“Step out slowly, step out slowly, step out slowly!” The voice of Pedro, one of our guides for the day gets louder to reach an almost screaming order that is quite unexpected from this strongly built and very jungle-confident Maya. While I was stepping cautiously on an anthill to observe the leaf carriers, I pointed out to him a small snake coiled on the hill, about half a meter from my foot. As I am backing off, apparently way too slowly for Pedro, he starts telling me with a slight panic in his voice that this baby snake is the deadliest of South and Central America: the fer-de-lance. After a very bumpy ride through the Belizean citrus fields in a former US school bus turned military-graded 4×4, this is how our caving waterfall adventure to the Footprint Cave starts.
A short 20-minute gentle hike on a muddy trail through the dense jungle leads us to the cave entrance from which a crystal-clear river flows out.
Trading the mosquito-repellent for helmets with powerful headlights, we venture into the underground and the wide cave mouth narrows quickly. Looking up to the ceiling, about-10-centimeter tall fruit bats hang upside down in holes carved in the limestone. A bit further down, much smaller bats hang as well: these insect bats can eat as many as 600 mosquitos an hour. We immediately find them very likable!
The cave gets darker and darker and we are progressing slowly, observing the rock formations: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and rock curtains of different colours from iron-red to calcite-white, depending on the mineral content. Beautiful limestone pools looking like the stone-and-orange miniature version of the characteristic rice terraces of south-eastern Asia retain still translucent water and signal us that we are about to get wet.
Bending at times, walking in the water up to our knees, we soon reach a large room where some cold drops of naturally filtered rain-water fall down from the tips of stalactites.
We put our life-jackets on to start swimming as the water level is higher now that we are about two kilometres into the cave. The roaring noise of water gets louder and louder as we swim underneath a limestone curtain before we walk on our haunches to eventually reach the goal of our exploration: the first of a series of underground waterfalls connected by swimming holes awaits in front of us.
Most are climbed up easily, and one requires more efforts. The guides are installing a rope to secure our ascend of a 7-metre high cascade. The climb is not that complicated, but the strength of the water smashing onto our bodies while pulling ourselves up makes it challenging and impressive.
Once we reach the sixth waterfall, spotting an occasional crab, cave cricket, or scorpion spider, it is already time to make our way back down. Jumping as soon as the level of water allows, making it more exhilarating, and swimming across the holes, we are already back in the main chamber where our guides set up a buffet on a table-like stone.
While we are fixing ourselves burritos, guides point to a higher dry plateau: it leads to a chamber where Maya artefacts and human remains were found. Indeed, many caves were used by the Maya and are considered sacred, as being the path to the underworld… Luckily, in our case, we left only footprints behind!
Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau (text & photos)
- This specific cave is located on private property and the only way to explore it is through and an adventure and lodging company: Caves Branch.
- It is possible to stay at Caves Branch which is a high-end resort targeting US tourists or to arrive in the morning from Dangriga (1hr30 by bus) or Belmopan (30 minutes by bus) to start the adventure.
- Many other caves can be explored in Belize and San Ignacio is a good base to set up a cave exploration with local guides.
- Right across from Caves Branch, the Blue Hole National Park can be visited and more specifically Herman’s Cave (cave exploration and tubing with a guide, or self-guided for the first 200m) and the dry Crystal Cave (requires a guide).
- The most sacred caves of Central America may very well be the ATM cave in Belize, easily done from San Ignacio.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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