Majestic Underworld ...
Most of Belize’s geology is karst limestone, which is ideal for the formation of caves. About 200 million years ago, the skeletons of sea organisms accumulated forming a thick layer of sediment. As sea levels fell and mountains rose, this limestone layer was carved by wind, rain and faulting into caves. Belize’s cave systems are among the most extensive in the world and have only begun to be explored. Mapping and research began in the 1960’s and since then more than 300 caves have been explored and some 150 miles of passages mapped. These include the Cebada and Petroglyph Caves, two of the largest caves in Central America. The most spectacular cave system is the Chiquibul, west of the Maya Mountains. A National Geographic expedition found it to be the longest cave system in Central America, with over 60 miles of underground passages that run all the way into Guatemala. Heading into these caves allows you to appreciate their spectacular geology. The many Mayan artifacts found within them also adds culture and history to the caving experience. Cave diving is not a developed sport in Belize because few underwater caverns are mapped and, being fed by rivers, the visibility if often low.
Many of the country’s caves remain unexplored; however, those that are accessible and mapped are open to visitors. Western Belize has many caves. The Rio Frio Cave, in Mountain Pine Ridge, is the most accessible cave in the country with a massive entrance surrounded by lush vegetation. Barton Creek Cave (also in Mountain Pine Ridge) is a water cave explored by canoe. Chechem Ha Cave, west of San Ignacio, is noted for its many intact Mayan pots. Advanced spelunkers can explore Cebada, in the Chiquibul Forest; it is the largest cave in Belize with many unexplored caverns. Another advanced cave is Actun Tunichil Muknal, featured in National Geographic magazine; it has Mayan pottery and the skeletons of sacrificial victims. Central Belize, around Belmopan, has many caves as well. Blue Hole is a collapsed sinkhole good for a refreshing swim. Nearby is St. Herman’s Cave with a massive entrance and Mayan pottery within. One of the most popular tours is river cave tubing where you float along the Caves Branch River going in and out of various water caves. Advanced spelunkers can explore the deeper caves of the Caves Branch Cave System like Black Hole, Footprint, Waterfall and Petroglyph (named after Mayan rock drawings). In the southern Toledo district lays the Blue Creek Cave System or Ho Keb Ha in Maya.
The Maya believed caves were the entrance to the underworld of Xibalba, and used them for utilitarian as well as religious purposes. To the Mayas, caves were the entrance to the underworld, which they called Xibalba (Place of Fright). The Maya saw earth’s surface as being in the middle of many levels of reality in which spirits and their gods lived. There were nine levels beneath the earth, and caves were the access to this lower world. In classic archeology the study of the Maya was centered on ruins. Recently, archeologists have begun appreciating the wealth of information that caves reveal on the Mayas, and so emerged the field of speleo-archeology. Water that dripped from stalactites was used as holy water for ceremonies. Rituals and even sacrifices were performed in caves, evidenced today by many pots, shards, alters, sacrificial skeletons and burial sites. Over 200 skeletons have been found in more than 20 caves in Belize. One chamber in Caves Branch holds 25 individuals. Some burial sites show possible evidence of commoners being sacrificed to accompany the journey of an elite who died. Caves also had practical uses such as sources of fresh water and the storage of grain.
Where to Go
There are caves throughout most of the country. However, most of them are concentrated on the western and southern areas. Below is a brief description of the caving in these different destinations that should help you in choosing where to go.
San Ignacio: This area harbors the greatest concentration of large and accessible caves in the country. Within the Mountain Pine Ridge lays the Rio Frio Cave, a popular and easily accessible cave. Also here is Barton Creek a wet cave explored by canoe. West of San Ignacio lays Chechem Ha, noted for its many intact Mayan pots. East of San Ignacio lays Actun Tunichil Muknal, featured in National Geographic magazine. The true spelunker can head into Cebada in the Chiquibul Forest.
Punta Gorda: There are several interesting caves in this area. Probably the most extensive and readily accessible cave system is Hokeb Ha Cave, also called Blue Creek Cave as it is located near the Maya village of Blue Creek. This cave system is noted for a stream that emerges out of the cave entrance, large chambers and narrow passages that you must crawl through. Another good cave is Tiger Cave, which apparently received its name when villagers saw a dog chase a jaguar cub inside the cave many years ago.
Belmopan: Central Belize, the area around Belmopan has many accessible caves. The Blue Hole, just off the Hummingbird Highway, is a collapsed sinkhole popular for swimming. Nearby is St. Herman’s Cave with its massive entrance and Mayan pottery. Cave tubing along the Caves Branch River will take you in and out of several water caves. The true spelunker can consider exploring the extensive Caves Branch Cave System from Ian Anderson’s Lodge, which specializes in caving (notable caves are Black Hole, Petroglyph, and Waterfall). Nearby is one of best caves in Belize, Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Belize City: Just an hour drive west will put you around the many caves of central Belize. Day tours to the Blue Hole, a collapsed sinkhole, are usually combined with a hike into St. Herman’s Cave and the Belize Zoo. Just nearby is the Caves Branch River popular for cave tubing, where you float in and out of water caves on an inner tube.
Placencia: There are a few caves in this area but they have very limited accessibility. However, day tours, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon, can take you to some of the popular caves of central Belize. These include the Blue Hole, St. Herman’s Cave and cave tubing along the Caves Branch River.
Dangriga: There are a few caves in this area but they have very limited accessibility. However, day tours, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon, can take you to some of the popular caves of central Belize. These include the Blue Hole, St. Herman’s Cave and cave tubing along the Caves Branch River.
Ambergris Caye: Even if you are staying on this island, you can still experience some of the country’s fascinating caves. Day tours, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon, will take you on the ever popular cave tubing, where you float on an inner tube along the Caves Branch River, moving in and out of several water caves.
Caye Caulker: Even if you are staying on this island, you can still experience some of the country’s fascinating caves. Day tours, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon, will take you on the ever popular cave tubing, where you float on an inner tube along the Caves Branch River, moving in and out of several water caves.