(with contributions from Sybille Nuenninghoff and Jacqueline Dragone)
While Belize inhabits just a small corner of Central America, it boasts a diverse natural landscape and a rich culture with roots firmly planted in both the Caribbean as well as the intriguing history of the Mayan world. The Cayo District, located in western Belize, in particular, hosts a myriad of natural wonders including pine forests, waterfalls and verdant hills, together with ancient temples and a warm and friendly people.
In Cayo, the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena always seem to be standing ready with welcoming arms for travelers interested in adventure, history and Belizean culture. And the first stop for any visitor has to be the Cayo Welcome Center in San Ignacio Town. This brand-spanking new venue is a hub for both tourists and locals alike, and offers a chance to set out experiencing the beauty of Belize.
Start off by escaping the constant buzz of traffic by stepping unto the recently pedestrianized Burns Avenue, and if you haven’t yet found a place to stay, there are a number of small centrally-located guest houses and hotels to choose from in the immediate vicinity. Restaurants, stores, tour operators and street vendors line the area, creating a lively atmosphere that puts you in the mood for exploration. Feel free to wander at a leisurely pace and soon enough, you’ll come across a tidy and relaxing open plaza. The space is complete with seating, green areas, an amphitheatre and public bus stand, food vendors, bars and even more restaurants. Right next to the plaza is the Cayo Welcome Center. Receiving over 800 visitors per month, the center is the crown jewel of this quaint little town. It serves as a beautifully presented display area for exquisitely preserved 2,000-year old Mayan artifacts that were accidentally unearthed during road works under Burns Avenue!! Inside the welcome center, you can count on Misael from the Belize Tourism Board’s information desk to tell you all about the abundance of exciting options to experience in the Cayo district.
This district is the most popular onshore tourist destination in Belize. It has numerous vacation retreats such as internationally recognized and award-winning eco-luxury resorts that offer the chance to be pampered underneath jungle canopies. Tours can easily be arranged for horse-back riding, bird watching, exploring medicinal trails, introducing visitors to many of the plants and herbs used in traditional Maya medicine, canoeing, spelunking through crystalline caves and exploring the Mayan sites that abound in this region.
As a newcomer to these parts, I was thrilled to learn a bit about the history of San Ignacio Town, Burns Avenue, and the Cayo Welcome Center from the young man at the tourist information desk. Recently, the government of Belize, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank, invested nearly US$2 million to renovate the area under its Sustainable Tourism Program. From the beginning, the local town council was fully on board with the project and is doing a wonderful job running and maintaining the center. Apparently, not long ago, the downtown area was not as welcoming as it is today. Since the welcome center was inaugurated in September 2013, the area has been and continues to be transformed into a safe, friendly and community-oriented facility that residents and visitors are fully appreciating.
Throughout my stay in San Ignacio, I made sure to dine at many of the different food kiosks in the welcome center plaza. My favourite has to be the one called “D’Catch Bistro” where I enjoyed fresh seafood ceviche and ice cold drinks. Talking with the friendly owner and observing cultural events in the park, I was able to learn quite a bit about Belizean life. I was even able to learn how to dance the rhythmically fast punta performed by Garifuna drummers as part of a national holiday celebrating the arrival in the 1800’s of the intriguing Garinagu people. The amphitheatre in the plaza regularly hosts concerts and events, and provides a venue for local organizations and youth groups to hold events as well. It creates a fun downtown area for families and tourists while promoting the culture of Belize and seems to be a major enhancement to the visitor experience.
Back at D’Catch Bistro, which opened just over year ago, the owner tells me that he and most of the other vendors are doing well. Generally, all feel fortunate to have their small businesses in the plaza and feel that investments have benefited both the locals and the tourists. He mentioned that the responsibility for management of the facility rests with the San Ignacio/Santa Elena Town Council and that rental income from the facilities, along with fees for restroom use and parking go towards maintenance and upkeep. This struck a chord with me and made me realize that this place is truly valued by the residents of Cayo. That definitely makes a difference, and it definitely makes me want to come back to Cayo, and to Belize, too, of course!