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“Butts Up! Butts Up!” yelled a park ranger in a neon green t-shirt. Unfortunately, being in the front of our group, his warning came too late for me. My butt slammed into the large rock just beneath the surface of the water. I thought to myself, that’s going to leave a bruise. Welcome to cave tubing in Belize!
We’d come to this small Central American country on a cruise for the holidays with Laura’s mom and sister. In doing some research, Laura discovered Belize cave tubing. We’d been to caves in Turkey, but we’d never been cave tubing before, so this seemed like the perfect way to spend the day.
In the Mayan hills, about half-way from Belize City to the Guatemalan border, the limestone rock underground has been eroded by water to form massive caves. In one area, a tributary of the Sibun River called the Caves Branch River flows through these limestone caves – today this area is known as the Nohoch Che’en Archaeological Reserve (or the locals call it the Caves Branch). It’s the perfect place for river tubing through caves.
There are actually two caves you can float through – the upper cave and lower cave. Unfortunately for us, we were visiting after a period of intense rains and high water, which limited the cave tubing opportunities. Had we visited the week prior, tubing would not have been possible at all. While the waters had subsided a little, for safety, we were only able to do the lower cave portion.
We pre-booked with a company called CaveTubing.bz, operated by a gentleman named Vitalino Reyes, who was one of the pioneers of cave tubing in Belize when the government opened the Nohoch Che’en Archaeological Reserve to tourism in 1995 (locals have been navigating these waters for generations). Laura picked them for the simple fact that they are the only company who transport your tubes up river for you. At the time, I thought that was the height of laziness and surely we could carry our own inner tubes up a dirt trail.
Upon arriving at the Nohoch Che’en Archaeological Reserve, there was a large staging area where all the companies store their gear. We were outfitted with the life jackets, helmets, and headlamps. Since the company was transporting the tubes for us, all that was left for us to do was make a short little hike up the trail. Right? Remember when I said that they had recently had a period of intense rains and high water?
The first obstacle was to cross a swiftly flowing river – a river that had swelled due to the recent rains. A rope is stretched across the river to provide guidance, but the Caves Branch River has a pretty strong current. The first jolt of the water (approximately 72 degrees) cooled us off fast, but felt good on a hot day.
After crossing the river, there was a nice little hike along a trail heading upstream. The company’s website describes this walk by saying, “The hike is not strenuous, and the paths are well worn and smooth.” And in ideal conditions, that is probably true.
We found the hike to be quite muddy and the thin soles on my cheap water shoes did nothing to protect my feet from the rocks. (Note: we highly recommend sturdy water shoes for both men and women). Right about this time, I was thanking my brilliant wife for her forethought in booking with a company that carries our inner tubes for us!
But once we got into the water, all challenges were forgotten and we were ready for fun! The inner tubes are tethered together into a small “train” two tubes wide. I was fortunate to have the “pole position” up front to take pictures and videos with my GoPro camera.
As we started our Belize cave tubing experience, the black, gaping mouth of the cave loomed in front of us. The guides pushed the tube formation into the current and then pushed/pulled the tubes through the rapids and channels. As the blackness began to swallow us, we encountered the first set of rapids. The park ranger yelled “Butts Up! Butts Up!” Yeah, I was bruised for a week. But cave tubing in Belize was totally worth it.
Inside the caves, the guides used the light from their headlamps to point out formations in the rock. Our little headlamps did little to illuminate the incredible darkness of these massive caves. I just laid back and enjoyed the journey. Once we emerged from the blackness of the cave, it took our eyes a few minutes to readjust to the light.
After tubing, we stopped for lunch at the business office/café. Laura took some photos while we had lunch of rice, beans and chicken, which was plentiful and flavorful – especially with the local Marie Sharp’s Habanero Pepper Sauce. It’s got a kick, but is awesome! To cool the palate, I washed it down with a Coke. What I didn’t see was the wasp sitting on the lip of my drink.
As I went to take the drink, the wasp stung me on the lip! This might be a good time to mention, my mother is terribly allergic to bee/wasp stings. As my life flashed before, my eyes, I was convinced I was going into anaphylaxis. It didn’t happen. But the left side of my face was numb for the next 8 hours.
In retrospect, we were one of the first groups off our cruise ship and made it to the Caves Branch River early – before the masses of cruisers arrived. As we got out of the river, there were literally hundreds of cruisers waiting to cross the river and begin their cave tubing adventure. Our recommendation is to do everything possible to go cave tubing early!