Experience Mayan Caves in Belize

Experience Mayan Caves in Belize

waterfalls

The best tours and caves to explore in Belize

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I’m a history lover by nature, and once I learned that the caves in Belize were idolized places by the Mayans I knew I had to go explore them. Caving in Belize is a wonderfully sustainable way to experience history, nature, have an adventure and get to know the local culture.  There are a few options for cave tours, each with their own adventurous spirit, and all with a load of history embedded in the story.

Things to know about visiting caves in Belize

  • You MUST book a tour to visit any cave in Belize- almost all of them are sacred places that have historical artifacts inside so the government requires a tour guide
  • There are hundreds of caves in Belize, but only a fraction are open to the public to visit.  The Belizean government has done a phenomenal job protecting the caves from over crowding them with tourists
  • The environment inside of caves is extremely fragile.  A rule of thumb is to leave the place the same or a little better than when you arrived; meaning do NOT leave any trash (all of the guides will review this with you as well), and if you see trash notify your guide so it can be picked up to be removed.
  • Each hotel will offer similar and unique tours; be sure to check out Tripadvisor for tour reviews & to get even more ideas
  • Wear clothes you are comfortable getting wet, including closed toe shoes.  The first river crossing will have you submerged up to your shoulders. We purchased these water shoes prior to our trip and loved how they felt like lightweight sneakers.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) 

      The ATM cave is the most popular cave to visit in Belize.  Uniquely, it’s popularity doesn’t equate to an overcrowded tourist trap.  Tours here must be booked in advance, as there are only a handful of approved licensed guides.  In fact, the government has stated that it will no longer allow any more people to be licensed on guiding groups into this cave.  This means that once all of the current guides have retired, the cave will be closed off from the public!

        Most tours will pick you up at your hotel, and you’ll enjoy a scenic drive through stoney back roads, small farms and lush jungle hills as the backdrop.  Be sure to inhale the fresh orange scent while driving through the orange groves prior to parking. Once there, helmets will be provided with headlamps. The adventure starts right away with a short swim through a river (three different times!) and a 40 minute flat level hike to get to the entrance of the cave.

        Greeted by clear, teal water and multiple pools of water cascading from the cave entrance, a curtain of ivy disguises its true depth.  After jumping into the water to swim through the caves entrance, you will notice how the rock surfaces you walk on are not slippery at all.  That is due to the lack of sunlight. Sunlight allows moss to grow, so no sun exposure means no moss.

        Right away you will learn and see visible traces of the Mayans who came here to worship their gods.  Mayans viewed the tree roots in the caves as the roots to their Tree of Life that connected them to the spirit world below.  These caves, and the well preserved ATM cave, was a place of sacrifice during difficult times. Take note of how the sacrifices intensify with the depth of the cave, meaning that the more troublesome their situation the further in they would go to place offerings.  This was done because the Mayans felt that the deeper into the cave they went equated to their closeness to the gods. Towards the back of the cave is the “Crystal Maiden”, who is thought to be a sacrifice victim. Years of annual rainy seasons has left her appearing to have a ‘fairy dust’ coating.

        Once all the way in the cave, enjoy the dynamic hike back down through the cave.  Climbing through crevices and sliding down into natural pools of water until you swim out of the cave and back into the jungle sunlight.  Finishing your hike with a lunch outdoors and a beer with your group.

*I cannot recommend this tour enough if you are visiting Belize.  It is so well structured, informative and well managed. I also loved how it felt like an adventure that anyone could do.  Since our group had only four excited adults, our guide gave us a more exciting cave hike, and he was so willing to answer questions & point out cool things about the plants, animals and Mayan people.  See below for a link of how to book him for your tour here.

TIPS for visiting the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave:

  • NO cameras of any kind are allowed inside (someone has cracked a fragile skull by accidentally dropping their camera on it) *Hence, why there are no pictures for this tour on this section of the post
  • Try to book with a small group.  With only one other couple on our tour, our guide was able to maneuver us to different areas inside of the cave, and you’ll spend more time swimming throughout the tour.
  • There are simple showers you may use after your hike back to the vehicle.  I’d suggest bringing a change of clothes and towel from your lodging, so that you can quickly rinse off and feel refreshed on your drive back

Waterfall Cave Expedition

        The most vigorous cave tour option, the Waterfall Cave Expedition will involve hiking through a jungle, crawling in a cave, swimming and jumping off from the top of waterfalls. Caves Branch Jungle Lodge picks up the group in a  ‘renovated’ (loosely used word here) tank.  Which is needed when driving through unpaved roads through a valley of orange groves.

       Once far enough into the jungle, enjoy a short 20 minute hike that starts with a warning of ‘watch out for snakes!’ and the guide pulling out his machete.  A sure sign that today’s endeavor will be one to remember.

        Unlike the ATM tour, the cave entrance is on dry land with tree roots pulling around the cave entrance.  You will eventually get to water that comes up to your knees and will go from walking to crawling through low hanging stalactites in the dark, and tip toeing when you’re able to stand so as not to disturb the delicate cave equivalent of an ocean’s coral reef.

Once you are deep enough into the cave the real adventure starts. Dropping your packs, you put on a life vest and start by swimming under low hanging spaces with bats flying right above your head.

        Coming up to the first large open space, you’ll feel like a kid again jumping feet first into a natural pool of water to swim to the first waterfall.  And then you’ll feel anxiety as you watch the guides clip in each visitor to a rappel line secured alongside the largest waterfall.

Climbing up, face-first into a gush of water means relying on your intuition to hike up successfully.  Luckily your guide will direct you with a forceful nudge in the right direction (thank goodness for that too because once your eyes are squeezed shut I was grasping at straws trying to pull myself up) and pushing your feet into the natural gaps to hoist yourself up.

After this, the remaining waterfalls are much easier to climb up. Once halfway through the cave – as the other half is too far to access on one day – the group will turn around and the really fun part begins. Jumping down the waterfalls into their natural basins!

       Each adrenaline-pumping jump comes with the possibility of leaving a piece of yourself behind…  Be sure to jump in the place the guides point out so as not to hit the rocks under the water.

Once you’re finished jumping and sliding back down through the cave, enjoy a fresh (vegetarian-friendly) lunch prepared for you inside of the cave!  Table cloth, cutlery and all.  Taking all of the food and trash with you, you hike back out of the cave and through the jungle for your calm ride back through the forested orange groves.

The best part is the potential for awesome animal sightings- night herrings, green parrots, hawks and egrets.

Cave Tubing

        Cave tubing is another tour option that you can book while in the Belizean jungle. We chose to be more adventurous and hike the cave waterfalls, but if you’re looking for a relaxing trip this is great to learn about the history and enjoy the fresh water.

*We booked our tours through our hotel, the Sleeping Giant Rain forest Lodge.

The ATM cave tour they offer is with a contracted guide, named Abel.  He was fantastic! He can be booked only through your stay here.

The Waterfall Cave Expedition is through Caves Branch Jungle Lodge.  Sleeping Giant booked it for us, and a Cave Branch vehicle picked us up.  Meaning, you could book the same tour we took with them and they should be able to accommodate your pick up and drop off.

Laura of Blue Eyed Compass, a Sustainable Travel Blog

Hi!  I’m Laura, a sustainable travel blogger, as well as freelancing web designer & photographer. I share real & honest information about traveling, how to do so sustainably, and ways to earn an income while working remote.

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If you’re planning a trip to Belize, check out my other blog posts on the most beautiful places to visit & the best things to do in Belize

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Guide to the Road to Hana, Maui

Guide to the Road to Hana, Maui

waterfalls

The best stops and all of my tips to make the most out of your day!

Note: this post contains affiliate links to products we love and have purchased ourselves on Amazon. Clicking these links doesn’t cost you any extra money, and you’re supporting us by doing so. You can view our disclosure page for additional details.

The Road to Hana is an adventure that any traveler should be prepped for physically… and well, mentally too.  Containing so many stunningly beautiful parts of the island and hidden gems, the Road to Hana is an all-day road trip through a lush garden and vistas around every corner.  While everyone says, ‘you have to do the Road to Hana’ and how gorgeous the stop offs are, few tell you how immaculate the drive can be and how to do it to make the most out of your day.  This is a guide for the best stop offs if you only have one day for this adventure.

Preparing for the Road to Hana

The Road to Hana is just that – a road that takes you the town of Hana.  Its uniqueness is that it is a series of over 600 of curves on a single lane, 64-mile road with various stop offs.  If the beaches, waterfalls and hikes were not enough of a reason to visit, successfully driving this roller coaster road is!  Travelers can choose to rent a car and do the drive themselves or go with a tour group. Many drive through with an extensive checklist of places they want to photograph, while those more prepared will have a select few stops to have time to enjoy.  Doing the latter will require a rental car so that stops can be done when and where you please.

Be sure to dress and pack appropriately for what you want to do, whether it be hiking, swimming through waterfalls or lounging on a beach.  One of the best tools to have at the ready is an app called the Gypsy Guide. It follows through your gps to provide notice for upcoming turns into sightseeing spots, highlights each stop you can make, suggests which is best to stop at and history of Maui.

While there are over 20+ talked about stops on the Road to Hana, here are the stops that we felt encapsulated a unique day of adventure and relaxation… and of course food.  Please note that we left stops for the drive back so the order we chose may not be the same you choose/your most ideal.

The Best Stops on the Road to Hana

Wa’ainapanapa State Park

Wa’ainapanapa is the black sand beach that Maui is infamous for.  It truly is as stunning as everyone’s pictures make it look, and one of the main reasons leaving early in the morning is ideal.  Getting here early will mean less of a crowd to enjoy the calm beauty of the beach. The guide talks about the parks lava tubes which we had difficulty finding because they were at another entrance.  Be sure to make the first left turn to get to them. *Camping is an option here!

Haleakala National Park

Haleakala is great because it contains two amazing places to see- the O’heo Gulch Pools (also known as the Seven Sacred Pools) and the Kipahulu Waterfall.

  1. The O’heo Gulch Pools are a series of pools and waterfalls that you can swim in (however they were closed for swimming due to rockslides; be sure to check ahead).
  2. The Kipahulu Waterfall is a four mile round-trip hike (from the parking lot) that leads you through a bamboo forest and ends with a beautiful waterfall.  The hike took us about two hours to complete which includes eating a packed lunch and stopping for pictures.

If you want to explore Haleakala State Park be sure to think about how much time you want to allot there as you could spend half a day there in itself. *$20 entrance fee

Hamoa Beach

On our way back towards Paia I really wanted to enjoy a nice beach, as we spent the first half of the day hiking.  Hamoa beach was perfect. A pristine sand beach with calm, warm, teal blue water. The best part about this beach is that it is difficult to reach as it’s so far into the Road to Hana experience so the crowds don’t exist (these pictures are from a Saturday afternoon) and you feel as if you have earned your privilege to relax on the beach having worked so hard to get here.

Support local food stands

As reviewed on the ‘Perfect Weekend Getaway in Maui’ here are some delicious items to keep an eye out for while driving-

-Coconut Glens Vegan Ice Cream; try the lilikoi flavor

-Maui Golden Pineapple; they are much less acidic than typical pineapples

-Baked breads

Ke’anae Arboretum

A somewhat long pull off on the road, this place has a lot of history (Thanks Gypsy Guide!) and a great look out with sharp, volcanic black rocks bursting along the coastline with powerful waves crashing alongside them.

Twin Falls

One of the first stop offs, we did this midday our second day and it wasn’t too crowded as most people seem to stop there as their first morning location.  Bring water shoes if you want to get into the water as it is rocky.

Garden of Eden

Another must see location, the Garden of Eden did not disappoint (especially as my expectations for a botanical garden are fairly high after visiting so many).  The land is privately owned and maintained, so your entrance fee helps preserve the grounds. There are so many beautiful flora species to see, as well as ocean and waterfall vistas, and what may have been the favorite is feeding the ducks and peacocks that live on the property (*be warned, these guys come hungry and with the tactfulness of a child digging into his Halloween candy).  Plan at least an hour here; better yet, as it’s close to the start of the Road to Hana you could visit this on a separate day.

Whether you’re a thrill seeker or a resort lover, the Road to Hana is a bucket list item that should not be missed.  Taking a day to drive through this adventure will provide a greater sense of what the Hawaiian islands have to offer beyond the beaches at the resorts.  Hopefully this guide will provide insight into planning a great day!

Top Tips for the Road to Hana, Maui:

  • The Gypsy Guide costs $5.  There are CDs and maps you can purchase as well, but when you are driving on a road with so many winds and turns, looking at a map can be dangerous.
  • Depending on where you are staying leave early.  Staying in or near Paia was great as we were basically already staying on the Road to Hana, whereas people staying in west or south Maui had to make a 30-45-minute drive just to get to Paia.
  • When renting a car, please consider the tight corners and that parts are unpaved.  It seems many tourists rent convertible mustangs which may be the least reasonable car for this adventure, yet you also do not need a full-sized sedan (don’t let the car rentals upsell you!)
  • Be a cautious, calm and polite driver; Hawaiians will tail you because they know the road better than you.  When possible, pull to the side and let them go around you
  • Do NOT stop on or along the road unless there is a proper pull off or lot
  • Pack your own food, especially if you’re leaving early in the morning as most stands won’t be open until midday
  • Paia town is considered a Road to Hana stop, however we stayed in Paia and feel it should be done separately as it’s a cute town and there is so much to experience further on the road
  • Don’t expect excellent (or any) cell service
  • The road received its name for the town Hana, there isn’t much of a reason to stop in the town, so if pressed for time, feel free to drive past
  • You can drive past Haleakala State Park but the road turns into hairpin turns and dirt paths.  In fact, many rental companies say your contract is void if you drive past this area

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