Cave Kayaking in Belize

I was originally supposed to cycle through the Rockies this summer. I planned an awesome route from Denver that went west over a huge mountain pass of 12,000 feet, and then looped back to Denver over a three day trip. But when I realized that I wouldn’t have much time to acclimate to the elevation change, including one morning of riding from 9,000 to 12,000, I would be putting myself at risk of an altitude injury. It would be one thing if I lived out there, but I’m in Chicago at 600ft. It was a terrible idea, so I scrapped it and went to Belize instead.

Direct flights from Chicago to Belize City can easily go for $600, which is bullshit. Instead, I flew to Cancun for half that much and took an overnight bus across the border, getting into Belize City at 7:30am. The pickup location for the kayaking trip was a mile from the bus station. It was already a hot morning with the sun beating on the side of my face. I had gotten six hours of sleep in the last two days and felt like shit. I didn’t care. I was about to paddle through a river cave, and that’s way important than sleep.

I met the guide at the terminal and we waited for a few other people. Soon, I left on the westbound highway in a shuttle with other Americans on a 60 minute drive into the country. Belize gets a huge number of American tourists – perhaps because it is the only English speaking country in Latin America – and perhaps because its beaches and jungles are amazing places to visit.

We got to the park and geared up for the trip. We hiked on a well-maintained path consisting of three river crossings and lots of flora and fauna that our guide, Abner, pointed out to us – including aloe leaves, termites that taste like peppermint, and tree bark that you can braid into a rope. This jungle had everything a Mayan kid needs to survive in the wild.

Our kayaks were waiting for us at the river launch, a small opening between two cave tunnels. Water flowed out of one and disappeared into the next. We got in and paddled upstream into the darkness of the river cavern. Quickly, the light of day was gone and we had to rely on our headlamps to navigate. Abner told us that in ancient times the Mayans would carry torches through these caves.

We floated back out and into the entrance of the next cavern, quickly losing daylight again. But we weren’t alone. Tubers were everywhere. I had originally thought to sign up for a tubing trip on this river, but the outfitters who I tried all wanted a two person minimum. So I went with the kayaking trip instead. Turns out that was the right decision, since the guides basically daisy chain all of the tubers together to keep people from floating out of sight. It would have meant that I would have been stuck with a group of strangers, and likely would have been awkward. But in a kayak, I could paddle in my own personal space. I could be a lone cat in a big jungle.

Occasionally the river would pick up and carry us into a riffly channel, but never enough to cause a problem for the novice. It was perfect speed for a scenic river float – never too fast to care about its whitewater rating and never too slow to get bored or restless. Half the fun was trying to navigate around all of the tubers, careful not to hit somebody’s leg with my paddle. We came out of the last and longest tunnel and paddled into daylight under a gorgeous forest canopy. Everything was so much more lush and green – so much more vibrant – than the rivers I’m used to back home. My packraft would be awesome for this.

Soon we reached the river takeout and the trip’s end. Done already? Well, shit. I could eat something and go another three hours easy. But since the tour outfitters work with the cruise lines, they have to get people back to their ships on a schedule. But not before serving us grilled chicken, rice, and beans at a nearby food hall. The national dish of Belize is beans and rice that is boiled in coconut milk. There’s nothing fancy about it but it is delicious.

If I were to come back with a packraft, I would have to skip the cave section since you need a licensed tour guide. But Abner told me that the rest of the river is open. Like if say, I wanted to show up with my inflatable toy and three days of gear for a serious river run in the jungle.

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