Enter the Mayan underworld of Xibalba where emerald-green rivers disappear into mystical caves…
The Caves Branch River winds through a porous limestone landscape that is riddled with holes like a piece of Swiss cheese. Water flows through the jungle and then into caves before disappearing into underground passages only to later emerge again in some remote jungle stream. A few brave cave divers have ventured deep into pitch dark underground waterways but have only begun to map this intricate maze of water and rock.
When you hear about Cave Tubing in Belize it refers to a small part of the vast Caves Branch River Cave System. Specifically, it refers to a segment of the Caves Branch River that flows continuously through 5 different caves. After the second cave, the river goes underground for a short segment only to reemerge and continue into the third cave. The river flows unbroken through each cave tunnel, like a freeway tunnel you drive through. Except instead of a car, you’re on an inner tube floating along the river through long cathedral caves. There are other river-caves in Belize that you can enter on an inner tube, like Footprints Cave not too far away. However, this 5 cave system is the only one where the river-caves form unbroken tunnels that you can float right through. From the entrance of the first cave to the exit of the last cave is approximately 4.5 miles (7km).
This landmark tour was pioneered by Ian Anderson, owner of Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, who was the first to popularize cave tours in Belize. They are the only outfit that offers the complete cave tubing tour through all 5 caves. The first 2 caves are accessed through a private reserve exclusively managed by them. All the other tour guides and operators do a shorter cave tubing tour that will take you through the last 3 caves of the river-cave system.
This unique river-cave system is called Nohoch Che’en Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve and it is managed by the Institute of Archeology which is a part of the National Institute of Culture & History. Whether you’re visiting on a cruise ship and doing a cave tubing cruise shore excursion or are staying in a nearby resort doing a cave tubing tour, you’re in for a memorable experience. It’s a very easy and accessible tour that anyone can do. Over the years both young and old, as well as everyone in between, has gone cave tubing! The river gets a bit low or high during the dry and wet seasons respectively, but the tour can be done year round. It’s only after a big rainstorm when the river overflows that it’s not possible to do this tour. There are day trips from many different destinations that will take you cave tubing such as Belize City, San Ignacio, Belmopan and Dangriga. There are even day trips from the islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker!
Most travelers end up doing the shorter cave tubing tour through the last 3 caves of the entire 5 cave system. After a quick hike along the jungle you’ll reach the point in the river that leads into the first cave. The water is crystal clear with hues of blue and green that just invite you to jump in. The current in the river will glide you along this unforgettable experience. Some segments of the river even have a few light rapids that add a little adrenaline to the tour. Along the way you’ll pass lush jungles and vine-draped cliff walls. As you enter the pitch dark caves only your head lamp will light your way illuminating cathedral chambers and geological cave formations. Inside one of the caves the guide will have everyone turn their headlights off. It’s an eerie feeling gliding along on your inner tube in absolute darkness. At this moment you really understand why the Maya believed caves were the window into the underworld. They called it Xibalba (Place of Fright), a portal between the human world and the invisible world of gods.
There are 2 access points to the 3 caves for the shorter cave tubing tour. The first is on private property that used to be a jungle resort named Jaguar Paw. They were one of the first companies to start offering cave tubing tours to cruise ships. This is why cave tubing tours are sometimes referred to as “Cave Tubing at Jaguar Paw”. The property was sold and is now Chukka/Bakabush Adventures who specialize in shore excursions for cruise ships. As this tour became more popular freelance tour guides wanted an easier way to access the caves rather than going through private property. As a result, the Institute of Archeology opened a second access point to the caves and this is where the majority of tour operators and guides will take you to begin your cave tubing tour.
If you want to experience the entire 5 caves system, you’re in for quite the adventure. The first of these caves alone is longer than the last 3 caves combined! This cave is on the Blue Hole River, the same river that flows through the Inland Blue Hole. The second cave is on the Caves Branch River, right after the Blue Hole River merges with it. After the second cave, the river continues eventually flowing down into an underground waterway. Since getting sucked underground on an inner tube isn’t much fun and you probably want to stay alive, you’ll exit the river beforehand and hike about 20 minutes through the jungle until the river emerges again. You’ll then jump back in the river and continue with the last 3 caves downstream. Visitors who are staying overnight can do the complete tour through all 5 caves. However, cruise ship visitors only have enough time on shore to do the shorter cave tubing tour through the last 3 caves.
Plan your Belize Vacation
- Here’s a list of reputable Tour Operators & Guides that can take you Cave Tubing.
- Here’s a list of Resorts in the Cayo District where you can stay to go Cave Tubing.