We were up early Sunday to get headed back toward Belmopan and our next stop: the Caves Branch River system where we’d be meeting our guide for cave tubing at 10 am. That left time for breakfast at Martha’s restaurant, where they had some wonderful Belizean artwork on display. Love the vibrant colors!
And speaking of colorful – we passed this interesting structure on the way out of town near Georgeville. Yes, someone lives in it.
We also were the day’s first customers at The Orange Gallery, probably the largest and arguably the best gift shop in Belize. They don’t allow photography inside, but you can check out more of the beautiful Belize artwork here. Could easily have spent all day in this shop – too bad we don’t have lots more disposable income…
We also detoured briefly into Spanish Lookout, the area’s Mennonite community. We had heard this particular sect is much more inclusive of technology; that they do a lot of cooperative farming, often pooling resources to buy large combines and other equipment that everyone shares; that they have probably the best auto parts and service in the country; that their farmlands are impressive and look like they could be set in Anywhere, Midwest USA; oh yeah, and that they have that badass motocross dirt track. All true!
On an early Sunday morning, there was not much going on, but it was certainly picturesque.
On the way out, we saw signs of life – a young Mennonite couple with three or four kids, all on bikes, had stopped on the side of the road. As we passed, the wife looked up, waved, and – gasp! – SMILED at us. Ray almost drove off the road. Guess we should have known that the “southerners” would be more friendly. Ha ha.
So back on the road and on to Mile Marker 37, our turn to the tour service.
We were introduced to our tour guide, Lionel, a young Belizean who did not look like he was quite awake yet (not necessarily a good trait to notice in the guy who’s going to be responsible for your safety for the next few hours). He hitched a ride in the back of our truck down to a a parking lot at Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve, the river entry point for private tour guides.
Lionel led us over here to collect helmets, life vests, and innertubes from his cousin.
With gear in hand, we had a short hike down to the river. This would be the start of our jungle hike to the cave’s entry, and where we would end the tour later on too. Lionel suggested we get wet as we’d have a longer jungle hike ahead of us. Glad he took his own advice, too, as the cold water seemed to revive him substantially. 🙂
After a refreshing swim, we forded the shallow stream here and started an approximately 45-minute hike through the jungle.
Along the way, Lionel pointed out some interesting things, including the Mimosa Pudica, a collapsing fern that you can see in action here, and told us general information about the Caves Branch River and caves.
He also told us the Belizean version of why poisonwood trees (yeah, the dreaded che-chen that I suffered recently) and its antidote, the gumbo limbo tree (bark or leaves will soothe che-chen; wish I had learned this sooner) are always found in close proximity. According to local lore, the poisonwood is a wife who likes to stay in the shadows, and the gumbo limbo is her husband, who steps out into the sun in order to be able to keep an eye on her. Hmm. Sounds like some of the Guamanian stories we used to hear.
At one point, Lionel stopped to look for a tarantula. We weren’t upset that he had no luck this time…
…especially when we saw this picture of what another guide had done when he found one.
Finally we arrived at our river entry point.
And off we went…that’s me below. Not knowing what to expect, I didn’t bring my camera with me, so mostly Ray was taking pictures from behind me (innertubes are connected by ropes and caribiners, no more than eight people to one guide).
The first cave was the longest one we were in, and while in it, Lionel pointed out formations and explained that the ancient Mayans believed caves were the entrance to the underworld, or hell, which they called Xibalba (x is pronounced like z). He had us all turn off our helmet lights and it was pretty spooky in there.
Our interior photos didn’t turn out as well as hoped, so most of what I’m sharing here is in between caves along the river. The caves were generally high-ceilinged and not at all claustrophia-inducing. The water itself was often shallow, but could get as deep as 60 feet, according to Lionel (below).
We passed through four caves, then spent another leisurely 20 minutes or so just drifting along the river.
Here’s Lionel giving the stink eye to some competitor tour service guides that he didn’t care for (he said they were non-Belizean and cared more about getting people in and out than in caring for the natural resources).
At one point, Lionel pulled us over toward some vegetation and pulled a leaf off, asking Ray to smell it and see if he could identify it. He did but couldn’t, and handed it to me. I couldn’t tell either but it was wonderfully aromatic. Turned out to be allspice (shows how much I know, I thought allspice was just a branded mixture of spices).
Ah…Pretty sweet way to spend a day.
All too soon, back to the exit spot on the river, and the short hike up to the parking lot again. Up top, there’s a nice restroom/shower area where you can change, and a palapa restaurant for refreshments.
We took back our gear and drove Lionel back to the spot where we’d picked him up for the last part of our cave tube experience: A complimentary traditional Belizean lunch – stew chicken, rice and beans, and cole slaw, plus rum punch. Just what we needed to fuel up for the two-hour drive back to Progresso.
All in all, an excellent trip!
Postscript: Saw this aerial shot of the Sibun River – part of which is known as the Caves Branch system – at Astrum Helicopters Facebook page – this is exactly what the water looked like as we first entered the river – clear, but a milky blue: