Location: Caves Branch - Belize
by Wayne & Karen Brown
Last night after we returned to Ian Anderson's Jungle Lodge from exploring Mayan ceremonial cave Marcos introduced us to Esperansa. (Like Carlos, Esperansa is a Meztizo - a person of Mayan and Spanish ancestors.) Esperansa is the only woman cave guide in all of Belize! Esperansa will be taking us explore a special cave that can only be entered on a river. Today Esperansa will take us cave tubing! Joining us on this river cave expedition are three college students (Annie Jackson - age 22, J.B.Hignal - age 23 & David Skavdahl - age 21) from Seattle Pacific University.
Today we are not taking a long hike through a hot, sticky rainforest. Esperansa takes us by tractor up the Caves Branch River that flows right by Ian Anderson's Jungle Lodge. Esperansa gives us big truck tire inner tubes. We will use these tubes to float on the river and into the cave!
We follow Esperansa into the rainforest down a trail to the river. Esperansa has us put on our head lights, but not turn them on. At the river's edge Esperansa has us wade out into knee deep water and plop into middle of our inner tubes. The river is slowly moving us downstream. Esperansa shows us how to paddle backwards with our arms to slowly move up the river.
After about five minutes of paddling just around the river bend we can see a dark opening at the bottom of a limestone cliff surrounded by the rainforest. It is the cave! The river flows from the opening in the cliff. The opening is about 6 feet high and 30 feet wide.
We turn on our head lights and paddle into the cave. We have paddled into a huge chamber! It is about 50 feet high and 100 feet around. Huge stalactites hang from the ceiling. Esperansa shows points with her light to the ceiling. Bats! We get out our tubes and climb up to close to the ceiling. We can see the bats sleeping upside-down! These bats look like cute little brown mice with short noses. We can see their wings because they have them folded next to their bodies. We see one little bat holding on to a small stalactite upside-down with only one foot!
Esperansa leads us back to our tubes and we follow her paddling deeper into the cave. After about 10 minutes of paddling we come into another huge chamber, even larger than the first! We are now so deep into the cave all light is gone. Except for our lights it is totally dark in here! Esperansa has us get out of the water and leave our tubes on a limestone platform above the river. She leads us across the river to a another limestone platform. With her light she shows us a pretty cave formation called "cave bacon". It looks like a big piece of bacon stuck on the side of a rock! Don't try to bite this bacon because it is just a piece of rock!
We follow Esperansa climbing up between huge stalactites, stalagmites and cave columns. Our passageway is getting smaller. We are surrounded by beautiful cave formations that Esperansa tells us have taken thousands of years to form. Finally we come to the end of this passageway. This is the most beautiful section of the cave. The walls and ceiling and floor are covered with cave formations. Crystals in the formations glitter in our lights like stars. It looks like a frozen river of sparkling milk is flowing from the end of the cave. Esperansa has us stop before we get any closer. She does not walk us to walk this beautiful milky river. Unfortunately some people already have. Esperansa shows us some muddy footprints that someone left when they walked into the back of the passageway. Esperansa is very upset about how these muddy footprints have spoiled the previously untouched cave formations. (Imagine how mad your Mom would be if you walked across the living room carpet in muddy shoes!)
Esperansa leads us back the way we came, but we turn down another passageway. The tunnel opens up again into another large chamber. Esperansa stops, sets down her pack and spreads a sheet on the cave floor. It's time for lunch! We all sit down to a lunch of make-our-own burritos of fresh tortillas, meat, cheese and vegetables.
After lunch Esperansa leads us back to the river. We get back in our tubes and paddle even deeper into the cave. After about 20 minutes we stop and get out of the river. Esperansa leads us along the river until we come to a small cave above the river. Esperansa reaches down and makes a small ball of the red clay from the cave floor. She paints each of our faces with the red clay. The clay on our faces feels soft and cool. Esperansa says that we are about to enter an ancient Mayan ceremonial cave. She painted our faces as the Mayans used to do before they entered this part of the cave.
Esperansa tells us that this is where Mayan priests would come to pray to the gods that they believed controled mothers having babies. If a mother wanted to have a baby the priest would come to this this special cave to ask the gods to help the mother have a baby. Esperansa leads us up into the small cave. It is about 8 feet high and about 20 feet across. Esperansa shines her light on one of the stalagmites about 4 feet high. We can see this stalagmite is not in the normal upside-down cone shape. Esperansa shows us that this stalagmite was carved into the shape of a mother holding a baby! Esperansa tells us the Mayans carved this about 1,500 years ago!
Further into the small cave Esperansa shines her light on another stalagmite. It is a face! Esperansa says this is the face of the god they prayed to that would help mothers have babies. The face is carved into the stalagmite! The face is about 10 inches high and 6 inches wide. We can see a carved rock has been stuck into the mouth. It is the tongue. Tongues must have been important to the Maya. (Remember the tongue on the face we saw at the Temple of the Sun God at Altun Ha?)
It is getting late so it is time to leave the cave. In the river Esperansa has us sit in our tubes in a line behind her. She tells us to grab the feet of the person behind us and turn off all our lights. We are now a train of people floating down the river in the cave in total darkness! We move so slowly we can't tell if we're moving or not! We are quiet so we can listen to any sounds in the cave. Faintly we hear voices of ladies singing. We are in the dark and some ladies are singing in the cave all around us! After a while Esperansa speaks and tell us that what we hear is not ladies singing, it is just the sound of the river flowing through some of the cave formations.
Finally, after about 20 minutes in total darkness we see see a faint glow up head. It is the mouth of the cave! It is another 10 more minutes before we are back at the entrance of the cave and passing into the light again.We have been in this cave all day and it is now late afternoon. We continue our float down river back to where we started today adventure.
As we float down river we think about how this river is important. This is how the rainforests and coral reefs are connected! This river flows from the jungle to the sea. Anything in the rainforest that washes into the river will sooner or later float out to the sea and the coral reefs. This is why people have to be careful about what they are doing in the rainforests because it can wash out to the reefs. If the rainforests are cut down rain can wash the soil into the rivers and the soil can wash out to the reefs and cover them, killing the corals.
Also, if people use a lot of fertilizers to help things grow the fertillizers can wash out to the reefs and cause the algae to grow to fast. The algae can cover the reefs and also kill the corals. (We saw how this happened last year when we visited the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, during our 2001: A Sea Odyssey Expedition.)
Back at the basecamp we pack up all our equipment because we are leaving tomorrow morning to get on the Nantucket Clipper for the next part of our expedition at sea. Before we get on our ship we are going to visit the Belize Zoo and meet some the animals that live in the rainforest, but that we did not see.
Join us tomorrow to meet some of the weird and wonderful animals that use the rainforest as their homes.
Wayne & Karen
Caves Branch, Belize
Position: 17º 10' N / 88º 41' W
Air Temp: 88ºF
Weather: light breeze, overcast with high clouds.
At the river's edge at (from left to right) are cave guide Esperansa, David, Annie, J.B. and Karen.
The entrance to the river cave is at the bottom of a cliff covered by rainforest plants
This little brown bat is sleeping upside-down. It is holding onto a stalactite with only one foot!
These are the beautiful sparklling cave formations and the sparkling, milky river.
Lunch in the cave! (Clockwise from left: Karen, Esperansa, Annie, J.B. and David.)
Marcos holds the pieces of a Mayan pot with a picture of creature with the head of a jaguar -- the god of death!
This 4 foot tall stalagmite was carved by ancient Mayans into the shape of a mother holding her baby!
This face was carved by ancient Mayans on the side of this stalagmite. It is the face of a Mayan god of the underworld.