What springs to mind when you think of Belize? Beaches, jungle, reefs and endless sunshine? Instead, venture deep underground on an unforgettable adventure to experience a different side to Belize.
The subterranean network of limestone caves hidden beneath the lush jungle foliage of Belize provides a fascinating insight into Mayan history as well as opportunities for unique adventures that will be a highlight of your holiday.
The Mayans considered caves to be the entrance to the underworld, Xibalba (translated as 'place of fear'), dark portals occupied by the gods of death and disease. Caves became ceremonial settings for the Mayans to present offerings to the gods; these offerings included blood letting and human sacrifice and relics from such rituals are still present today. Archaeological exploration in the early 1990s led to a number of these caves being opened to the public; if you want the chance to experience these unique historical sites act quickly as it is surely only a matter of time until access is restricted to protect the relics and geological formations from damage.
Most people would be surprised by just how accessible the caves are to the general public - there's no need for specialist equipment such as ropes and harnesses and children as young as 12 are permitted on the trips. All you need is a moderate level of fitness, confidence in the water and, most importantly, a sense of adventure!
So how do you decide which of the many incredible caves to visit during your holiday? After a lot of research we settled on two; a trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal near San Ignacio and a cave tubing adventure at Caves Branch near Belmopan.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave)
Actun Tunichil Muknal (generally known as ATM) is widely considered to be the most impressive of Belize's caves and the Lonely Planet describes a trip there as "one of the most unforgettable and adventurous tours you can make in Belize".
Our day began with a pick up from our hotel to join the other 4 people on our tour (group sizes are a maximum of 8). After approximately an hour and a half drive (the latter part along a bumpy dirt track) we arrived at the entrance to the reserve and set off on a mile and a half trek through the jungle. Upon reaching the cave we stopped to eat our packed lunches and were kitted up with our helmets and head torches. The only way to reach the entrance to the cave, a photogenic hourglass-shaped cleft in the limestone wall, is to swim through a crystal clear jungle pool; whilst the swim is only short, the shock of the icy water after the heat of the jungle definitely gets the adrenaline pumping.
For the next hour or so we clambered over rocks and squeezed through narrow gaps going in and out of the water ranging from knee-deep to swimming depth. After scrambling up a rock face we reached the dry section of the cave where we had to remove our shoes and proceed in socks to prevent the oils on our skin damaging the artefacts. We then spent a fascinating hour and half exploring the Mayan pottery and human skeletons which had remained untouched since 300-600 AD, as well as the incredible stalactites and stalagmites which sparkled with calcite.
The cave culminates in a chamber known as the Cathedral, the location of many of the sacrificial ceremonies. A 15 foot ladder at the deepest point of the cave enabled us to climb up to view a small chamber containing the complete skeleton of the 'crystal maiden'. The tour ended with us retracing our steps, including a heart pounding descent down the ladder and rock faces. We eventually emerged, tired but happy, back into the jungle sunshine to be returned to San Ignacio.
How to get there and where to stay
Visits to ATM are strictly controlled and there are currently only a couple of tour operators licensed to take small groups of tourists. We went with widely recommended Pacz Tours (www.pacztours.net) based in San Ignacio (the main base for activities in the Cayo area of Belize); the full day trip cost US $80 per person.
We stayed at Parrot Nest Lodge in Bullet Tree Falls, 3 miles outside San Ignacio, which proved to be one of our favourite places to stay of our entire trip. For only US $45 per night you can sleep in a rustic treehouse (an experience in itself, particularly in a thunderstorm!) and enjoy free tubing on the river that runs through the property as well as lots of opportunities for wildlife spotting - the nightly firefly light show in the field by the river is enchanting. Breakfast is available for US $4-6 and dinner (US $11) cooked by the owner, Theo, is very highly recommended. The accommodation is fairly cramped and basic and would not be to everybody's taste, but if you are happy to forego your creature comforts for a night or two you definitely won't regret a stay here.
If you would rather stay in San Ignacio itself, I would recommend the award winning Casa Blanca Guest House (rooms starting from US $30-50) which offers spotlessly clean, comfortable rooms (with air-con available at an extra cost) and the use of a lounge, roof terrace and kitchenette. For a bit more luxury, try the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (US $150-200) with its four poster beds, swimming pool and tennis courts; this hotel is also the home of the Green Iguana Conservation Project which is worth a visit in itself.
Cave Tubing (Caves Branch)
The day began with a 15 minute drive through citrus groves being bounced around in a ramshackle open-sided bus before being issued with our inflatable 'tubes' for a short walk to the river. We launched our tubes into the cool water of the river and paddled ourselves upstream and into the mouth of the cave where we spent a fun couple of hours alternating between tubing and clambering through the caves.
The geological formations were absolutely incredible, especially in a small chamber at the back of the cave where contorted multicoloured rocks sparkle with calcite. We also discovered that the caves are full of life, from the tiny fish in the river and the bats wheeling overhead to the huge scorpion spiders frequently encountered on the cave walls. A particular highlight of the trip for me was the picnic lunch in the darkest reaches of the cave, complete with a picnic blanket - a very surreal experience, especially when we turned off our headlamps to experience the complete and utter darkness. The day ended with a relaxing float back down the river through the jungle.
How to get there and where to stay
The easiest way to organise a cave tubing trip is to stay in one of the jungle resorts specialising in adventure and activity tours. We stayed at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge which offers a range of accommodation from US $15 for a bed in the bunkhouse to US $285 for a two bedroom treehouse suite. Buffet style breakfast, lunch and dinner are available for US $12, $12 and $24 respectively. The resort boasts lush jungle surroundings and a beautiful swimming pool area overlooking the river (which you can also swim in). We were upgraded to a jungle bungalow (US $165) from which we could lie in bed in the mornings and watch hummingbirds through the window. Ian Anderson, the owner of the resort, introduced cave tubing to Belize so where better to start your adventure from - cave tubing day trips cost between US $85 and $95.
The other main accommodation option in the area is the all-inclusive Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort, which offers jungle-themed rooms at similar prices to Caves Branch (but without the budget bunkhouse option).
- The recommended clothing is shorts and t-shirt over swimwear.
- Footwear must have enclosed toes and the tour operators recommend hiking boots or sneakers. Bear in mind though that your shoes will get very wet and dirty and you will be unlikely to be able to dry them out due to the humidity. I took some cheap pumps with me which were ideal as they were lightweight to pack and I could throw them away afterwards. Trekking sandals with enclosed toes are also ideal.
- I was worried about being cold after spending so long in a cave wearing wet clothes, but whilst I definitely did feel chilly, it was never to the stage of being uncomfortable. However, if you are worried about this, a top tip we were given was to fold up a thin long sleeved shirt and wear it under your helmet to keep it dry until needed.
- Its fine to take your camera as the guide will carry it for you in a dry bag when you are in the wet sections of the cave.
- Both tours involve a short walk at the beginning so remember to apply sunscreen and insect repellent.
- Tours may be cancelled if water levels are too high or too low.