Rainforests, jungle animals, mountains, crystal clear rivers and Maya ruins: This is Belize. Add extensive limestone cave systems to that list, and this is “Ian Anderson’s.” Ian was the pioneer of caving trips in Belize, a sector of the tourism industry that was never developed or promoted before he came here several years ago. He has created a whole new dimension for tourists in our country. Now, you can experience magnificent caves where few have tread since the end of the Maya civilization around 900 AD.
Ian Anderson came from Vancouver, Canada, and a search for life’s fulfillment brought him to the heart of Belize, in the Caves Branch River valley, where he began guiding caving expeditions. This area contains the largest collection of caves in the country, with five separate underground river cave systems that can be navigated for distances up to seven miles, using rafts or inner tubes. Also, there are over 36 explored, dry “crystal caves” in the area. Many of these caves have huge rooms filled with giant stalactites and stalagmites, columns, and crystalline formations which have all been created over hundreds of thousands of years.
Caves Branch Estate, which privately holds over 50,000 acres of the region, has permitted Ian to create his own “jungle camp” alongside the river, as a base of operations. This allowed him to offer accommodations to his clients, along with their expeditions. The brochure accurately describes the operation as “rustic but unique,” with the emphasis on adventure…this is not a resort.
It warns that “all activities are fairly strenuous and designed for the adventurous spirit.” If you are expecting flush toilets, hot water and electricity, this is not for you. However, if you are seeking an exotic, adventurous experience, this is THE place.The adventure expeditions on the site include several different cave trips, with and without the river, with inner tubes and/or hiking, and a collection of jungle treks and safaris. Guests have even been known to design their own adventures while sitting around the dinner table the night before! The experienced guides, most from local villages, are ready, willing and able to take you there. On our visit to Caves Branch, we had the fantastic experience of taking the “River Cave” expedition into “Xibalba” (pronounced SheeBALba), a huge cave believed by the Maya to be the Underworld, the kingdom of their Gods, used as a ceremonial site.
Into the Underworld…
At Caves Branch, you’ll see huge chambers with five million year-old formations
After breakfast, we were transported by tractor and wagon about five miles upstream, where we walked several yards to the river. We climbed aboard our tubes and paddled a short distance up the calm waters of the jungle-canopied river which flows from the cave. Shortly inside, with only our headlamps to light our way, we climbed out and walked throughout most of the trip, using the inner tubes to traverse the larger stretches of water, and areas where there was no room to walk. Our bold guide, Jacinto Chun, has great respect for his Maya heritage, and told us a brief history of the Maya people and the importance of this cave to them. He led us through high and low, wide and narrow passages, stopping to explain the significance of fire pits, carvings and artifacts still in the cave. We truly felt the magic and the mystery, pausing at one point to sit silently with our lamps off, listening to the “voices” of the cave. We saw mounds of crystals, looking like barrels of sugar flowing through the tunnels and stalactites, stalagmites, and columns that stretched over fifty feet in height. These caves remain “untouched”, and we felt as though we were the very first to see these magnificent crystalline structures.
There were no broken formations, no footprints, no trails-and the artifacts remain exactly as they were found and have been documented by the Department of Archaeology. At the end, we slowly drifted with the silent current back to the entrance of the cave-floating gently towards the light and out under the lush green canopy, dripping from a fresh rain shower. This trip is a must for any visitor to Belize who wants an unforgettable experience that will be talked about for years to come.
The Lodge provides camping areas, fully screened bunkhouses and private cabanas (no plumbing), and can handle up to 32 guests. Although once a hard-core jungle camper, Ian is softening a bit. He has built four (cold water) showers, (river bathing is still permitted) and has future plans to add a few “luxury” cabanas complete with flush toilets and all the trimmings.
The entire staff is very friendly and eager to see to your needs. The kitchen serves up delicious Belizean meals, buffet style, and there is always more than you can eat of several dishes, with plenty of freshly made bread or tortillas.
Ian’s tours can be done as a day trip from your hotel, provided it is not too far away. However, for the full jungle and cave experience, you should plan to spend at least one night at the lodge here. Due to the unique nature of the expeditions, each has a maximum of six to eight persons, so avoid disappointment by booking ahead. There are two “all-inclusive” packages offered, and even a five-night, “Honeymooner’s Adventure,” complete with Champagne! Notice to groom: Discuss this in advance; don’t try to surprise her.
How to get there
Despite its remoteness, Caves Branch is easy to reach. It is located just off the Hummingbird Highway, 14 miles south of the capital, Belmopan. Scheduled bus service between Belize City and Dangriga passes by several times daily. You can also drive yourself. It’s a 1 1/2 hours’ drive from Belize City, and 1 1/4 hours from San Ignacio…on all-weather roads.