After looking at different options for our early summer family trip we picked the country of Belize. The reason for Belize was because of its diversity in activities. Our goal was to get to see the forests and caves for a few days inland and then visit Belize’s Caribbean Sea and reefs. To start our trip off we landed in Belize City Airport we were met by the staff of Chaa Creek Lodge.
As part of our package we were driven to the Belize Zoo on the way to the lodge. The Belize Zoo is a small one set in a jungle like environment. They claim their animals were never bought or captured but were rescued. The exception we were told was the beautiful jaguar captured because it strayed from its normally hunting ground to the farms nearby. After an hour at the zoo we were back in the van for the 90 minute ride. Our impression was that the Belize Zoo is nice but we would not make a special trip there.
At Chaa Creek Lodge check in was quick and we were guided to our comfortable thatched roof cottages while being told about the pool and facilities as well as our “Inland 4 Night” package. Our package included food and 2 ½ days of different adventures. After getting our luggage we decided the pool looked very inviting so we jumped into its warm water while ordering colorful cocktails and snacks. That evening during our 4 course meal we picked the “Jaguars Paw-Crystal Cave” half day tour for our first adventure.
First Adventure: Cave Tubing At Crystal Cave
The next morning after good breakfast the four of us were in the van for the 1 ½ hour ride to Jaguars Paw. This area is a main attraction for river tubing and zip lining for the cruise boats that call on Belize. We bypassed the cruisers by making a right turn away from them following our two guides. (The cruise lines do not take passengers to Crystal Cave). After being fitted with a helmet attached with an LED light, floatation vest and real truck tube we walked quickly for 5 minutes through the jungle with mosquitoes in chase. This took us to the mouth of a large cave with a river running out of it. At the cave entrance the mosquitoes disappeared when we sat in our tubes and hand paddled gently away from the entrance and the natural light. We curved deeper into the cave to the point of our head lamps being the only source of light. Along the river banks we saw the large stalactites (the formations from the ceiling), stalagmites (the formations that build up from the floor) as well as places where the two met. We also saw pretty ribbon formations on the walls and ceilings formed by thousands of years of dripping water carrying minerals. Our guide said these formations grow about one inch a century. Some of the formations were over 15 feet long! During our float we also had small bats occasionally fly over head where the height of each cavern area ranged from 20 to 100 feet. Crystal Cavern sparkled with our headlamps on its walls and ceilings. The name comes from millions of specs of pyrite that line the walls and ceilings. The cave also glistens from the droplets that stay on the walls and ceilings caused by condensation.
Our guides during our float told us about Maya rituals and sacrifices that took place here as well as the geological history of the caverns. We stopped a few times to stretch out and see pottery as well as the occasional human bones left behind. After about 90 minutes we stopped and walked up an embankment in the cavern. Here we followed the guides through some colorful and narrow rock and mineral formations that were similar to walking a maze. Floating with the current back took half the time. Near the end our guide sized us up and when we got back to the mouth of the cave changed plans. Rather than have us walk through the jungle and the mosquitoes they assisted us in climbing down some rocks and put is back into our tubes where the river branched off and picked up speed. They had us lay flat and go with the quicker current instructing us to paddle to the left avoiding the wrong fork further down. This was not only fun but refreshing as the end of this separate cave entrance formed a natural pool that none of us wanted to leave. While this was called a half day adventure we were not back until 3PM. Later that afternoon after spending an hour in the pool we borrowed a canoe and went up the river for 30 minutes that passed Chaa Creek Lodge. We had an “Un-Belizable” first day. It also thought it was special nice not sharing the cave with any other group that afternoon.
Second Adventure: A Wet Dark Hike In Actun Tunichil Muknal
Our second day adventure was going to even top the first day. In fact, the lodge recommended we do Crystal Cave the first day so that the “wow” factor will be at its peak and it was. Today we visited a cave called ATM. This stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal. Actun Tunichil Muknal has been in featured in National Geographic, IMAX and the Planet Earth series. We completely understand why after spending an amazing day here.
Our guide today was Juan Carlos. He told us the drive would be over 90 minutes with the last 8 miles being on a very bumpy slow going gravel road. JC as he is called told us about the Belize and area we were in. We learned there are 12,000 Amish in this country of 325,000 that sell fruit and dairy products after passing 2 men in blue shirts and suspenders selling watermelon from their horse drawn cart. On the way to Actun Tunichil Muknal JC stopped at his favorite place for tamales to give us a taste of local Belize.
After arriving at the gate entrance we had to walk 2 miles on a level path through the forest crossing the knee deep river 3 times. At the cave entrance we were given helmets with LED lamps and told to swim 25 feet from the cave entrance to where the shallower river trail starts. The trail in Actun Tunichil Muknal is in the river that runs through the cave. It can be knee to chest deep in parts. The hike through had very diverse settings and looks. The stalagmites and stalactites along with the different natural cave formations were incredible. We saw all of this only the LED lights on our helmets and JC’s big flashlight. Without this you could we could not see our hand in front of your face. The trail also had us occasionally climb over rocks and small boulders that fell a long time ago from the ceiling. JC knew the route well and would warn us of any shin damaging under water obstacles or drop off ledges to deeper areas.
After about a third of a mile we had to carefully climb out of the narrow river and up 20 feet using boulders as steps to another level to see crushed 900 year old Maya pottery used in ceremonies. We also came across a few skulls and bones. In this area we were told to remove our water shoes and travel in socks as to not take any chances and step in the wrong area. We continued on this upper level of the cave to an even larger and taller room.
This cavern ceiling here seemed naturally sculpted over every inch. I had almost wished that we could light up this vast space with some serious light. From the end here we climbed a ladder to a third level to observe a skeleton that has been laid out for perhaps 900 years. This is skeleton is known as the Crystal Maiden because the bones are completely calcified and shine when a light is pointed on her.
Our climb down from the cavern to the river required us to use extreme caution and had JC request no one talk but concentrate. He helped Maureen by squatting down in a position where she was able to use his knees as a step rather than stretch too far between boulders. Half way back Melissa requested we turn off our headlamps and walk in one section in the river in total darkness with one hand on the rock wall and another one on the person in front. Juan Carlos picked an area with no drop offs or low rocks to get hit in the head. It was a very long 30 seconds that we were totally in the blind. If you have a little bit of an adventure spirit and in decent shape put Actun Tunichil Muknal as a top destination for anyone in this area.
Day Three: Down Day At The Lodge
Our third day at Chaa Creek we decided to stay on property and do a few things that they offer. We started with a 2 hour horseback ride through the forest and up to the tallest area on their 400 plus acres. We found the horses very clean. In fact even in the high heat neither my horse Destiny nor the stables smelled. The ride was easy and at our pace. The horses stayed one behind the other most of the way with a little trotting here and there. We could have trotted more but did not wish to. The ride took us to a place with good views in an area of Maya ruins that were not refurbished.
After our ride we visited the small butterfly pavilion on premises with highlight being in the screened in room with a couple of hundred of them flying around us. After this it was a fast stop at their small natural history museum and then down to the pool for the rest of the afternoon. Before dinner I did take a stroll by myself on the river walk to see what their camping area looked like. Here I saw several small cottages on stilts with half of the structure being a patio and the other half sleeping area. It looked like there were shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. During my walk I spotted or was spotted by two small foxes.
Story and Photos by Tab Hauser