Welcome to Belize where even the highways are nature-centric. Take, for instance, the Hummingbird Highway, one of four main paved roads in the country.
Not that Blue Hole…
St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park (not to be confused with the Great Blue Hole Marine Park, a UNESCO site way out at sea) is accessed right off the Hummingbird Highway not far from the capital, Belmopan. This is actually a two-parter park which includes a cave and a cenote, each accessed via its own distinct entrance just a short distance from each other along the Hummingbird.
A single entrance fee (US$4) gets you in to see St. Herman’s Cave, reached via a short trail through the jungle, and the Blue Hole, a small very blue cenote (roofless cave filled with water) in a park-like setting with picnic tables and changing rooms. The Blue Hole cenote is not as spectacular as the cenotes in the Yucatan in Southern Mexico, but it’s still a nice place to cool off.
Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch
The turn off for Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge is almost directly across from the entrance to the Blue Hole. Arriving at the lodge was a surprise. Ian Anderson’s web site works hard to make the operation seem bare bones, rustic, “not for everyone.” That may be true, but the place was WAY more polished than we expected with stylish design and architecture, Wi-Fi, lovely grounds and a very pretty pool.
Gregarious owner Ian Anderson may shun the words “luxury” and “resort” but his ever-expanding lodge now encompass everything from camping to charming and spotless US$34 bunk rooms to new split-level, 800 square foot Treehouse Suites with two showers (one outdoor), wrap-around views and a full living room (private hot tubs and morning coffee service are coming) that go for US$400 a night. (If you’re going to the Garufina town of Hopkins, check out their sister properties Jaguar Reef Resort, Almond Beach Resort and Villa Verano which is an amazing full beach house with gourmet kitchen and private pool).
Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge offers, by far, the broadest spectrum of accommodation choices we’ve ever seen. Truly something for everyone and every budget and that’s how Ian likes it. He’s into mingling travelers from all spheres which is why meals are served family style, often accompanied by Ian’s storytelling.
If Ian prefers to propagate his outdoorsy, rustic, rougin’ it reputation (despite increasing luxury at his lodge) at least it’s well-earned. He pioneered caving tourism two decades ago when a group of Peace Corp volunteers showed him some of the caves in the area. Ian fell in love with the terrain and saw opportunity in the fact that literally no one was offering cave tours in Belize at the time.
He also fell in love with one particular bend in the Caves Branch River–a bend that is now home to the lodge, his personal home and his adventure operation. In his spare time (chuckle) Ian also pioneered search and rescue training, procedures and operations in Belize, creating an infrastructure that’s still used country-wide.
We absolutely wanted to experience the caving (preferably without the search and rescue) so during our stay we signed up for three of Ian’s adventures. The first was ominously called Black Hole Drop (US$105 per person including transport, gear, guide and lunch).
This is why it’s called Black Hole Drop
After a sweaty 30 minute hike through the jungle in the foothills of the Maya Mountains we arrived at the top of a giant cliff over the Actun Loch Tunich sinkhole. We’d arrived. Guides had gone ahead and checked ropes and rigging and they were waiting there to get us into our harnesses and helmets, ready to rappel
Karen has a fear of falling, so the longer she thinks about things like rappelling over the edge of a sheer cliff into a space where you can’t even see the bottom 300 feet (92 meters) below, the harder it gets. So we volunteered to go first.
First rule of rappelling: “Just lean back…”
If you’ve ever done any rappelling you know that the first step is a doozy. As the guide urges you to “just lean back” into the harness and over the abyss you struggle with the voice in your head that’s shouting DANGER at the top of its tiny little lungs. True, leaning back makes it easier to walk down the wall (which is, essentially, what rappelling is all about), counters the logical voice in your head. But it’s still easier said than done (for Karen, anyway).
Adrenaline pumping, we inched over the edge then started a leisurely descent, reaching the treetop canopy after about 200 feet (62 meters) and solid ground after about 300 feet (92 meters).
The Black Hole Drop on video.
All safely on the ground, we scarfed down a picnic, then hiked back out of the jungle–this time past a wide-mouthed cave which Ian uses as the site of a very unique honeymoon in Belize. Staff set up a suite just inside the cave which comes complete with a real bed, candles, champagne, flowers and a discreet guide to do your cooking and carrying.