Belize with kids: Cave tubing to hell and back
One of the excursions my family was looking forward to doing other than zip lining in Roatan was cave tubing in Belize during our Caribbean cruise last January. Cave tubing is a popular activity for visitors in Belize which was floating in huge, inflatable tubes inside one of the country’s many cave systems. Belize has the largest cave systems in the Americas. Many of them unexplored but more than 300 have been discovered. The unique underground experience was what sets this apart from the typical activities on the islands.
There were quite a number of tour operators specializing in cave tubing. After reading many positive reviews, we went with cavetubing.bz. Their tours were customizable and prices were affordable and much cheaper than what the cruise line offered. We met up a passenger van who was driving us to the caves area.
The 45-minute drive from Belize City on the Western Hwy was filled with learning all about Belize. It’s an interesting country which just became independent in 1981 after being a British colony since 1840 and was then known as British Honduras. Along the way, this sleeping giant formation, which is really a group of valleys and hills, was pointed out to us. Can you see his profile with its head on the right?
We finally came to an area known as Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. This was where all the cave tubing companies were set up. There were also vendors renting out supplies including water shoes and selling souvenirs and snacks. The bath house with changing areas, showers and restrooms (Western standards and clean) was already crowded even before the tour buses had arrived.
After changing into our bathing suits and water gear, we were led to their equipment area to get fitted for our life vests, helmets with headlamp and our inflatable tubes with handles. All of these were included with the tour price. They usually put 6-8 people in a group. We got lucky and only the four of us were with one guide.
Going to hell and back
Belize was home of the Maya civilization. Mayans believed caves were entrances to Xibalba (pronounced She-bal-ba) the underworld or Place of Fear. They believed that the nature gods and caves served as a portal between the human world and the world of gods (Xibalba).
The Mayans used the caves for sacred rituals and ceremonies. So, going into the caves was going into their version of hell/underworld. The tour guides were saying that completing cave tubing is like saying “I’ve been to hell and back”. The vendors were selling many shirts with this saying which I bet catches a lot of people’s attention back home.
The caves were not anywhere near the changing area. There was still another 40-minute hike into the forest trails carrying the inflatable tubes. They weren’t that heavy but just big and bulky. Our guide actually carried one of our kids’ tubes and my husband carried the other. There was no way my kids could have carried them all the way through the hike.
Then came the most challenging part of this tour. After a short hike, we had to cross a river with some strong currents. A rope hung from one end of the bank to the other. There was no getting around it and no bridges in sight. I guess it was all part of the adventure.
But, I was very nervous for my kids since the water came up to my six-year old’s chest and hoping they don’t get swept away. It was a balancing act of trying to hold on to the tube and the rope and working against the water current. It seemed like an agonizing few minutes wading through the cold water but we made it.
Luckily, our guide told us we didn’t have to cross it again since we were floating in our tubes back down this river. During our hike, we learned about the various medicinal and herbal plants native to Belize. There was even a small cave we had to walk through which gave a good preview of what was to come.
The cave system goes on for miles. There were options to go on a longer hike to visit other caves and spend a longer time at the river. Since we already made plans for the Belize Zoo with the kids later that day, we opted for the shorter trail and one cave. We came upon the river by the cave entrance with a flurry of activity and groups getting ready.
In order to stay together as a group, the inflatable tubes have to be interconnected. Not by any rope or another mechanism though but with our bodies. That’s right, folks – body parts. My son was at the front of the group. My daughter who was behind him hooked both her feet into his underarms. I had my husband’s feet under my arms and my daughter had my feet under hers. I was very skeptical with the set-up but this proved to be quite effective since we actually didn’t get separated during that journey.
When we first started floating down the river to the mouth of the cave, we all felt the surge of excitement and anticipation. The kids were having fun already, letting their fingers trail on the water and using it as oars. The only thing they were a bit worried about was the darkness inside the cave but those headlamps eased their fears.
We’ve seen water temperatures posted as a refreshing 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m from Southern California so the water to me was cold but not enough to make it uncomfortable or unbearable. It may be comfortable for some people used to cold weather.
Once inside and we turned on our headlamps, we saw the rock formations in various shapes and sizes. We didn’t get an overall picture but spotlights from here and there. Some of them were quite remarkable and to think they’ve been here for thousands of years. There was a sense of eeriness inside the cave. At one time, we turned off our headlamps and only heard the sounds of the water and the hollowness of the cave with echoes of the other groups in the background. It was definitely a different way to see any cave system.
In some points, we floated in calm waters and was quite refreshing as our guide navigated us through the cave. He warned us that he would occasionally say “Butt’s Up” when we were nearing shallow water. It wouldn’t have been fun being poked by sharp rocks on our behinds.
Once we exited the cave we floated down the river in warmer waters. Floating down the calm part of the river, with just the sound of the water and the birds chirping, was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life. I could have stayed on that river for a long time, laying back on the tube and just admiring the beautiful scenery surrounding us.
In between our tours, we were treated to a nice lunch at the owner’s family residence for some Belizean chicken stew, rice and beans and cold beverages under a large bamboo palapa (all included with the tour price). Overall, it was an a amazing experience we would gladly do again if we find ourselves in Belize.
Belize Cave Tubing with kids Thoughts and Tips:
- Keep bugs away. Bring and generously spray the family with Insect repellant. You’re hiking through a jungle and are on a river in a tropical island that could have a lot of mosquitoes depending on the weather.
- Dress for the water. Even though your behind may be the only thing getting wet, be sure to dress accordingly and wear bathing suits or west suits. My son was very comfortable having his long sleeve rash guard and I wish we had brought my daughter’s rash guard too.
- Bring water shoes or old sneakers. It was a bit rough walking with water shoes on the hike but definitely worth having when crossing the river. If you don’t have one, water shoes could be rented for $3.
- Dry up. Don’t forget to bring the towels to dry off after the cave tubing tour.
- Protect your skin. Bring sunscreen and apply before going on the tour. Despite portions of the tour inside the cave, the hike is through the jungle with some wide open spaces plus the float down the river afterwards.
- Keep it dry. If there are items you simply must carry with you, get a dry bag or sack to carry them. We left most of our items in the locked van.
- Capture memories. Be sure to bring a waterproof camera or a waterproof case for your camera. Granted you really can’t take any pictures inside the caves, the before and after shots still make for memorable photos. Also bring a good, tight leash with your camera.
- Quench the thirst. We only brought along one container filled with water. The hike on a tropical rainforest can easily make one thirsty and cold water would have been ideal.
- Potty Breaks. Let everyone use the restroom before leaving. The overall trip with the hike and going into the cave and back took almost two hours. There were no restroom facilities anywhere there unless you go primeval in the jungle.
*Would you go cave tubing? Have you gone cave tubing in Belize or anywhere else?
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