A Brief History of El Cayo

A Brief History of El Cayo

  • A Brief History of El Cayo

By Giovanni Pinelo


More commonly known as ‘El Cayo’ or simply ‘Cayo’, the Twin Towns is the second most populous municipality in Belize and one of the country’s most visited inland tourist destinations. The Cayo District distinguishes itself as the mountainous region of Belize, featuring scenic views of the Maya Mountains, plains, valleys and rivers. It is in this district, along the banks of the Macal River, that one finds the beautiful Twin Towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena.


The name El Cayo finds its origin in the Spanish word Cayo, which refers to an island. Mid-18th century residents and travellers considered the area to be an ‘island’. This impression was created when they observed the convergence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers and the tributaries which traversed the area (Fowler, 1879). Thus, the area became known as ‘El Cayo’.


The architectural legacy of the early Maya inhabitants of the area remains visible at the Maya archaeological site of Cahal Pech, which blossomed 1200 BC – 900 AD. In the period after 900 A.D. and up until 1700 AD, the Maya experienced a decline and withdrew from their larger city-states. This depopulation was aggravated by the arrival of Spanish expeditions, which eventually led to the exile of the Maya from the area. The area was not resettled until the late 1700s, when the availability of forest resources, particularly mahogany, cedar, and other hardwoods, drew a number of European and enslaved Africans from Belize Town to set up logging camps along the riverbanks. The locale thus developed as a barquadier where logs were processed for their journey toward the mouth of the Belize River.


San Ignacio is located on the western side of the Macal River. The name San Ignacio originated in 1870, when, under the direction of Fr. A. Bavastro, SJ, the first community chapel was dedicated in honour of St. Ignatius of Loyola. El Cayo’s population at the time included Europeans, Creoles, Maya, and Mestizo immigrants from Petén, Guatemala, and Yucatan, México. By 1900, a number of Syrians / Lebanese migrants had also settled in El Cayo; most of them were merchants and contractors in the timber and chicle industries. El Cayo gradually transformed into a community with a diverse population who interacted in different economic and social activities. The community’s development and economic contribution to the colony influenced the colonial government to declare San Ignacio a town effective 19 October, 1904.


On the eastern side of the Macal River, there was a mahogany work known as “Hermitage”. This large parcel of land included an aguada between the hillsides and the river. In May, 1880, Mr. Gregorio Requeña, a cattle farmer, was recorded as the owner of this mahogany work. Oral history tells that the name Santa Elena was chosen by Mr. Requeña whose family had migrated from Santa Elena, Petén in Guatemala. The Requena’s tenants included Mestizo and Creole timber-cutters and chicleros contracted for businessmen in El Cayo. Over time, the workers and their families purchased small parcels of land from the Mr. Requena in Santa Elena. Today, it has become known as the Santa Elena Town, the twin sister of San Ignacio.
In the early 1960s, through the El Cayo Town Board and Mayor Hector D. Silva Sr., central government acquired lands from Mr. Henry Melhado in El Cayo and from Mr. Requena in Santa Elena for redistribution as house lots. In November 1962, a Town Board resolution incorporated Santa Elena within the town boundaries, thus creating “El Cayo de San Ignacio y Santa Elena”. Since 2001, San Ignacio and Santa Elena have been referred to as the “Twin Towns”.


The past five decades have witnessed a further population and economic growth of the Twin Towns. According to the 2010 census, San Ignacio and Santa Elena are home to approximately 18,000 residents. The Twin Towns boast several elementary, secondary and tertiary level institutions. Additionally, there are reliable public and private health services, access to telecommunications, electricity and potable water systems, and offers essential services in construction, transportation, agriculture and touristic adventures in and around the Twin Towns.


How to Cite: Pinelo, Giovanni. “A brief history of El Cayo, San Ignacio and Santa Elena.” Belize History Association. Retrieved from: [Insert BHA URL]

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