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Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 84,400
Marty Offline OP
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By Lisa J. Adams, AP

BELMOPAN, Belize - To enter Belize's caves under Mayan rule, you had to be a
member of an elite family or a shaman ready to sacrifice humans.


In the 21st century, all you need is an inner tube, a pair of paddle-ready
hands and some hiking boots you're willing to get thoroughly soaked.


It also doesn't hurt to bring a disposable camera that won't break your
heart if it tumbles out of its Ziploc bag into the river.


That's all I had last month when I took my first cave tubing trip: a mellow
float through underground river caves sparkling with mica-studded
stalactites and stalagmites and filled with 1,000-year-old pottery shards,
statues of fertility gods and Mayan footprints.


Belize, a tiny Central American nation bordered by Mexico and Guatemala, is
best known for its excellent fishing and as a haven for scuba divers and
snorkelers, who flock by the hundreds to an offshore barrier reef that is
the longest in the Western Hemisphere.


But like Costa Rica and Panama, the country also has begun to tout
ecologically friendly adventure vacations in the flower-laden, animal-filled
jungles of the interior. Tourist companies in Belize offer everything from
cave tubing to animal tracking, bird watching and the exploration of Mayan
ruins.


Cave tubing has become a popular option in the 10 years since Ian Anderson
began the sport out of his Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge, off
Mile 41{ of the Hummingbird Highway and about 10 miles (15 kilometers) south
of the capital, Belmopan.


"When we opened Caves Branch, we started with one cabana, an outhouse and
the river to bathe in," said Anderson, a 45-year-old native of Vancouver,
Canada.


Today, Anderson has 47 employees on a 58,000-acre (23,470-hectare) spread of
limestone cliffs, crystal caves, ceremonial sites and tropical jungle.
Guests have the option of pitching a tent, grabbing a mattress in a
bunkhouse or relaxing in screened-in jungle cabanas with high thatched
roofs, comfortable beds, kerosene lamps and fresh bottles of water.


I stayed in one of the jungle cabanas where mesh screens were the only thing
separating me from the pulsating squawks, scrapes, grunts and shrieks of the
night jungle - a world of dense vegetation where the air is so thick with
humidity you sweat just from breathing. The slightly off-key concert lulled
me into unconsciousness about five minutes after my sweat-soaked head hit
the pillow.


At dawn, I rose with the crickets to shower in a roofless bamboo stall with
a sky view and natural gas-heated water sprinkling melodically through holes
punched into the bottom of a dangling metal bucket. Nothing like it.


Because I only had a day to explore, I chose the relatively laid-back River
Cave Expedition, a daylong trip that combines river tubing and cave
exploration.


The trip for me - and the six others in my group - began next to a mountain
of inner tubes on the back of a rickety wooden trailer that our guide,
Esperanza, hauled with an old farm tractor.


Just a short chug down the Hummingbird Highway, we turned and bounced
through an expansive orange grove until reaching the Caves Branch River, a
clear, tranquil stream that flows only knee-high in some places during the
dry months.


But it was deep enough to let us float into the dark depths of Footprint
Cave, one of myriad caverns the Mayas believed served as the entrance to
Xibalba, the underworld.


After death, the ancient priests said, every person's spirit must pass
through nine levels of the underworld before rising through the roots of the
sacred ceiba tree and up through its branches toward the heavens.


I was wondering if the trip itself was a kind of purgatory when I first
plopped down into the doughnut hole of the inner tube and felt the water
seep like ice through my shorts and add five pounds to my hiking boots.
Paddling backward upstream - which entailed having to swivel my head around
awkwardly to see where I was going - also made little sense to me.


But once we entered the black, silent cave, I began to appreciate the
mystery this space once held for the Mayan shamans and priests.


The beams of our headlamps flashed wildly about, illuminating a glittering
stalagmite here, a deceivingly vacant-looking bat hole there. Occasionally,
we drifted onto the rock-covered shores of the river cave, abandoning the
tubes momentarily while we climbed slippery, red-clay paths to discover
hidden ceremonial centers complete with original fire pits, obsidian blades
once used for sacrificial bloodletting and a massive piece of pottery that
amazingly has stayed intact for more than 1,000 years.


One of the best moments came when we shut off our lamps and floated
downstream in darkness, losing all sense of place and direction and feeling
oddly like we were not moving at all, just hanging in a silent, lightless,
frozen space.


I have to admit the experience lost some of its charm when two college boys
in the group began grunting like the animated polar bears in that obnoxious
Coke commercial. Plus, the antsy part of me wanted more adventure.


But Caves Branch offers more than a dozen other trips that are sure to boost
the adrenaline: a jungle safari after dark led by local bushmen, for
example; or the overnight caving expedition that begins with the
ominous-sounding "Black Hole Drop."


"Dropping" in this case means rappelling 300 feet (90 meters) down into the
Actun Loch Tunich sink hole. The rappelling starts out 200 feet (60 meters)
above a rainforest canopy and ends another 100 feet (30 meters) later at the
bottom of the hole.


After exploring the Actun Loch Tunich river cave system, black hole droppers
sleep next to a campfire, the next day descending another 400 feet (120
meters) to an underground river and waterfall.


"Once you're at the bottom, the question is, how do we get you out?" a trip
description teasingly asks, but does not answer. The mystery, fraught with
potential danger, only served to pique my interest. Oh well, next time.


For newlyweds, Caves Branch Adventure Co. offers the "Honeymooners'
Five-Night Adventure." After tying the knot, couples tie themselves onto
ropes, rappel into the black hole, and spend the night next to a waterfall
in a subterranean cave equipped with candles, champagne, and a flower-strewn
bed. Makes you want to propose, doesn't it?


Then there is the "Lost World" expedition, a nine-day excursion through the
tropical rainforest, including a visit to some of the country's most
interesting caves, rappelling trips into sinkholes and rope drops down a
250-foot (75-meter) cliff face into the jungle.


Whether you like bird watching, rock climbing or caving, next time you go to
Belize, it's worth trading in your snorkeling and scuba diving equipment -
at least for a day or two - for a pair of hiking boots and a safari hat.


Interior Belize is bursting with life, and boasts a primitive, untouched
nature that inspires awe even in the most jaded 21st-century soul.


Trust me, I felt it.


If you go...


Getting there: American Airlines, Continental and Taca Airlines offer
flights to Belize through Miami, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans
and San Francisco. From Chetumal, Mexico, you can catch a bus that will cost
about $6 and take three hours to arrive.


Visitors must pay an airport departure tax of $20 and a conservation $3.75
U.S., as well as an airport security fee of 75 cents. to $1.25. A fee of $10
is charged to cross into Belize from the Guatemalan and Mexican borders.


Climate: The climate is subtropical, with an annual mean temperature of 79
degrees. Temperatures in the summer never exceed 96 degrees, according to
the Belize Tourism Board's Web site. Temperatures vary between the lowlands
in the north and the highland mountains in the south and west.


The rainy season is usually between June and August and the dry season
between February and May.


Currency: The Belize dollar has a fixed rate of exchange of $2 BZ to $1 US
Traveler's checks and credit cards are also acceptable in many places,
although the Belize Tourism Board warns that most will add a 5 percent
service charge to your credit card bill. The board also recommends that
travelers always ask whether prices are being quoted in Belizean or US
dollars.


Lodging: Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge. Mile
41{ Hummingbird Highway. Accommodations range from camping at $5 US per
night to full-comfort cabana suites with full washroom facilities $97.
Anderson offers more than a dozen cave and jungle exploration trips,
including cave tubing. On the Web: http://www.cavesbranch.com. Phone:
501-82-2800.


Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort. Mile 37, Western Highway. Offers unique, upscale
rooms decorated with lace shower curtains, puppets and furniture handcrafted
by co-owner Donna Young from stones and other natural materials. Also a
large swimming pool. The resort offers cave tubing trips, cave and jungle
exploration, and fishing, among other activities. Doubles at $170 in high
season, $140 off-season (after May 15). On the Web: http://www.jaguarpaw.com. Phone: 501-81-3023 or reservations from the United
States (888)-77-JUNGLE.


Banana Bank Lodge & Jungle Equestrian Adventure, a resort next to the Belize
River and surrounded by jungle that features horseback riding but also
offers tubing trips in conjunction with Caves Branch Adventure Co.,
swimming, canoeing and 4,000 acres of jungle trails. Thatched-roof cabanas
in a jungle setting range from $80 US to $119. On the Web: http://www.bananabank.com. Phone: 501-81-2020.


Entry: A valid passport is required for entry. Citizens of the United
States, Canada and the European Community do not need a visa.

Joined: Sep 2000
Posts: 94
S
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S
This is a great trip. My husband and I stayed at Ian Anderson's Caves Branch last October (post Keith). We did the cave tubing, the Black Hole Drop and loved every minute of it. And we were the oldest ones on those adventures at 45 and 46. I highly recommend this even if it means a couple of nights away from Ambergris Caye. Belize really is very diverse, and for those of you who go there often it would be well worth your while to explore outside the cayes. Beautiful.


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Joined: Apr 2001
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KC Offline
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Marty,
This exact article was in the Register Guard today (Sunday). Didja see it? I started reading it and had dejavu since I had just read it on this board.

Did I read somewhere on this board that the caves are closed now because of an ownership dispute... or am I having a senior moment?

Kathy


"You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

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