What began as a sport by local kids using old motor vehicle inner tubes to float down the smaller rivers in Belize has become a national pass time and tourist attraction – Belize cave tubing.
The twist is to use professional grade inflatable tubes and local tour guides to gently cruise down a mountain river.
Then continue the ride as the river swoops into an underground cave used by the ancient Maya, and at the end of the ride, re-emerge at the mouth of a huge stalactite lined cave into the bright sunlit jungle teeming with wildlife and tropical trees – this is what Cave Tubing is all about.
Over the years the spectacular cave system at Caves Branch in the Belize Cayo District, has become a major tourism attraction. This unique and mysterious series of caves starts near the Hummingbird Highway, south of the City Of Belmopan. The easiest access point is at Mile 37 on the Western Highway, beyond the small farming village of Frank’s Eddy. The Caves Branch Stream of the main caves branch river flows in its blue and pristine beauty through the entire system which is one of Belize’s more attractive national parks.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the cave system was used for over two thousand years as a ceremonial center by the ancient Maya. The first modern reported use of this river flowing through the caves was said to have been in Belize’s early history. In the the late 1800s a logging family of the Belize District village of Lemonal, used it to to float lumber through for pick up at the other end on its way to the port of Belize City.
One hour away from Belize City, or San Ignacio in the west, by paved highway, and no more than 20 minutes from Belmopan, daily tours make their way to the park established by NICH, the National Institute of Culture and History. The park facilities include bathroom, shower and changing rooms, parking area for vehicles, gift shops, and trained cave tubing guides. Called Xibalba by the ancient Maya, their religious leaders no doubt journeyed through the system and carried out their ceremonies within the caves.
Cave tubing is the experience of floating through the caves. You sit in a professionally designed air filled tube, life vest on, with forehead fitted cave light. Within these vast caverns, are incredible vistas of stalactites and stalagmites, some shaped like human and wildlife figures. Most famous are what appear to be the legendary Celestial Bird and Vision Serpent. These were formed over the millennia by dripping water percolating through rock.
Stop by the waterfall, and you can walk into a world within a world – the crystal caverns which go well into the deep hilly area beyond the Caves Branch River, with yet another stream available for cave tubing. Exploration of the area can take hours, so extra lights are a good idea, and good cameras with flash and a waterproof pouch will help you bring back great images. Visitors can actually spot shards of pottery left behind by the ancient Maya.
What You Will Find Inside The Belize Caves
Far from claustrophobic, many caves in the Belize tropical rainforest open into caverns the size of cathedrals. One in the Chiquibil system of the western Maya Mountains contains the second largest underground room in the world, discovered less than 30 years ago. Visitors can hike many caves, depending on fitness. But rivers run through some, so they can also have fun exploring by kayak, canoe, or inner tube. Belize Sea Kayaking is another separate activity all of its own. When launching a spelunking adventure, always go with an experienced guide. Belizean cave exploration started as early as 1918. Regular studies began in the 1960s. By 1984, researchers had documented 65 sites. Today they know about 250. Perhaps hundreds more caves still hide in the jungle, guarding their secrets a little while longer. Nearly every Belizean cave shows evidence of occupation. The ancient Maya modified nearly a third with platforms, stairs, terraces, and similar structures, as well as storage vessels, ceramic dinnerware, carved jade, and stone altars. Among the discoveries, footprints of shamans and skeletons of ancestors remain visible today.
Current law protects the artifacts from further handling by humans. Look, but do not touch these national treasures, as important as any in the sunny world above. The fragile resources have survived for thousands of years, but must survive another thousand for future generations. The caves hold significance not only for humans, but also for species not seen above the surface. Strange cave dwellers — blind or nearly sightless crustaceans and other invertebrates – live, reproduce, and evolve in this mysterious underworld. Translucent crayfish and catfish inhabit placid pools. A few species of spiders and insects climb the slippery walls. Occasionally a jaguar wanders in while stalking a gibnut or agouti or simply looking for a drink of pure, cold water rising from underground springs.
For the most part, bats inhabit these caves. Usually found in small colonies, one chamber at Actun Chapat (Waterhole Cavern), in Cayo District, may contain millions of them. Not to worry, the winged mammals pose no real threat to humans. They feed on insects and fruit.
Article contributed by Captain (Ret.) Tom Greenwood Sr. and Tom Greenwood Jr.