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Melissa Hauser exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize. Photos by Tab Hauser.
Melissa Hauser exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize. Tab Hauser photos.

“Un-Belizable”, Belize Inland and
By The Sea

With a family interest in adventure, archaeology, jungle, caves and coral reefs it was not hard to pick Belize as our destination. After much research I booked an inland package with the Chaa Creek Lodge for first half of our trip. We were pleased with their timely pick up at the airport and the stop at the Belize Zoo on the way to the jungle.

At Chaa Creek Lodge check in was efficient and we were guided to a couple of large thatched roof cottages while being told about the pool and facilities. Our "inland" package included food and 2 ½ days of different adventures. After getting our luggage we decided that the pool and the colorful drinks being served would be a perfect way to end a long day of travel. That evening during our 4 course meal we picked the “Jaguars Paw-Crystal Cave” half day tour for our first adventure.

The next morning the four of us hopped into the van for the 1 ½ hour ride to Jaguars Paw. This area is a main attraction for river tubing and zip lining for the cruise boats that call on Belize. We bypassed the cruisers making following our two special cave guides. (The cruise lines do not take passengers to Crystal Cave).

After being fitted with a helmet attached with an LED light, floatation vest and truck tube we walked quickly for five minutes through the jungle with mosquitoes in chase. This took us to the mouth of a large cave with a river running out of it. At the cave entrance the mosquitoes disappeared when we sat in our tubes and hand paddled away from the entrance and the natural light.

Stalagtites

Climbing to the second level at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave.
Climbing to the second level at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave

We curved deeper into the cave to the point of our head lamps being the only source of light. Along the river banks we saw the large stalagtites and stalagmites as well as places where the two met. We also saw pretty ribbon formations on the walls and ceilings formed by thousands of years of dripping water carrying minerals. Our guide said these formations grow about one inch a century. Some of the formations were over 15 feet long!

During our tube paddle we also had small bats occasionally fly over head where the height of the cavern area ranged from 20 to 100 feet. Crystal Cavern sparkled with our headlamps on its walls and ceilings. The name comes from millions of specs of pyrite that line the walls and ceilings. The cave also glistens from the droplets that stay on the walls and ceilings caused by condensation.

Our guides during our float told us about Maya rituals and sacrifices that took place here as well as the geological history of the caverns. We stopped a few times to stretch out and see ancient pottery as well as the occasional human bones left behind. After about 90 minutes we stopped and walked up an embankment in the cavern.

Here we followed the guides through some colorful and narrow rock and mineral formations that were similar to walking a maze. Floating with the current back took half the time. Near the end our guide sized us up and when we got back to the mouth of the cave changed plans.

Rather than have us walk through the jungle and the mosquitoes they assisted us in climbing down some rocks and put is back into our tubes where the river branched off and picked up speed. They had us lay flat and go with the quick current instructing us to paddle to the left avoiding the wrong fork further down. This was not only fun but refreshing as the end of this separate cave entrance formed a natural pool that none of us wanted to leave.

A river crossing in Belize: fun and a good way to cool off.
Crossing a river in Belize.

Doing this also avoided the earlier jungle entrance and mosquitoes. Back at the Chaa Creek we relaxed poolside and later borrowed a canoe for 30 minute paddle up river. We had an “Un-Belizable” first day. We kept thinking how cool it was to have the cave that day to ourselves.

Our second day adventure was going to top the first one as we were visiting a cave called Actun Tunichil Muknal. Actun Tunichil Muknal has been in featured in National Geographic, IMAX and a number of other shows. Our guide today was Juan Carlos told us our drive would be 90 minutes with the last eight miles on a very bumpy slow road.

JC, as he is called, told us about the Belize and area we were in. We passed along the way a few of the 12,000 Amish in this country who were selling fruit and dairy products from horse drawn carts. On the way to the cave Juan stopped at his favorite place for tamales to give us a local taste.

After arriving at the gate we had to walk two miles on a level path through the forest crossing the knee deep river three times. At the cave entrance we were given helmets with LED lamps and told to swim 25 feet from the cave entrance to where the shallower river hike starts.

The trail in Actun Tunichil Muknal is in the river that runs through the cave. It can be knee to chest deep in parts. The hike through had very diverse settings and looks. The stalagmites and stalactites along with the different natural cave formations were incredible. LED helmets lights and JC’s big flashlight were our only source of lights otherwise you could not see your hand in front of your face.

The trail also had us occasionally climb over rocks and small boulders that fell from the ceiling over time. Juan knew the route well and would warn us of any shin damaging under water obstacles or drop off ledges to deeper areas. After an hour we had to carefully climb out of the water and up 20 feet using boulders as steps to another level to see broken ceremonial 900 year old Maya pottery.

We also came across a few skulls and bones. We were also asked to remove our water shoes and walk in socks as a way to protect the ground. We continued on this upper level of the cave to an even larger and taller room. Here the cavern ceiling seemed naturally sculpted over every inch. From the end here we climbed a ladder to a third level to observe a skeleton that has been laid out for perhaps 900 years.

Playing with a shark in Belize.
Playing with a shark in Belize.

This is skeleton is known as the Crystal Maiden because the bones are completely calcified and shine when a light is pointed on her. Our climb down from the cavern to the river required us to use extreme caution and had Juan request us to concentrate and not talk.

Half way back our daughter ask we turn off our headlamps and walk in one section in the river in total darkness see what total darkness is like. Juan Carlos picked an area with no drop offs or low rocks and has us place one hand on the rock wall and another one on the person in front.

It was a very long minute for sure in which we were totally in the blind. If you have a little bit of an adventure spirit and in decent shape put Actun Tunichil Muknal as a top destination for anyone in this area. If you visit

you need to arrange a guide in advance.

Our third day at Chaa Creek was saved for activities on property. We started with a two hour forest covered horseback ride on their 400 plus acres of property. We found the horses very clean. In fact even in the high heat neither my horse Destiny nor the stables smelled.

Butterfly Pavilion

The ride was easy and at our pace. Afterwards we visited their small butterfly pavilion where entered a screened in room with a couple of hundred of them flying around us. After this it was a fast stop at their small natural history museum and then down to the pool for the rest of the afternoon. Before dinner I did take a hike by the river to see what their camping area looked like. Here I saw several small cottages on stilts with half of the structure being a patio and the other half sleeping area. During my walk I spotted or was spotted by two small foxes.

On our last morning at Chaa Creek we were up at dawn the 2 ½ ride to ruins of Tikal. After 30 minutes we crossed the border into Guatemala and switched to another driver and guide. Tikal is known for its the amazing Maya ruins.

The Great Blue Hole, a collapsed cavern.
Great Blue Hole, Belize.

There are 4000 structures here dating from 800BC to 900 AD. Of the 4000 structures 20% are excavated of which you can only really see 20% of those if you spent only a day here. We covered a lot of ground from 10AM to 1:30 seeing the main temples, plazas, ball fields and large structures.

Even though the temperatures hovered at 100 degrees with 100% humidity I was pleased to hear our daughter tell us that Tikal, like Egypt, Petra in Jordon and Angkor Watt in Cambodia we visited earlier were worth all this sweating. In fact this place

 

reminded us of Angkor Watt in some ways but here temples are solid so there is nothing to walk into.

It is also less ornate due to the natural decay of the place. Most structures have some collapsed ceilings and walls. We were able to visit a few semi enclosed and simple rooms. We did have two favorite spots. That was the acropolis with the Grand Plaza having temple one and two near each other.

Climbing 200 Feet

The other highlight was climbing nearly 200 feet up the easy and modern steps to temple four for the view where the first Star Wars movie had a scene filmed here. At temple four we just stared into the miles of jungle in the back ground and the tall temples in the foreground. We wish we had another hour here to go back to the Grand Plaza and just sit under a tree and marvel at the pyramids.

After a quick stop at the visitor center to see a scale model of the area we were driven an hour to the Flores Airport. Tropic Air runs two flights a day to Belize City in their comfortable single propeller seven passenger planes. Our connection was 25 minutes and with seven people there is never a delay in luggage or clearing Customs.

Our connection from Belize City to Ambergris Caye was a scenic 17 minutes. (no movie or meals on board but you do get to sit behind the pilot to make sure he was doing a good job!)

After four nights in the jungle at Chaa Creek with not an air conditioner to be seen for miles it was nice to be at the Phoenix in Ambergris Caya. Here we rented a modern two bedroom condominium complete with TV, internet and ice cold air conditioning. It was exactly what we needed.

Ambergris Caye is two made up of the North and South Island. San Pedro is a town about a mile long and 2 streets wide. It is filled with tourist shops, restaurants and stores for the locals. On our first day we rented a four passenger golf cart with aggressive tires and went sightseeing.

First we went to a hotel south to Banyan Bay on reports that you can actually swim off the beach. While they have nice sand, the water is two shallow to swim in unless you very far out. From there we took the cart to the North Island where our teenage son took the wheel.

A mile past the bridge the road gets pretty rutted so the drive is a little slower than the 20 mph top speed our cart did. On the north island we pulled into different hotels to see what they looked like and hoping to find a place to swim. After 4 miles we stopped at a bar, had a few mango smoothies to cool off before turning back to our condo.

Jumped off the dock

At the condo we swam in the pool as well as jumped off the dock in the Caribbean Sea. Because there is no beach in this area most hotels have docks in front to swim off of. We went late in the afternoon and swan with the Belizeans. We found it strange they would simply go in with their clothes on. Boys and girls would jump off the dock with their afterschool clothes and their mom’s in dresses would simply follow sometimes holding a baby.

Our second day in Ambergris Caye had Maureen & I take a 3 hour trip to Ho Chen and Shark Alley Preserve some 4 to 5 miles from San Pedro. We did a one tank dive at Ho Chen where we saw the reef in excellent condition.

Floating deep inside Crystal Cave.Soldier reenactors in Toronto in War of 1812 uniforms. photo: toronto.ca
Floating deep inside Crystal Cave, Belize.

We cut our dive to 30 minutes as the fast outgoing tide exhausted us. Our guide told us that once in a while the park rangers have to pick up divers outside the reef who are sucked out. Our second stop was Shark Alley. Snorkeling here gets you up front and personal with nurse sharks and stingrays. We saw one guide from another boat bring up stingrays on his head.

A large one swam up to his face as it wanted a hug. The nurse sharks also circle any new boats to the area because they know there will be food in the water. One guide got a hold of a 5 foot shark, turned it upside down which immobilize it and handed it to a 12 year girl to hold. She was in awe while the others touched its soft body gently. (Nurse sharks do not have sharp teeth and are usually bottom feeders so they do not pose any risk to people)

Beautiful creatures

While I may not agree with training sea life in the wild to interact with people it was an impressive site for most people there. Perhaps if this interaction makes people aware of these beautiful creatures and encourages them to protect the environment then perhaps some good can come of it

Our entire last day in Belize was spent visiting the Blue Hole and nearby Cayes. This meant taking a 2 1/2 hour boat ride to this outer reef. For divers this was a 3 tank dive while my kids and wife with an ear issue did 3 snorkel stops nearby. The Blue Hole is the only known feature of its type in the world. While it looks like a volcanic atoll, it is actually a 430 foot deep cavern whose ceiling collapsed filling it in with sea water millions of years ago.

It was formed by rainwater filtering through the limestone roof eating the insides when the oceans were lower. When the sea level was had risen the ceiling collapsed. From the air it sticks out as perfectly dark blue circle about 1000 yards across. The dive profile here is deep. Amigo Divers guide masters briefed the group saying we will go down to 110 feet where there is an upside down ledge. From there we go another 20 feet below this ledge and swim around the large stalactites. He said that anyone experiencing nitrogen narcosis should go up 10 or 15 feet until their head clears. Due to dive formulas and the depths our profile was 130 feet at eight minutes with a long decompress time at twenty feet to help purge nitrogen from our bodies.

While I was not thrilled at the 130 foot depth it was impressive looking down to what seemed the abyss as well as looking up to the surface that seemed so far away. Personally I find the cenotes or caverns in Mexico a more interesting dive.

To Moon Caye

Tikal, Belize.
Tikal, Belize.

From the Blue Hole we cruised to Moon Caye where the Red Footed Booby breeds and can be viewed from a platform. Moon Caye is a pretty uninhabited tropical island. The snorkeling group was let off here to do some beach swimming along with a couple employees to prep lunch. Our boat continued five minutes off the island where we dove on some on pristine coral walls and formations.

Here our dive master speared a 4 inch lion fish. Lion Fish are the only species allowed to be killed in these protected waters because they are an invasive species. After our dive we had a local lunch of stewed chicken, rice and beans, potato salad finished off with some delicious coconut pie.

On the Moon Caye our kids found a baseball size hermit crab they kept on the table to watch. My daughter also had a coconut drop near her so she took a conch shell and rock to break it rewarding us with fresh meat and juice. Her incident reminded me that people are nearly 100 times more likely to get killed by coconuts than diving with sharks.

From Moon Caye it was a short ride to Long Caye for another dive and snorkel stop at a place called the Aquarium. This stop as expected had lots of fish of different sizes. After the snorkel and diving it was a little more than 2 hours back to the dock. Having our last day on the tropical outer islands and beautiful coral reef was an excellent way to finish this family trip.

 
Tab Hauser, left.





Tab Hauser's
main business is alarm switches for the security business as well as relays for the electronics world.  In college and with no money he had the urge to travel and kept a file full of places to visit. Three decades after graduating he has visited 44 countries on six continents keeping an active travel site at www.tabhauser.com which he uses to consult people on travel. He is a regular contributor to two boating magazines and has written for travel and trade publications in the past. His home and boat are on the north shore of Long Island.

 

 

 

 

 

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