Millions of years ago, the majority of the landmass of Belize was covered by an extensive and shallow tropical sea. Limestone, a rock formed of calcium carbonate was one of the major rock types deposited in the sea. 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 Caves Branch Cave for example, angular pieces of rock can be found that 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.
Today Belize has the most spectacular caving system in the world. Below are eight amazing caves you can explore on your Belize vacation:
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Actun Tunichil Muknal is one of the most impressive and artefact-rich Maya ceremonial caves ever found containing rare bloodletting altars used in sacrifices by Maya royalty and over 1400 catalogued artefacts as well as sacrificial human remains. The ATM Cave is home to the famous “Crystal Maiden” the intact skeleton of a young female that, due to a covering of calcium carbonate, sparkles eerily in the lamp light.
The ATM Cave is a wet cave – you swim into the mouth and then wade through ankle to chest high water before climbing to a labyrinth of dry chambers which lead to the cathedral-like main hall, a towering chamber 350 metres in length and 50mteres wide and filled with artefacts and sacrificial remains. After this another climb takes you to the stone sepulchre (after which the cave is named) where the Crystal Maiden lies.
This is an extraordinary Belize adventure and a rare opportunity to see ancient Maya ceremonial sites and altars as they were and virtually untouched for centuries.
Belize Caves Branch
Caves Branch Cave is one of several subterranean sites that were carved out of the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains by the very active Caves Branch River. The site provides an excellent example of the erosive power of water, and the natural wonders of Belize.
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.
Black Hole Drop
Actun Loch Tunich is the “Mother of all caves” in Belize! The edge of the Actun Loch Tunich sink hole is over 300 feet above the basin below and 200 feet above the rain-forest canopy that grows out from the sink hole basin.
Actun Loch Tunich sink hole is not actually black but since you can’t see the bottom from the start, this definitely adds an additional element of excitement.
Trained caving guides rig a system of rappelling ropes for your descent to the basin below. The first 10 feet provides the adrenaline, the next 200 feet provides an unforgettable experience and sights to behold, and the last 100 feet takes you down through the rain forest canopy.
This expedition is not for the faint of heart and all participants must be relatively fit.
Che Chem Ha Cave
Che Chem Ha Cave is located 16 miles from San Ignacio near Vaca Falls and is 180-degree opposite of Barton Creek’s peaceful caving experience. This is a full-power adrenaline rush, from the 45-minute uphill trek to witnessing the most amazing collection of Maya pottery anyone has ever seen.
Discovered by a local farmer, this cave is most notable for its unique collection of Maya artwork and artifacts. Visitors with an interest in archaeology will appreciate the cave’s entrance, which is decorated with Maya motifs and the extensive assortment of ancient storage jars, called “ollas,” that line the walls of its chambers.
Inside Che Chem Ha, there are many ladders, each leading to chambers high within the cave, places where many ollas still contain maize and other staples of the ancient Maya diet. Because these antiquities are so distinctly representative of Mayan life, the cave is carefully monitored to prevent looting and visitors are only allowed to enter when escorted by an experienced resident guide.
Barton Creek Cave
Explore a stunning Maya ceremonial cave by canoe as licensed guides introduce you to one of Belize’s most fascinating natural and cultural wonders during this remarkable half day excursion.
The tour travels about a mile along a meandering river flowing through the beautiful cathedral -like chambers and wide passages of the Barton Creek Cave, which has become a popular attraction in recent years with high standards of safety and environmental protection. Our licensed guides are all highly trained in natural history and Maya cultural heritage, making a Barton Creek Cave tour both an educational and highly enjoyable experience.
Enjoy the waterfalls and a refreshing swim or just relax with a packed lunch amid tropical beauty.
Barton Creek Cave was recently included in a list of “nine of the world’s most beautiful and unusual cave destinations,” by the highly regarded Mother Nature Network and no wonder – it is an amazing experience everyone - young and mature – will remember forever. RIO FRIO CAVE
RIO FRIO CAVE is located less than a mile from the Pine Forest Headquarters in Augustine. Stepping-stones lead inside the most easily accessible of Belize’s river caves.
Everything is big in this cave! The two 65-foot arched entryways leave you in awe. Huge stalactites hang from the massive cathedral-like vault, which is part of a cave system the Maya used to bury their dead. Room size boulders are strewn throughout the cave and a stream flows through, forming pools with cascading falls.
Openings at both ends make flashlights unnecessary for viewing the cave’s formations during daylight hours. There is a beach area with a foot bridge for crossing the stream and getting to the other side, which leads to the exit opening.
It is a quarter mile through to the other side, another equally impressive opening. (Do bring a flashlight to watch your footing as you walk through to the other end and to explore other caves in the area). At the exit opening, look for a well-maintained nature trail, one of which leads to a nearby cave, Cuevas Gemelas. A second trail leads back to the parking lot.
St. Herman’s Cave
One of the more accessible caves in the country, St Herman’s lies among the dense tropical forest on the Hummingbird Highway, just 12 miles southeast of Belize’s capital city of Belmopan. The cave is inside the Blue Hole National Park, aptly named for the azure underground cenote bearing its name.
If you’ve never been to the Blue Hole National Park, go! Inside the park, established in 1986, are two of the most amazing cave systems you’ll ever visit: St. Herman’s Cave and the Crystalline Cave. And since they’re both inside the park, you get two caves for the price of one!
But it’s not the cost savings that will capture your mind and memories here. It is the sights, the sounds, the smells and the unique way the Maya history is captured. This cave holds important cultural and archaeological significance, offering a glimpse into the Maya Classic Period. St. Herman’s Cave is truly a snapshot in time in the most magical, mystical of settings.
This cave tour is a walking tour, one of the few open to the public without a guide. There are concrete steps that are very slippery when wet, so caution must be exercised at all times.
Like St. Herman’s, the Crystalline Cave is also located in the Blue Hole National Park. A guided exploration into this very spectacular cave system takes you miles down, down, down to huge caverns that are adorned with crystalline formations.
The steep downward walk that takes you to these caverns takes around one hour. Then, at the mouth of the cave, you’ll follow the same footpaths the Maya shamans and priests once travelled to reach these ceremonial chambers. Along the way, you’ll marvel at all the Maya artifacts, including pottery, beads, and obsidian knives – even human skeletons that have been calcified in the limestone floor dating back 2,000 years.
Flour Camp Cave
Flour Camp Cave is actually a number of caves with several entrances and exits that is filled with Maya pottery and awesome stalagmites (from cave floor) and stalactites (from cave roof). Travel back through time and discover caverns, chambers, and Maya pottery. After the tour of the Cave, either hike or ride to a fascinating unexcavated Mayan Temple and explore rainforest-covered ruins.