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Caving in Belize

by Harry S. Pariser
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Belize is well known for its coral reefs, jungle-covered Maya ruins, wildlife and rainforests. But not many talk about the caves of Belize. In fact, Belize is riddled with thousands of caves, the vast majority of which remain unexplored, unnamed and unknown. Probably fewer than 400 caves in Belize have been explored in modern times, most of these since the 1960s. The preponderance of karst terrain (named after similar turf in the land once known as Yugoslavia) encourages caves. The limestone sinkholes are carved over thousands of years by dripping water.

Now long deserted, the caves of Belize were once frequently visited by the Maya. The Maya believed that caves marked the entrance to the dark kingdom of Shibalba, said to harbor the spirits of the deities. Caves were the place to commune with these spirits and to learn the correct time to plant corn, to burn the milpas (fields) and to offer sacrifices. Today, these caves contain human remains as well as pottery shards. Though there is considerable controversy about this, the skeletons and heads found here may be those of sacrificial victims. It is likely that the pots were used for mystical purposes. Many of these caves have been looted, and the loss in terms of archaeological knowledge is immeasurable. Even a position change of an artifact can have a dramatic impact on analysis.

The caves best known to visitors are in the Cayo District to the west of Belize City. A number of caves are open to visitors, but there are many others whose potential remains untapped. Barton Creek cave is one that has recently become an attraction for visitors. A local named David pioneered tours here, and others have followed in his wake. Sometimes too many others—it may be necessary to wait a bit before entering. To get here, you drive through the orthodox Mennonite village of Barton Creek. To enter the caves, canoes must be lifted up and over a rocky formation and then down again. The cave entrance is beautiful. Floating along in eerie silence, you will pass any number of weird and wonderful formations: stalactites and stalagmites galore, each with character and color. In several places you must duck down in order to get through. In still others, the canoe is a tight fit. At one point bats, burrowed in the rocks, are only inches above the top of your head. In other parts, flycatchers cry in the darkness. All in all, you travel around a mile each way down the cave. There are two optional stops for the adventurously nimble. At one you must climb up and through in order to view a bridge and ledge with pots and skeletal remains. At the other you can climb up a bit into a passage. Both prove how true the old axiom is that if liability insurance was necessary in Belize, many of the nation's attractions would cease to be!

In order to really appreciate the staggering beauty of the cave, you should have a car battery and headlight on your boat. If not, you can make do with flashlights. (Check a current travel guide for information about tours).

Another famous cave in Cayo is Che Chem Ha, a one-of-a-kind site featuring a cave containing Maya pottery galore in a beautiful setting. The cave is also a starting point for a visit to Vaca Falls. It's one of the only sites in Belize (and one of the few in Central America) that is under the control of locals who are profiting directly from it. The Morales family discovered the cave, whose Maya name means "poison-vine water," after they found their dogs were periodically disappearing for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Following the canines, they discovered the cave. Although the cave is on their property, as an ancient site it is the property of the Belizean government. The entrance to the cave is secured from trespassers by a locked steel grating. Once inside the cave, you can climb up ladders to get a closer view of the pottery. In certain areas you must duck down low to get through. The oldest pots date back 2,000 years to near the beginning of the Classic period. Most are unadorned. To reach the ceremonial chamber, you need to hold onto a rope and climb down a brief but narrow passage, which ends in a short drop-off. It's not as difficult as it might first appear.

Lodging and meals are available at Che Chem Ha. Tours to other caves on the property are offered as well. For more information call Luis Morales at 501-9-32109; contact him on radio frequency 147.625, or write Antonio Morales, Elizabeth St., Benque Viejo del Carmen, Cayo. A Che Chem Ha cave tour is US$25 for up to four people. Several local lodges and hotels, including Maya Mountain Lodge, arrange trips to Che Chem Ha. Another famous cave is the Rio Frio, located in the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge area. It lies at the base of a small hill. Follow the river through the cave and out the other side. Sandy beaches surround both sides of the river on either side of the cave. Enter and climb for a view of the stalagmites and stalactites, some of which resemble a bizarre Martian fungus, others the clumped-up stalks of oyster shell mushrooms. Others hang from the ceiling, thin and wispy like petrified Spanish moss”or the spires of a cathedral. Climb down to the sandy base. You could easily spend a day here. Prismatic light is reflected on the ceiling from the pond as though some Spielbergian creature were about to materialize. Other caves are in “Cayo East” not far from Belmopan, near the Hummingbird Highway. All the caves in this area, known as Caves Branch system, are hydrologically linked along tributaries of the Sibun River.

Located in the Blue Hole National Park, St. Herman's cave is one of the area's most famous. Inquire at the visitor's center for information.The price of admission to the Blue Hole includes a visit to St. Herman's. Ian Anderson's Adventure Tours and Jungle Camp is set a mile off the highway near the entrance to the inland Blue Hole at Mile 41 1/2 of the Hummingbird Activities include tubing through several different caves, horseback riding, Maya ruins exploration, wildlife treks and one- and two-night jungle treks, as well as longer guided walks and off-site excursions. Ian Anderson has been exploring and mapping caves in Belize for eight years.

Other caves include Tunichil Muknal, Handprint cave and Roaring River cave. Recently discovered, these caves still contain skeletons, hand prints and pots. He also visits St. Herman's cave and includes rappelling in some of his cave tours. The cost for caving trips varies, but expect to pay up to about US$50 per person for a full-day guided trip. In addition to those listed above, there are many other caves in Belize which you can visit. Many of these are on private reserves. You will generally find information about these from your hotel or lodge. Belizean resorts that will arrange visits to caves include Maya Mountain Lodge, Ek'Tun, Chaa Creek, Mountain Equestrian Trails and duPlooy's near San Ignacio, and Pook's Hill, Jaguar Paw (which has interesting caves on its property) and Ian Anderson's Caves Branch Camp in the Belmopan area. Cars rentals for do-it-yourself tours are available in Belize City (among them, Budget, Hertz/Safari, Thrifty, National, Jabiru and Crystal). Western rents vehicles in San Ignacio.

Preparations and Precautions "Entering, we must swing one leg across a daunting sinkhole and then cross through neck-deep water into the cave. Once inside, there are the eerie sounds of water dripping punctuated by the cries of bats. The water level lowers but we must climb along unsteady (and some rather unnerving) precipices on the way in.... At one point, I have all four of us put our lights out. The darkness is overwhelming. Senses of sound and smell are heightened. Coming back out is easier and faster. It comes as a relief to be outside after hours in the interior." This is how I recalled an exciting visit to a cave near Belmopan. Your cave visits may be tamer, but you should be well-prepared. While no equipment or guide is necessary to enter an open-air cavern such as the Rio Frio, a guide plus good shoes and hardy clothing are recommended for other subterranean journeys. Many caves are subject to sudden flooding. Be sure of your guide and ask what type of illumination will be provided. Ask if you need to bring food and water. Bring a flash for your camera. And don't forget a sense of adventure and wonder.

Cave Systems of Belize Here are some of the main cave systems found in Belize: The Chiquibul system in western Belize along the Guatemala border contains Cebeda, thought to be the largest cave in the country. In Cayo on the Belmopan side, the Caves Branch system offers visitors fairly easy access. Well-known caves here include the inland Blue Hole, Petroglyph, Ben Lomond and St. Herman's. The Vaca Plateau system in the Mountain Pine Ridge includes the well-known Rio Frio cave and Mai cave. In Toledo District in Southern Belize, there are at least two cave systems, Blue Creek and Little Quartz Ridge. Belize also has underwater caves. The famous Blue Hole near Lighthouse Reef is a submerged sinkhole. There are large underwater caves near Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker (notably Giant Cave).

This article is © 1999 Harry S. Pariser.

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