Cave-tubing is an experience unique to Belize. If there’s another place in the world where you can float lazily through cathedral-like caverns, we’ve yet to find it. This laid-back subterranean river adventure is likely the most relaxing couple of hours you’ll spend in Belize. And it has the potential to be the most educational.
Caves and Maya Civilization
The Maya civilization reached the peak of its power around the 6th century AD. It was one of the most dominant indigenous societies in Mesoamerica. The Maya were deeply religious and worshiped numerous gods related to the natural world. The Mayas believed the cave systems of the Cayo region of Belize were an entrance into the underworld. A place of fear and the gods of death. They called their underworld Xibalba (Shee-bal-ba) which translates to ‘place of fright.’ The name alone evidences the trepidation the caves held in the Maya imagination. Xibalba was a fearsome place, strongly associated with water, with its own landscape and blood-thirsty predators. It’s also the setting for many of the stories and adventures of Maya mythology.
As we learned from our visit to the ruins of Tikal National Park, the significance of the underworld was so prominent in Maya culture that it influenced the design of many of their temples. The Mayas believed that Xibalba had nine levels and thereby built the stone pyramid tombs of their kings with nine distinct tiers. One for each level of the underworld. Temple I at Tikal National Park in a perfect example of this architectural tradition.
Cave Tubing Combo
Most cave tubing excursions are based in the remote town of San Ignacio, on the western side of Belize. This bustling little town was our base for exploring the Cayo region of the country. We spent 5-days and 4-nights in San Ignacio and there were plenty of activities to keep us busy. For more about San Ignacio and what to do there read What to do in Belize – Experience the Best of Both Worlds
PRO TIP: Cave tubing is the number one mainland excursion for cruise ship passengers visiting Belize. On days when large ships are docked in Belize City you should expect inner-tube traffic jams inside the caves. If you want avoid this check the Belize City Cruise Ship Schedule 2020 and plan accordingly.
For our cave tubing Belize excursion we booked an all-day tour through Mayawalk Tours which included a combination of zip-lining, hiking and cave-tubing. A very Indiana Jones experience that lasted about 7-hours and included all the necessary equipment, as well as snacks and a picnic lunch. It was easily our favorite day on the mainland of Belize, and one we highly recommend.
The tour departs San Ignacio at 8 a.m. via passenger van and takes about an hour to reach the zip-line course. The course consists of 8 large aerial platforms with lines criss-crossing back and forth through the jungle. It took our group about 45-minutes to complete the course. However, I imagine times will vary based on the size and ability of your group. The guides are friendly and accommodating, and the course is safe and well-maintained.
It always amazes me how fearless our boys are when we do things like this. I’m not sure if it’s bravery or naivety at their age. But I appreciate their willingness to trust people and try new things. They tend to form a kinship with our guides when we travel; some I think they would even call friends. It always makes me smile when that happens. There are so many good people in the world, and it’s a valuable lesson to teach our kids.
Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch
The next stop of the tour is the Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. Tubing through the Caves Branch river system is an unbelievable experience. Easily our favorite part of the day. At the entrance there are bathrooms, changing facilities and a small shop with basic items like snacks and sunscreen.
The park entrance is where you pick up your tube for the day. There’s a flat 45-minute hike through the forest between the van and the launch point on the river. The hike is easy but it gets pretty hot while walking and carrying your tube. There was a short break, as we crossed the river, for people to swim and cool off. We didn’t want to hike in wet clothes so we just relaxed on the bank, but the kids took full advantage and loved it.
Everyone is responsible for carrying their own tube for the duration of the hike. As parents that meant we were juggling multiple tubes during portions of the walk. It’s a bit cumbersome, but certainly worth the inconvenience for the experience. There is a service at the entrance of the park that provides for someone to carry the tube for you, but that just seemed like an unnecessary expense in our opinion.
Once we reached the launch site, we had some time to swim while the guides organized and readied the tubes. The initial chill of the water was a welcome reprieve from the heat and the hike. The lagoon-like setting in the middle of the jungle is absolutely beautiful. It looks like a set from an adventure movie, and the boys had a great time pretending as such. They loved jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the water.
Our tubes were tethered together with another family’s to essentially create a singular raft. The guides navigate these various makeshift floating islands on the downstream current using plastic hand paddles. It wasn’t crowded on the day we took the tour. Our guide spaced us away from other groups enough to feel like we were the only ones in the caves. As we meandered in and out of underground passages, he told us stories about Xibalba and ancient Maya mythology.
Journey to the Underworld
Floating in and out of the bright jungle into the cool darkness of the limestone caves is a surreal experience. It really feels like you’re making the journey into the Maya’s sacred underworld. Being repeatedly buried in the darkness and reborn again into the light. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking this journey alone, and without lights, as they did thousands of years ago.
The caves get really dark in some sections. Everyone wears a headlamp, but it’s still really dark. Especially in the longer passages where you loose sight of the the cave’s openings. At one point our guide asked us to turn off our lamps and it was completely pitch black. It was a little eerie at first, but also really cool.
In most of the caves there’s enough light coming in from the entrances that you can see without the lamps. In these sections the kids enjoyed abandoning their positions on our raft and swimming along beside us. They’re required to wear life-jackets and the current is strong enough to move everyone in the same direction. It was easy for them to stay close.
There is a short break in the trip along a shallow section of the river. In this section the current is strong to carry you without the use of a tube. Our group took turns riding down the river on our backs and enjoying the tropical scenery.
The tour ends in the same place it begins, at the entrance of Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. Everyone is given time to dry-off, change clothes, and get settled before the guides serve a delicious picnic lunch. After lunch there’s a few minutes time to relax, and then its time to re-board the vans and head back to town.
The cost of the tour is $125/per person. The price seemed high initially, but after spending the whole day on the tour we can definitely say its worth it for a full-day of excitement. We had a great time and the kids were worn out. Neither of them made it more than a few minutes into the ride back to town before falling a sleep. As a parent, that’s the tell of a very good day.
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What to do in Belize – Experience the Best of Both Worlds