When most people think of Belize, they think of hammocks swinging between shady palms, powder white sand and some of the most extraordinary snorkeling, and diving, in the world. What they may not realize, though, is that Belize is more than just beaches and sunshine. In fact, some of the most fascinating parts of this tiny Central American nation are several meters below the earth’s surface.
Belize is home to one of the world’s most extensive cave systems. Over millions of years rainwater and underground rivers carved through the soft limestone bedrock of Belize, creating an intricate cave system. The caves were an integral part of the Mayan culture, and today, visitors from all over the world flock to Belize to explore the caves and view some of the priceless artifacts that have remained unspoiled for thousands of years.
Most of the top Belize resorts will arrange cave exploration for you, but before you make your reservations, you should learn about the various options for visiting the caves. Depending on your appetite for adventure and your physical condition, you have a wide array of options for this unique, can’t-miss experience.
While no one will ever say that exploring the caves of Belize is a relaxing experience, tubing along the river into the caves is about as close as you’re going to get. The trip begins with a float through the jungle in a rubber inner tube, and then enters the underground cave system where the only light is from your headlamp. As you travel along some of the more than 24 kilometers of mapped rivers toward the Crystal Cathedral, the center of Mayan religion, you’ll see shards of pottery, artifacts, ceremonial centers and even footprints that date back several thousand years.
This is not a quiet river ride, however. Since the tubing trips generally only take place during the rainy season from July to January, at times the river current can be strong; when the water level is low, it’s not uncommon for tubes to be punctured and need repairs along the way. During the trip, you usually stop several times to explore the caves on foot, meaning that you need to wear hiking boots or sneakers with treads to avoid slipping, and falling on the rocks.
However, floating along the underground rivers is an unforgettable experience, and trips are led by knowledgeable guides who provide information and insights into both the natural formations and caves’ history.
While Belize’s caves are part of an underground river system, it’s also possible to explore them on foot. However, these hiking adventures are neither for the faint of heart nor those who aren’t in good shape. Most cave hiking adventures combine hiking with rappelling and swimming, and in some cases, jumping over waterfalls or being lowered more than 300 feet into a pitch black sinkhole. However, all of the adventures offer unparalleled views of the mountains, rainforests and ancient Mayan sites – which include actual skeletal remains of sacrificial victims.
For the ultimate Belize cave adventure, embark on an overnight cave camping excursion. After hiking, rappelling and exploring the cave systems, you’ll spend the night in an actual ancient cave, listening to the sounds of the jungle and the cave around you. While this is not the adventure for anyone who is afraid of the dark, for those who want an unforgettable adventure and the chance to experience the unspoiled Belizean rain forest, this is a welcome change from the hotels and crowds of the beachfront areas.
There are several tour companies to choose from when you’re booking your Belize cave experience, and your hotel concierge can recommend the company and experience that is best for you. No matter which adventure you choose, expect to be pushed beyond your comfort zone as you explore mystical spaces, dense jungle and dark, narrow passageways. In fact, even if you are apprehensive, taking one of the less strenuous tours is a worthwhile endeavor, offering the chance to experience one of the most unique aspects of Belize.
Ian McDonough is a native of Florida. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” he has visited six continents and hiked in some of the world’s most remote areas. He writes about his adventures in his personal blog and is working on a book about his adventures in the Australian bush.