) on me, who settled into my ponytail, belt loops, and shoulder blades.

From 6 feet away, Luis went through the differences between Belize’s resident Black Iguana and Green Iguana, their immeasurable value to the ecosystem, and the Green Iguana’s very real threats: climate change and over-hunting. For just $15, you can get one-on-one mingling time with these spiny micro-dragons before their re-release in the wild.

It’s an Instagrammable moment, for sure.

 Waking To Verdant Vistas of the Macal River Valley

San Ignacio jungle view resort

Enjoy the jungle from your private balcony. Image courtesy San Ignacio Resort Hotel

Cayo has opened its arms wide to different nationalities and residents, and clearly, experiences past its hallmark eco-adventures. Between bird-watching, a beguiling swimming pool, tennis courts, resident Green Iguanas, the onsite Running W Restaurant, medicinal trails, and an incredibly familial staff, there’s little reason to wander outside San Ignacio Resort Hotel.

After all, they’ve been a stalwart in Belizean hospitality for good reason, with their 45th anniversary fast approaching in August of this year; Mariam and Paulita have taken on their staff as an extension of their own family, and it shows in service.

river view suite San Ignacio resort hotel

The River View suite—one of the largest on property—features two separate sleeping spaces on the lower hillside of the resort with a king-size canopy bed.

The River View suite—one of the largest on the property—features two separate sleeping spaces on the lower hillside of the resort with a king-size canopy and queen bed; a kitchenette set-up with a fridge and everything for morning coffee; plus a large sliding glass doors that open to lounge chairs, a spacious balcony, and pool access. Even if you’re not into birding (which we chose to do with breakfast), you’ll understand all the hype about staying in the heart of town, surrounded by verdant vistas of the Macal River valley.

Fed first by silence and solitude, we recorded 24 species while musing the Birds of Belize book with our guide Elvis over avocado toast, bottomless coffee, chicken and waffles, and a green juice chockfull of chaya—the same plant Luis calls ‘iguana candy’.

More than just sustenance, that’s soul food if you ask me.

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