Toledo has some of the most extensive cave systems in the country, if not the region, offering both wet and dry caving and exploration. And, with many caves in fairly remote locations, half the fun is the jungle hike in getting there!
Caves are of huge ceremonial and religious significance in Maya history, as well as being the entrance to Xibalba - the Maya Underworld. Caves are considered archaeological sites in Belize, and are managed by the Institute of Archaeology. Caves aren't open to the general public and should only be visited as part of an organized tour, with specialist-trained guides and safety equipment as appropriate.
Specialist tours (from 'moderate' to 'challenging') include Tiger Cave with its wide chamber lit by huge skylights, cave swimming at Hokeb Ha Cave near Blue Creek, or the incredible Yok Balum Cave with its 30 feet high chamber with some amazing cave formations.
> TIGER CAVE
(c. 10 to 90 minutes hiking depending on route, moderate fitness)
Tiger Cave was named many years ago by the villagers of San Miguel after a dog chased a jaguar cub inside the cave. The dark and narrow cave entrance belies the wide chamber inside, lit by ‘skylights’ where holes in the cave ceiling allow for sunlight to beam through the gaps, illuminating large pieces of broken pottery, as well as beautiful formations. The adventurous can choose to climb out to the jungle through one of the skylights.
The journey to Tiger Cave depends on the route you choose – you can hike for around 90 minutes from San Miguel village through secondary-growth forest and alongside jungle streams or, with advance arrangement, your tour operator can drive much closer to the cave giving you a short 10 minute hike, with more time for caving, and cooling off in the swimming hole near the cave, complete with a tiny sandy beach! Both routes require fording the Rio Grande river, a refreshing knee-deep wade through the blue-green waters.
> HOKEB HA CAVE
(c. 30 minutes hiking, moderate fitness)
Hokeb Ha Cave ('where the water enters the earth') has a large entrance carved from the summit of a hill where the river gurgles up from underground (the Creek actually entered the hillside as 'Rio Blanco'). Many Late Classic Maya ceramics have been found inside the cave, as well as an altar, and archaeologists believe the cave was used specifically for ceremonial purposes.
Hokeb Ha's limstone caves are full of pristine crystal-clear mineral pools and lagoons, with a water temperature of a constant 75 degrees. With life jackets and headlights you swim into the cave to visit one or more waterfalls, and view the impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Depending on skill, fitness, and water levels you could swim and cave through four chambers to the fifth interior waterfall!
> YOK BALUM CAVE
(c. 120 minutes hiking, good fitness
some scrambling/crawling, and fording waterways involved)
When guests tell us they want some serious jungle hiking, something rigorous with a touch of the ‘Indiana Jones’ feel about it, we suggest they consider the Yok Balum adventure tour - a cave virtually unknown to the outside world.
You trek through secondary growth forest, fording rivers and creeks, and then into ‘high bush’ with some of the best preserved forest in southern Belize with rainforest trees, medicinal plants and crystal clear streams. The dirt trail may well reveal animal prints, including jaguar tracks, although Yok Balum – jaguar paw – is actually named for a paw shaped stalactite at its entrance.
The last part of the trek is a tough uphill climb to an unprepossessing cave entrance, but a military crawl along a low but wide 20 feet tunnel takes you through to a large chamber featuring some of the most impressive formations in the region – stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, and flowstones almost everywhere you look.
Yok Balum wasn’t explored by archaeologists until 2006 and, with most villagers put off exploring the cave because of the restrictive entrance, it has seen little foot traffic and is in almost pristine condition. The cave also features ancient pottery, including a pottery plate estimated to be at least 1300 years old.
More reading... click for to read about Norbert of Globotrek's adventure to Yok Balum