Extremely Natural – Belize Lodge & Excursions, Belize UPDATED

UPDATE August 2012: Since our visit to Ballum Na Lodge and the other resorts operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions a disturbing series of events has taken place which has resulted in the death by starvation of one of the jaguars we speak about in this post (the spotted one) and the near starvation of his all-black brother. The surviving jaguar has been relocated to the Belize Zoo for rehabilitation. Ballum Na Lodge has been burned to the ground by unknown persons. Former employees are claiming they have not been fully paid.The website for Belize Lodge & Excursions (BLE) has also been suspended. We are obviously horrified that any animal should starve to death in captivity, let alone rare jaguars, and if workers have been mistreated or underpaid that’s unacceptable as well. We saw no evidence of either problem when we were at Ballum Na or during any of our conversations with now beleaguered BLE managing director Ken Karas.  

Our original post is below. It contains information and images that were accurate and verified at the time of our visit. Things have obviously deteriorated horribly since then. 

 

Belize is full of remote and wild places like La Milpa Field Station in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in the northern jungles and Turneffe Atoll out in the impossibly blue ocean. But Belize Lodge & Excursions (BLE) has created a small collection of unique lodges that take visitors deep into the wilderness, and in rare form–no roads, resident jaguars, a private island and the best jungle bird-watching platform we’ve ever seen.

Jaguar slumber party: Ballum Na Lodge

No TVs. No phones. No Wi-Fi. Just jungle. That’s Ballum Na just north of Punta Gorda off the Southern Highway. The lodge has plenty of roomy porches and a lovely rooftop escape with chairs and views but odds are you will spend most of your time looking down.

As the lodge’s name implies, this is the Jaguar House (Ballum Na means house of the jaguar in Mayan) and the real stars of the lodge are a pair of jaguar brothers (one a rare black jaguar) which were inherited from a breeding program run by Xcaret in Mexico.

You can experience the closest thing to sleeping with jaguars at Ballum Na Lodge, part of Belize Lodge & Excursions.

To accommodate the big cats, Ballum Na was built around an enormous zoo-quality enclosure. You enter the lodge via a walkway that sweeps around and above the enclosure and one of the lodge’s four rooms has a wall of windows that looks down on the jaguars. The cats spend the night in a cage directly under this room and when we slept there we could  feel and hear their rumblings off and on all  night. When they took a break the silence was deafening.

During the day the jaguars roam and posture in their roomy fenced in habita and the view of them from our room made us feel like we were in Caesar’s box at the Coliseum, minus the gladiators. To say this room is unique is an understatement.

A rare black jaguar named Bosch (a Mayan word for black), at home at Ballum Na Lodge in Belize.

A wild female jaguar comes around the enclosure on a regular basis to check out the boys behind bars. Maybe that’s why the brothers don’t get along, as their multiple scars attest.

Mopan, one of two resident jaguars at Ballum Na, looking right up into our room.

Check out our brief video, shot from our bedroom, to see (and hear) the jaguars at Ballum Na Lodge.

Road-free-zone: Jungle Camp

Ballum Na is literally the end of the road so transferring from Ballum Na to Jungle Camp requires a two hour boat trip along the Golden Stream (no jokes) which winds through acres and acres of untouched jungle. The ride is incredibly peaceful–both because of the natural silence and the scenery and because Belize Lodge & Excursions uses nearly silent, non-polluting electric engines for its boats.

The area is wildlife rich, especially the river which is a magnet for everything living in the jungle. We were hoping to finally see a tapir (the national animal of Belize). The strange pig-meets-anteater creatures are plentiful here. We saw lots of tapir tracks down to the water’s edge, but no tapirs.

We did see a troop of howler monkeys, lots of birds and a big boa constrictor warming itself up on the riverbank–the first boa we’ve ever seen though, surely, not the first one that’s seen us.

With no roads, the commute between Ballum Na Lodge and Jungle Camp is done in a boat along the wildlife-filled Golden Stream. The two hour trip was so relaxing we didn’t want it to end.

Believe it or not, there’s a six foot long boa constrictor wrapped around these tree roots in the river bank. We spotted it during our boat ride from Ballum Na Lodge to Jungle Camp in Belize.

The riverbank was also home to a crazy flower called a Aristolochia grandiflora–but you can call it a Pelican Flower. It grows on a vine, often along riverbanks, and the blooms we saw were nearly a foot long with a four foot tail coming off it.

The thing has a smell that humans hate, but bugs love the stench until they realize they’re trapped inside the flower. From there there’s only one way out, a route which forces the insects to help pollinate the flower. Very Little Shop of Horrors.

We saw dozens of these foot long Aristolochia grandiflora (aka Pelican Flower) blooms during our river commute from Ballulm Na Lodge to Jungle Camp in Belize.

Around a bend in the river, Jungle Camp suddenly appeared like a mirage. It’s got more than a little bit of the look and feel of African jungle lodges with a huge and welcoming common room and 10 thatch-roof bungalows strung out like jewels along  a raised walkway that’s high enough off the ground to stay out of the way of high water. It’s not fancy, but it is very well done and the quality of the food was a delicious surprise.

Welcome to Jungle Camp where great food and an awesome bird watching platform await.

In another attempt to see tapirs we got back on Golden Stream at dusk for a night tour. The water was so calm it was like velvet or mercury. Despite our best spotting efforts we still got back to the lodge with no tapir sighting which shocked the excellent guides who said they see tapir all the time–along with all of the cats in the jungle including jaguars.

The next morning we were up before dawn with other visual prey in mind: birds. Bird watching at Jungle Camp is no passive stroll through the jungle, neck craned to the tree tops, hands clutching binoculars. Here, you enter the bird’s world via a unique aluminum platform 100 feet up in a ceiba tree. Mayans consider the ceiba to be a sacred link to the underworld. In this case, it was our link to the canopy.

Using techniques developed by wildlife film makers to craft perches from which to observe and film wildlife, the lightweight platform is rigged to a section of branches and trunk without ever penetrating the bark of the tree. As the tree grows the platform, which completely encircles the trunk, raises higher into the air right along with it.

This is the only way up to or down from a fantastic bird watching platform ingeniously rigged 100 feet (30 meters) up in a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp in Belize.

The only way up to or down from the platform is in a seat-like harness which the guides hoist up using a rope pulley system. This ensures you are fully awake by the time you reach the platform. With weather rolling in the birds were laying low the morning we made the journey up the tree, but it was still spectacular to be in the canopy. Truly one of the best bird watching locations we’ve ever seen.

Karen as that look on her face because she’s about to…

…get lowered 100 feet (30 meters) back down to the ground.

Check out our video, below, for a 360 degree, birds-eye view  from the amazing platform 100 feet (30 meters) up in a sacred ceiba tree.

Just you and the iguanas: Moho Cay private island

A restaurant and collection of 10 bungalows take up practically every inch of tiny Moho Cay, part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. BLE bought the island from the previous private owner and was granted the right to continue operating the lodge here even though it falls within the protected area.

The atmospheric bungalows on Mayo Cay are built using room-size soft-sided tents erected under thatch roofs.

The result is absolute serenity. Karen spent almost an entire day napping which, it’s fair to say, almost never happens. Bungalows employ an innovative mix of room-size soft-sided tents with a thatch roof over them and breezy porches built off the front practically over the gently lapping water.

The view from our bungalow on tiny Mayo Cay, Belize.

The warm shallows around  Moho Cay are full of red starfish and small stingrays and snorkeling gear is available as are fishing excursions–though those activities would require getting up from your nap.

Iguanas FAR outnumber humans on Mayo Cay in Belize.

Iguanas FAR outnumber humans on Mayo Cay in Belize.

As impressive as jaguars and private islands and ceiba tree bird watching platforms are, the innovative environmental work of BLE owner Ken Karas, an enthusiastic realist with Theodore Roosevelt hair, is even more ambitious and noteworthy.

Ken, an accomplished wildlife film maker who has worked on projects around the world for National Geographic, PBS and others, has amassed (and protected) hundreds of thousands of acres of land. His goal is to create vast wildlife corridors–essential to healthy migration and breeding patterns for dozens of species, including jaguars–ultimately traversing the entire country.

His string of lodges exists on a corridor that connects the last stretch of lowland broadleaf habitat (at Ballam Na) in the interior with the coastal habitat and the sea (at Moho Cay, via Jungle Camp). When we met him Ken he was in the process of acquiring 20,000 new acres of land which would provide the only connection between two inland “islands” of land in the north.

How does he work on such a large scale? He makes the land pay for its own protection. By having his land carbon certified it literally pays to keep the jungle pristine. Simply put, Ken is able to calculate the value of all that healthy jungle exhaling out all that clean air, then sell those carbon credits to corporations required to offset their pollution. Make a profit. Buy more land. Repeat.

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Here, Kitty Kitty – Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize includes 200 square miles of protected land. Established in 1984 and made a sanctuary in 1990, it is the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. It’s now home to roughly 70 of the big cats along with many of their smaller kin including ocelot, jaguarundi and margay.

Welcome to Cockcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, the world’s first jaguar sanctuary.

Of course, we arrived at the sanctuary hoping to see a jaguar and we did our best to increase our chances of a sighting.

First, we decided to camp in the sanctuary. This was not a hard decision because the lodging option in Maya Village, the nearest “town” to the sanctuary, are not cheap and not great (we paid US$25 for a grotty, basic room with a shared bathroom at Nu’uk Che’il Cottages the first night because it was late by the time we arrived).

Also, the campground in the sanctuary happens to be awesome. A large, grassy area has palapa-covered, flat tent sites plus an outhouse and an area for cooking over a fire with ample firewood supplied. There’s even a rain-water cistern. The camping fee of US$5 per person also includes access to a well-equipped communal kitchen that’s shared with anyone else staying in the sanctuary’s other basic accommodations which includes a dorm and shared or private cabins.

A big plus about camping here (besides the bargain price and great facilities) is being in the sanctuary itself where mornings and evenings, in particular, were heralded with a symphony of jungle noises. Sadly, none of them were jaguar growls…

At 3,688 feet Victoria Peak, seen in the distance, is the second highest mountain in Belize.

Staying in the sanctuary also allowed us to just wander away from our tent at dusk and stroll down the dirt road that runs through this corner of the sanctuary in the evenings, which is when the cats start to get active. We saw gibnut (picture a huge hamster), tiny brocket deer and a small yellow bird fast asleep on a branch during our night walks and we even got what we believe was a fleeting glance at a margay, but no jaguar.

Camping in the sanctuary also put us in the perfect position for hiking. Most of the Cockscomb sanctuary is totally undeveloped and set aside as a true human-free haven. However, a small area has been developed for human use and it offers 12 miles of gorgeous trails, beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes and a meandering river perfect for tubing (tubes area available for rent  for US$2.50 a day).

The super-ambitious can even climb to the top of Victoria Peak in the Cockscomb Mountains via a trail through the sanctuary. At 3,688 feet, Victoria Peak is the second highest mountains in Belize and it takes most people three to five days to summit and return.

We stuck to the trails within the basin and the foothills.

Our own private swimming hole at the end of the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

First we hiked the 4 mile (round trip) Tiger Fern trail which delivered some steep sections before we reached the pay off: two waterfalls with swimming holes. While we cooled off in the deep, clear, wonderful swimming hole beneath the upper falls a tiny hummingbird darted in and out of the waterfall spray, apparently taking a shower. A short climb above the waterfalls leads to an overlook with good views of Victoria Peak and the Cockscomb range–so named because its ridge line looks like a rooster’s comb.

A hummingbird takes a bath in one of two waterfalls accessed via the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

The next day we tackled the various easy walks in the basin itself with eyes mostly glued to the trail since there are deadly fer-de-lance snakes here. Then we headed up the 3.2 mile (round trip) Ben’s Bluff trail. Less steep than Tiger Fern, this trail also leads to a great waterfall.

A stand of hobbit-ready trees in a seasonally-dry mangrove area within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A stand of hobbit-ready trees in a seasonally-dry mangrove area within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Perhaps the ugliest jaguar sign we’ve ever seen…

Cockscomb is also home (or on the migration path) for hundreds of species of birds including scarlet macaws (best seen around noon when the heat inspires them to roost in the shade), swooping parrots and huge guans.

Special thanks to Abel, a guide from Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge, who turned up in Cockscomb to do some early morning bird scouting and allowed us to tag along. Abel pointed out many birds that our untrained eyes might never have seen, including these…

A laughing falcon in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A black-headed Trogan in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A violaceous trogan in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A lineated woodpecker in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A tiger heron in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

 

A boat-billed heron in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

 

GLAD WE HAD

Even professional guides are impressed with our SureFire flashlights which helped us see all kinds of critters during night walks in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our ExOfficio Bugs Away pants and shirts, impregnated with Insect Shield repellent, kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could really enjoy our campsite.

Because we had the campground all to ourselves we took over a second palapa and strung up our Hennessy Hammocks for afternoon napping.

 

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Cave Man – River Cave Expedition, Caves Branch, Belize

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ian Anderson, of Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge, invented cave tubing in Belize. Not that it’s such a complicated thing to invent. Get an inner tube, stick you butt in it, float into a cave, float back out. But the fact is that no one in Belize offered it as a trip before Ian did, so we call him the Cave Man. We hope he doesn’t mind.

Yep, that’s the mouth of River Cave. No wonder we float in on inner tubes…

 

By the time we got around to trying his signature adventure we’d already done his Black Hole Drop and his Waterfall Cave Expedition. The classic cave tubing experience, Ian’s “River of Caves” Cave Tubing trip, is only offered during high water. So we signed up for The River Cave Expedition (US$85 including transport, guides, gear and lunch) which includes tubing and walking.

To really get inside the cave with us, check out this video…

 

 

A giant chamber inside the cave draped in sparkling formations created by thousands (maybe millions) of years of flowing and dripping water.

 

The beginning of the trip was basic tubing so we just sat in the cool, clear water and slowly paddle our way to the mouth of the cave. Once inside, the lights went out, our headlamps went on and we continued to float inside the cave which is spooky since you can’t see what’s in the water.

Pretty soon the water got too shallow for floating, so we beached the tubes and took off on foot.

A giant chamber inside the cave full of stalagmites and stalactites created by thousands (possibly millions) of years of dripping water.

 

Once on our feet, the guides lead us into various chambers and up onto roomy ledges to check out areas that were used by the ancient Mayans as ceremonial sites during forays into caves (believed to be the underworld or Xibalba) to speak with their Gods. Because the Mayans were more than a little bit afraid of the underworld (some living Mayans still won’t go into a cave), anthropologists and archaeologists believe they had to have been in severe need of help from the Gods in order to perform these subterranean rituals. The bigger the problem, they believe, the deeper they went.

You’ve got to crawl to get inside a crystal cavern but it’s worth it to see wall-to-wall sparkling flowstones like this.

 

At the back of one of the largest “rooms” inside the cave lies a spectacular area which was like a tiny crystal cavern. It required some crawling and contorting to get into this area, but it was worth it to see the the massive sparkling flowstones created mineral-laden water running through the cave.

A pot on a fire site left behind by the Mayans when their ancient sacred ceremony was done.

River Cave is full of weird drippy formations like this.

Natural (and hand-carved) cave formations were believed to have been used by the Mayans to create representations of their Gods. Our guide used his flashlight to show us what this formation would have looked like to the Mayans when they placed a torch under it.

This enormous toad seemed to be doing just fine deep inside the cave, probably living on a diet of …

…giant cave-dwelling scorpion spiders.

 

Even after doing three awesome tours with Ian that still left at least half a dozen other tours we’d like to do someday, including his multi-day jungle survival trips. When we were there Ian was also building a new chess center in further support of the Belize National Youth Chess Foundation which his wife runs as a way of encouraging 5-15 year-olds to get into the game and stay (and excel) in school. Oh, and Ian was also thinking about making his own goat cheese. We’ll just have to go back again soon.

 

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Leap(s) of Faith – Waterfall Cave Expedition, Caves Branch, Belize

The words “waterfall” and “cave” sound weird together. Is it a waterfall inside a cave? A cave formed by a waterfall? Heck, let’s just go find out. That’s how we ended up signing up for the Waterfall Cave Expedition (US$90 including transportation, gear, guides and lunch) at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge during our travels in Belize. We’d already done the Black Hole Drop rappelling trip with them but this trip added darkness and water to the equation.

Esperanza, a very rare (and very awesome) female adventure guide, prepping us for the physical challenges ahead of us.

 

After a 20 minute hike through the jungle (the easy part) we reached the mouth of the cave–and the last of our daylight. From here on out we entered a world of profound darkness (except for our headlamps).

The welcoming committee hanging around waiting for us.

 

The cave floor is a riverbed but excursions (sometimes on our butts or hands and knees) up into side chambers above the main flow lead us into various “rooms” which the ancient Mayan used as spaces for what archaeologists believe were sacred rituals aimed at gaining favor with the Gods of the Underworld, a feared and revered place they called Xibalba.

One of many massive chambers within the cave where evidence of Mayan ceremonies have been found, including fire sites and pottery shards.

 

We saw lots of ritual remains during our trip inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave but the artifacts and ritual sites on this trip rivaled what we saw in the ATM, minus the skeletons. And, because this cave is owned by Ian Anderson, we were the only group inside it unlike the much-more-famous ATM cave which can get crowded.

A fire site and pot used during ancient Mayan rituals deep inside the cave.

 

With six waterfalls inside the cave, this trip definitely had the ATM trip beat when it came to physical challenges and adrenaline. Each waterfall had to be climbed on the way into the cave, then leapt off or rappelled down on the way back out of the cave. Jumping off a waterfall inside a cave in near darkness into a pitch black pool of water that you’re trusting is deep enough and obstruction-free lends new meaning to the phrase leap of faith.

One of six waterfalls inside the cave that must be climbed up, then rappelled or jumped down.

 

The Waterfall Cave Expedition is as fun as it looks in this video.

 

Karen rappelling down one of six waterfalls that have to be navigated during the Waterfall Cave Expedition.

A perfectly flat boulder in the middle of a pitch black roomy inner chamber of the cave made a perfect picnic table. Can you believe the guides carried in a white tablecloth?

Water and time continue to build upon natural cave sculptures like this.

What remains of a site used by the ancient Mayans during sacred ceremonies inside the cave.

Water and time continue to build upon natural cave sculptures like this amazing drape formation.

In the rainy season water cascades down this slope inside the cave, forming pools and leaving behind sparkly minerals.

 

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Into the Abyss – Black Hole Drop, Caves Branch, Belize

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.

The cenote which is part of St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park in Belize.

The mouth of St. Herman’s Cave, half of St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park in Belize.

 

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.

The view from the open-air shower in one of the Treehouse Suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge in Belize.

 

Adventure innovator

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

We really did rappel way down into a black hole during the aptly named Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize. Note tiny human specs on giant sinkhole wall.

 

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.

Karen beginning a 300 foot (92 meter) rappel during the Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize.

 

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).

Karen mid-rappel during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize. That’s a nervous smile on her face since she hates heights. Note her death grip on the harness…

Karen mid-rappel during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize.

Reaching the end of the rope (and solid ground) during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop rappelling adventure in Belize.

 

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.

Hiking back out through the foothills of he Maya Mountains after our 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop rappel.

For more adrenaline, check out the two other caving adventures we had in Belize: The River Cave Expedition and The Waterfall Cave Expedition.

 

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Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, Belize

Some tours are so hyped it’s suspicious. Can they really be as good as the chatter about them claims? In the case of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize the answer is yes. Ancient Mayan ceremonies and superstitions, human remains, a virtually unpronounceable name, narrow water-filled passages and more await intrepid travelers.

It all starts out reasonably enough. After an early morning start with your tour operator in San Ignacio and a bumpy 45 minute ride you hike along a mellow, flat, scenic and mostly-shaded trail through the jungle for about 30 minutes until you reach the mouth of the cave. More precisely, you reach a rudimentary camping area at the mouth of the cave (tour companies offer an overnight trip to the cave with camping here) where you scarf down some lunch before entering the cave–a place the Mayan considered both terrifying and powerful.

The mouth of the culturally and geologically dramatic Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

 

The mouth of the cave is beautiful–like a mysterious indoor/outdoor pool. The whole cave system is filled with crystal-clear water and the deepest section on the tour is right at the beginning. The only way in is to swim. Once inside it was nice to discover that the ATM cave doesn’t suffer from a gross bat guano smell.

Karen swimming into the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

 

After the initial swim the water never gets much more than knee deep but the trail through the cave is wet and rocky the entire way as you slowly move deeper into what the Mayans called Xibalba, or the underworld. This is where they believed the dead went before working their way back up through various levels to reach a better place.

Xibalba was both feared and revered. Archaeologists believe that only a select few of the living Mayans ever entered caves and they did so only when necessary to perform rituals and ceremonies designed to solve problems.

The bigger the problem, the deeper they went into the underworld.

The entire route through the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize is covered in crystal clear water–from ankle-deep to many feet deep.

 

Mayan ceremonial sites inside the ATM cave (and other ceremonial caves) exist on natural shelves in the interior cave system. Here the Mayans built fires, burned incense and lit torches which cast shadows in the shapes of various gods (some carved out of natural stone pillars in the cave). They also brought in special ceremonial pots.

At the end of the ceremony, each pot was ruined in some way–cracked or punctured with what’s called a “kill hole” to release  its inner spirit and render the vessel useless. The deeper we traveled into the ATM the more we could relate to the feelings of power and mystery that must have lead the Mayans to believe that they could talk to their gods here.  It really was like entering another world.

A cave in created this skylight in the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize, a rare source of light in the otherwise pitch black underworld.

 

After about an hour of walking through the cave you reach a big boulder on the cave floor. Everyone in our group scrambled to the top of it and then hopped onto a lip in the cave wall–a journey many Mayans had made before us. The expansive area on this huge ledge is called The Cathedral and it’s an ancient offering site that’s literally littered with dramatic artifacts.

Ancient Mayan fire pits and ceremonial pottery in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

 

The cave is thought to be about three miles long but you only have to travel about a mile in to reach The Cathedral area. The artifacts (and the cave environment) here are so fragile here that you have to take your shoes off and proceed with just socks on. This is, in part, because the soles of your shoes damage the cave. More important is the fact that we all pay more attention to where we’re walking when we’re barefoot and the trail through this section of the cave literally winds around the fire sites and ritually-arranged pots.

Some guides have managed to lay pitiful strips of glow in the dark tape around particularly vulnerable artifacts, but it still requires full attention to your footsteps to keep from stepping on the fragile remains of the Mayans’ ceremonies.

Ritually-arranged ceremonial pottery at a Mayan offering site inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

 

The most dramatic artifacts are, of course, the human remains. Bones from 14 different bodies were discovered here including some children.

Yes, that’s a human skull. The remains of 14 bodies have been found in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

 

All of the remains belong to male victims except for the so-called Crystal Maiden (below) which is also the only intact skeleton found in The Cathedral. Nobody knows exactly how or why these people were killed inside the cave.

The “Crystal Maiden” gets her name because she’s the only female found inside The Cathedral area of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. Her intact skeleton has become covered in sparkling mineral deposits over the years.

 

Let our video, below, take you inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave without getting wet.

 

 

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Water, rock and time combine to create gorgeous natural formations inside Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

We exited Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave the same way we came in–with a swim.

 

Tips

Don’t forget to bring along an old pair of socks to wear in The Cathedral where you must remove your shoes.

Don’t wear just a bathing suit. Yes, you’ll be wet for the entire tour but you’ll also need to climb and scramble over rocks and through smallish spaces (nothing too tight) and up into The Cathedral area and having shorts and a t-shirt on make it more comfortable. It’s also quite possible to get cold inside the cave.

Because of the fragile nature of the cave and the Mayan artifacts it houses the Belizean government has licensed less than 30 guides to enter the cave. Most of them are working for tour companies in San Ignacio who will all bid hard for your business (we saw ATM tours for between US$60 and US$80 per person). No matter who you choose here are some crucial issues to address:

-Make sure you’re sent in with people with similar fitness levels. We got paired with a family headed by grandparents who had serious trouble balancing and making their way through the cave so our tour crawled along and lasted at least 30% longer than it should have. We were cold and frustrated by the time we emerged.

-Make sure the guide goes in with rescue gear and the tour company is fully insured. Accidents do happen.

-Ask if it’s a “cruise ship day” when the ATM cave can get to its maximum capacity.

And one last tip….

Go Now!

The ATM cave experience is all the more dramatic because these amazing artifacts are still in their original positions. However, damage is being done. A woman in our group blindly stepped on some pottery during our tour and one of the skulls in The Cathedral has a big hole in it where a visitor’s camera landed on it years ago. Local guides and others are saying it’s only a matter of time before the Belizean government closes the cave and/or moves the artifacts to a more protective museum setting.

Read more about travel in Belize

 

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