Entering the Cave System

Belize is known for its abundant limestone caves; formations that are a continuation of the systems also found in Guatemala.  One of the methods for exploring these caves that Belize is marketing primarily to cruise ship passengers is floating through them in the safety of an inner tube.

Cave Tubing: it’s what all the cool people are doing!

Did I want to be one of the cool people?  Hells yeah, I did!  However, as cool as they are- I did NOT want to share this unique experience with 100 buffet-fed, visor-clad, fake nailed cruise ship passengers.  That would make it very un-unique.  So I took the advice of the locals and booked the trip for a Saturday, when no ship is docked in a Belizean port.

In fact, I think that what I ended up doing, transport-wise, was rather ingenious, and I highly recommend it to any traveler who is visiting Belize and taking a Western-bound route.  As I’d mentioned in my previous post, I had taken a shuttle directly from Flores to Belize City, stupidly believing that Belize didn’t have much to offer the visitor along the way.  How wrong I was!    In order to visit the caves of Western Belize, I was going to have to back-track from the Cayes, and this was at least a two hour bus ride.

So here’s what I did: I booked a cave tubing trip through cave-tubing.com, and asked to be picked up at the water taxi terminal in Caye Caulker.  Then, since I knew that Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve was already at least an hour west of Belize City, I asked if they could possibly drop me off in Belmopan in the afternoon so that I could transfer to a bus heading west onward to San Ignacio: and whether I could safely store my backpack in their van while tubing.  This way, I killed two birds with one stone: the tour was cheaper out of Belize City, (it was offered in San Ignacio but was outrageously expensive, like $95 USD), and I got to complete this excursion and get to San Ignacio in the same day.

This plan worked out even more perfectly than I could have imagined.  I was emailed a confirmation of pick-up by a guide named Erskin, and I was to pay $60 USD to him when he dropped me in Belmopan. What I didn’t know, was that I was going to be the only one on the trip!  When I arrived at the terminal in Belize City, Erskin was there- in a beat up old Mazda.  I hesitated: As a single woman, do I really want to get in this man’s car in one of the most dangerous cities in Central America, and let him drive me into the jungle?

I checked my intuition: He had a guide’s license, he knew my name, and he had the same name as was promised me by the owner of cave-tubing.com.  I decided it would be ok.

How it is on the Cruise Ship Days: Avoid Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays

Erskin turned out to be a wonderful tour guide, and certainly gave me the VIP treatment.  He talked to me FOR HOURS about life in Belize, including lots of almost-too-personal information about his life.  This would require an entire post to cover, so that will be coming!

We arrived at the Archaeological site: the caves here contain lots of Mayan artifacts.  As I would also discover the following day, the Maya liked to use cave interiors for their religious ceremonies, leaving behind pottery remnants, bones, and even skeletons of those sacrificed to the gods! We got our gear which included a life vest, headlamps, and inner tube and started to make out way through the jungle.

It was a 20 minute walk to the opening of Cave Number Four.  The water was a crystal clear emerald color and you could see it darken to black in the distance of the tunnel.  I jumped in and began to float leisurely along.

I really wanted to enjoy the peace of the cave, but Erskin kept talking non-stop about Maya history.  Which, incidentally I’d heard countless times before.  When you visit a lot of Mayan ruins on a trip, you tend to hear the same stories over and over and I sometimes wish tour guides would realize this.  Ah, well.

The caves were enormous and full of beautiful formations that were mostly very dimly lit from either the entrance or exit to the caves themselves.  The caves had a wonderful echo and I had fun singing a few songs to Erskin when we had the place to ourselves.  A couple of times we passed other tour groups of four or five people all in a long tubing foot-to-shoulder embrace.  I was happy for the luck of my private tour.

At the Crystal Cave, Erskin was nice enough to let me jump out, swim over to the waterfall and get out exploring further. He showed me some artifacts and other little viewpoints that he said few got to see.  After twenty minutes of scrambling we made it back to the water, and I suggested that we swim back to our tubes instead of walking.

“Really?” he asked

“You want to swim?  Damn, girl!”

“Yes, of course I want to swim, it’ll only take a few minutes!”

Throughout the rest of the day, Erskin kept saying “Damn, girl!”- Every time I exhibited any non-Belizean female trait.  Though to be fair, he told me that even a lot of the GUIDES on this tour didn’t know how to swim!  Hard to believe, but apparently true.

The entire float took about an hour and a half to complete.  As we emerged into the sunlight, I couldn’t help but reflect on the trip and mention to Erskin that I wished they’d let persons who wanted more of a challenge, to be allowed to swim through the cave.

“Ha ha! Damn, girl!” he responded.

“Do you want to go back and do it again?  I challenge you!”

“Are you kidding?!” I replied, incredulous.

“You’d let me go back and swim through?”

“For sure, if you want, but I don’t think you have the nerve for it!”

“Damn straight I do! Let’s go!”

I couldn’t believe it!  I was going to get to do the entire cave system again, but this time without any life vest, tube, or headlamp.  How many people got a chance like this?!

Erskin and I enjoying dinner at a streetside grill

I must admit, I had a few nerves- especially about my decision to complete the task without a headlamp.  There were going to be some “blind” pitch black sections where I was going to have to control my fear and simply follow Erskin’s voice.

It was fantastic!  The whole thing took us just under thirty minutes and I got a good work out at the same time.  The dark passages were a little unnerving but I was so thrilled at the chance to do this totally on my own merits that I pushed through and suppressed the fear.

Erskin laughed at me the whole way.  He claimed that I was the first person he’d heard of swimming through this system solo- other than the guides, who were once “challenged” to do this by their boss.  Only a few complied.

So, the moral of the story is this.  If you ever get the chance to go cave tubing in Belize, see if you can try out the experience without the tube.  After all, this is the way the Mayans would have had to explore, right?

Then again, they probably had canoes.

Where: Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve, between Belize City and Belmopan

When: April 2nd

How: with Cave-Tubing.com, on an innertube, and then by swimming! Private transfer from Belize City Water Terminal