Return to the Underworld in Belize


There are many reasons why tourists head to Belize. If you do some advance research, you will find that one of the most popular adventures is a visit to ATM.  This is billed as an Indiana Jones-type trip through underwater caves in search of the Golden Maiden. It’s not recommended for those who are afraid of water, claustrophobic, or uncomfortable in the dark.  Nor, is it advisable for the obese or those who are unable to climb and fend their way against currents and spiky rocks.  For those people, cave tubing is a better alternative.

Both give you a sense of how the Mayas respected the Underworld, or Xibalba.

Xibalba is a Maya Ki’che word that refers to the underworld as “place of terror.” In fact, Xibalba is referenced in the Mayan bible, the “Popol Vuh.” Today, a visit to the Mayan underworld invokes more feelings of being in a sacred place, rather than a frightful space. The underground centers give you a sense of connecting with another world, and also a sense of awe for the rituals and beliefs of the highly advanced societies who inhabited Mesoamerica long before us.

According to a Discover Magazine article, “The Maya ventured into these deep spaces at great risk — in some cases traveling more than a mile underground, swimming down subterranean rivers, climbing precipitous cliffs or lowering themselves into tight hollows.” Today, visitors can take easier, safer routes.

Second Stop in Xibalba: No’Hoch Chi Chen

Last year, 132,000 tourists went cave tubing in the dark depths of No’Hoch Chi Chen Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. This part of the underworld is located on the Western Highway, about an hour away from Belize City. Some choose to zip line right next door, before or after their cave tubing experience. Or, counter a Xibalba experience with a visit to the Mayan Sun Temple at Altun Ha.

Cave tubing in Belize is a great way to connect with nature and get a taste for life in the dark. However, whereas ATM requires a bit of physical fitness — and a gutsier attitude, at Caves Branch after a 45-minute walk to the cave, you can sink into your rubber tube and soak up the specialness of the underworld.

The hike through the tropical primary rain forest is slow-paced and simple. Like the ATM tour with Carlos the Caveman, Joshua our cave tubing guide does a great job of pointing out interesting parts of the habitat. He crushes cohune nuts and serves us the coconut-like interior. He picks a leaf off a tree and snaps open the stem a bit. Then, he draws temporary henna-like tattoos with the iodine ink that drops out.  Joshua throws rocks at another tree, forcing leaves to drop into the water. Then, he opens the leaves and lets the cave tubers smell or taste the inside of an allspice leaf.

The Belizean rain forests tend to be warm and muggy. When you go cave tubing, you enjoy refreshing coolness as you wade across a river, and/or dive into the waters for a swim before. For the more adventurous, there’s even a spot where you can jump off a cliff in the darkness of the cave. While it may look like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jumping into the netherland, the cool water is not all that far below you, and it’s deep enough to protect your fall.

Butts Up

Everyone in your group is tied together while your tour guide pushes or pulls or treads up or down the stream. You can just lean back, relax, and keep your eyes open to enjoy the underworld.

There’s an expression here, that absolutely refers to your derriere. During the cave tubing experience, there are a few spots where you had better lift your rear a bit. The tubes pull you through areas where the water can be 35 feet deep. Other times, the floor of the cave is just a few inches below.  Since your bottom hangs low in the tube, it can get roughed up if you don’t lift it up.

When you’re not lifting your bottom, you can focus your attention on crystallized stalactites and stalagmites surrounding you. Many form statues. Our guide, Joshua, keeps telling us to use our imagination. Find Kimba from the Lion King, he says. Or, Mother Mary and Baby Jesus, a turtle, crocodile, and many other images that nature has crafted into the limestone.

Getting Here

There is a myriad of tour operators that offer cave tubing visits from most of the major cities. If you’re coming from San Pedro or Caye Caulker islands, the service includes car service from the water taxi dock in Belize City. Most others pick you up at your hotel. The ride is just a bit more than an hour from Belize City, though keep in mind that traversing Belize City can take a while, depending on the traffic.

Some rent cars to maneuver their way around Belize, but road conditions aren’t always the best, nor are they clearly marked.

It’s easy to combine cave tubing with other short tours, and Altun Ha or the Belize Zoo are both nice options. The zoo has rave reviews and was established following a video production that required animals in the wild.

The road from the ruins at Altun Ha to No’Hoch Chi Chen passes by the Sibun Hills. The Sibun Caves Branch forms a sleeping giant that you can see in the distance. Interestingly enough, the lightened eye sockets of the giant, visible on both sides of the dark mountain, were apparently carved out by the Maya.  And, in the backdrop, lies the Maya mountain range.

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