Belize, a land filled with many natural wonders, beautiful and unspoiled. Apart from the turquoise seas, the sandy beaches of the many islands dotted off our shores and the rich blanket of rainforest that spreads across the country, there is a world yet to be explored beneath the surface.
Discover the secrets of the ancient Mayas tubing through an underground realm exploring majestic caves, known as the Mayan underworld. This cave tubing adventure is done several places in Belize, including at the Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. Visitors can experience a journey of a lifetime into a dark but mysterious place and learn about the Mayas who utilized these caves from as early as 300 A.D.
Millions of years ago, most of the landmass of Belize was covered by a broad and shallow, tropical sea. One of the major rock types deposited in this sea was limestone, a rock formed of calcium carbonate. This limestone can be origin either from biological materials like dead corals and mollusks, or in some cases the limestone can be precipitated directly from the seawater.
Like the modern Gulf of Mexico, this shallow Cretaceous sea was occasionally subject to violent storms that disturbed the floor of the sea. These storms created a distinctive type of limestone rock called a breccia. Breccia is a rock that is made up of angular pieces of other rocks. In the cases of the rock at Caves Branch Cave, the angular pieces of rock are called ìrip up clastsî. These are pieces of rock several inches on a side that were torn up and jumbled about before the clasts or pieces had a chance to harden.
This distinctive rock is very easy to dissolve. Almost all limestone is soluble in a dilute solution of carbonic acid. Millions of years later, these Cretaceous limestones were uplifted on the northern flanks of the Maya Mountains. The central core of the Maya Mountains is formed of older crystalline volcanic and metamorphic rocks (quartz, granite, shists). After these mountains were uplifted, water would run off the crystalline rocks, and come into the outcrop of the Cretaceous limestone.
As the rainwater fell through the atmosphere, it would react with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After the rain fell into the soil on the crest of the Maya Mountain, the water would absorb additional carbon dioxide from decaying plant material. The rainwater turns into a weak acid, which then reacts with the limestone rock eroding away creating caves.
Archaeological investigations in Caves Branch Cave indicate that the ancient Maya utilized the site for several hundred years. Between 300 and 900 A.D., they made regular pilgrimages to the site in an effort to petition their gods to nourish their fields, to provide bountiful crops, game and sustenance, and to request stability in a very volatile world.
To both the ancient and modern Maya, caves represent entrances into the underworld. Known as Metnal or Xibalba, caves served as the abode of powerful and capricious gods, and were both places of death, and of creation. Deities that influenced life and death, those that controlled rain, and agricultural fertility, all resided in these dark, mysterious but sacred places. To ensure that the rain god Chac would bring life giving rains, it was expected that people would provide him with prescribed ritual offerings. In caves where the quality of preservation is excellent, archaeologist have noted that offerings often include agricultural produce such as corn, chilli pepper, cacao seeds, and pine needles. Some caves have ceramic censers with preserved copal incense that was burnt during important ritual events.
Most of these subterranean sites also contain implements that were used for hunting, tilling of the soil, and for the processing of corn (projectile points, manos, mutates, adzes or hoes). The ultimate gift, however, was the offering of oneís blood or human lives. Cave sites generally contain the skeletal remains of victims who were offered in sacrifice to the powerful and capricious gods of the underworld. More often are skeletal remains of young children, a preferred victim of Chac the rain god. In other cases the victims include adult males, and occasionally females. All evidence suggests that victims were most likely taken into the caves alive and sacrificed at the end ceremonies. Their bodies would then be placed on the floors of small niches or chambers, particularly in areas with seasonal water flow.
Research in Caves Branch Cave has found substantial evidence for ancient Maya use of this site. Carved on a stalagmite in the large chamber are several simple faces one on top of the other. In the Crystal Chamber there are also several jar fragments and the remains of dishes, bowls and various other stone tools.
Archaeological date indicate that prehistoric Maya cave rituals were most prevalent between 750 and 850 A.D., in what is known as the Terminal Classic period. This segment of time is significant because it is during this phase that ancient Maya civilization eventually declined and most of the area was abandoned. Current theories suggest that environmental stress may have been a major cause for the decline of Maya civilization. It is possible that extensive periods of drought severely affected the Mayaís ability to provide enough food for a populace that far exceeds the population of Belize today. If this is true, it could explain the reason why there was an increase in cave rituals at the Terminal Classic period. Despite this increase in ritual activity, however, the socio-economic and political system of the ancient Maya eventually failed, and people gradually abandoned the many communities that once bordered the Caves Branch area. All that remain today are a few tangible clues of the important ceremonies that they held deep within the confines of the sacred caves.
Today visitors journey inside this mysterious, sacred place with experience tour guides floating on inner tubes with lights to see the way. This is the only place in all of Belize where Cave Tubing is done. Popular to Cruise Ship visitors and also to the over night visitors to Belize, is this Cave Tubing Adventure. No vacation to Belize is complete without this experience into the Mayan underworld.
For tourists staying in San Pedro, they take a short flight or boat ride over to the mainland to board a van or bus and taken to the caves located only an hour away from Belize City. Cruise Ship visitors are tendered into the Tourism Village in Belize City, to board a van or bus and taken to the caves. Once there at the Cave Branch Reserve, visitors are asked to change off to get ready for the adventure. Tubes, headlights and life vests are distributed by the guides. There is a short 45 minute walk through the jungle before you meet the entrance of the cave. Along the way, guides will point out any wildlife; explain the uses of trees and roots seen while walking. Upon reaching the cave entrance, the guides will give a short briefing about ëdoes and doníts ë, just petty much what to expect. The tube float last for about another hour inside this huge cave system. Just sit relax and unwind while the gentle currents take you through this amazing cave. The guide will also explain the Maya mysteries of the cave. After seeing all the crystal formations revealed by your headlights, along with the beautiful waterfalls inside, you venture outside taking in some sun. The journey continues floating on the river, winding through the jungle and back where you started. After the tour you will definitely want to do it again. The water is refreshing and the sight is out of this world, incredible.
Since this adventure takes only half day, many Tour Operators offer this tour with Zipline Canopy Tour, House Back Riding, the Belize Zoo, A.T.V. Jungle Tour, or along with a Mayan Ruin. Cruise Ship visitors however can only do this by itself due to time. This adventure gives you enough time to get back to the ship with time to spear for shopping. It is also perfect timing for the overnight visitors from San Pedro, who has to take a flight or boat back to the island. There are bathroom facilities in the area and is very safe for visitors because there are always park rangers, tourist police and medical facilities near by. All tour guides has to be license by the Belize Tourism Board and has to be well knowledgeable with adequate experience to take visitors inside the caves.
Approximately 300 caves have been documented in Belize in the past 100 years. These include 198 registered
archaeological sites. Ethnohistoric, ethnographic, iconographic, and archaeological sources
indicate the importance of caves in Maya culture over a period spanning at least 1,500 years. The few
analyses of ceramics from Belize caves indicate use predominantly during the Late/Terminal Classic and
Early Postclassic (A.D. 600-1100). A wide array of archaeological evidence such as ceremonial dumps,
burials, art, and artificial construction support the idea that caves were used primarily for ceremonial
activities. Looting is a major problem, and lack of funding seriously compromises not only the protection
of cave sites, but also the preservation of materials and publication of the information recovered by
For more information on the Cave Archaeology of Belize, click here for Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 58(2):81-99, by Logan McNatt
Here is a description of one trip....
Caves Branch Jungle Lodge is a wonderful place to stay and enjoy the caves.
Here are some great photographs from the caves.... (click "Forward One Picture" to go thru the pages)