Articles on Belize and San Pedro

Floating into the depths of Belize's underworld
Cave tubing in Belize

by: By Lisa J. Adams, AP, June 2001

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: 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: 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: 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.

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