Class: II; Ave. Gradient: 2 m/km; Portages: one; Length: up to 15 km; Time: up to 4 hours.
Season: year-round; rafts? yes; Highlights: caves; Crux Move: charging your headlamp batteries beforehand.
Water Quality: good; Water Temperature: medium.
PI: Caves Branch Lodge (elev: 65m); TO: Caves Branch Visitor's Center.
Description: (click here for general notes about my descriptions)
Floating through the caves of the Caves Branch River has become one of Belize's classic adventures, mostly due to the promotion of the tubing trips to cruisers and by the upscale lodges in the area. In fact this is the most crowded river in mayanwhitewater-land. Joining a tubing trip is fine, but kayakers or even rafters with a car can do the trip on the cheap.
During the trip you spend most of your time underground in four amazing caves (or five, if you find the "Cave 0" PI). That's right, you're paddling in pitch black, which can be a little spooky. You'll need a strong headlamp with good batteries. The current in the cave is constant but slow, rarely picking up enough speed to frighten novice tubers. There are some side caves and dead-ends but you will not have any trouble figuring out which way to go.
That said, the caves have some "issues". One is the water level. The river is rarely too high for paddling in the morning but if you see a rain-swollen torrent, don't put on. More common is to find the level way low, especially in the dry season, in which case some boat-humping might be involved. The main issue is the portage. Do not miss it and float into the next cave entrance, for there is no downstream exit (the current enters a siphon mid-cave). Also there exists the possibility of log jams which might need to be portaged, though I believe the tubing guides clear these out if they appear.
The normal route starts at the Caves Branch Lodge or at the "Slickrock" PI (where Slickrock Adventures starts on their raft and kayak trips). For 4 km (or for 2 km starting at the Slickrock PI) you're on a standard, above ground, jungle river. Then you enter the longest cave of the system (Cave 1) and soon all is black. After a few minutes you might notice the Blue Hole tributary coming in on river-right. 20 minutes later you pass a large "window" on river-right. About 15 minutes later some baby rapids signal the end of the cave. Portage immediately after the exit on river-right, finding a footpath through the jungle which you follow 15 minutes until you see some wooden stairs that mark your re-entry cave (the stairs are there for those hiking up from the bottom). Do not float past the exit of Cave 1 or around the boulders guarding the entrance to the next cave entrance, for that cave has no downstream exit.
The other 3 caves only take 5 minutes each to traverse. Cave 2 has some interesting side rooms to explore, some of which have cool cave spiders on the ceiling. You lose the roof of the cave only briefly before you enter Cave 3. Then Cave 4 follows shortly after Cave 3. At the exit of Cave 4 are some stairs on the left leading up to Jaguar Paw Lodge. If you're not a Jaguar Paw guest, continue on a few more bends of the river until you reach the exit at the Visitor's Center, indicated by a rope across the river.
That's the normal route. The extended, "Cave 0" route (Cave 0 is my name) adds another big cave at the beginning, slightly trickier than the other caves. It starts on an underground tributary of the Caves Branch River, on water coming from the Blue Hole National Park and Saint Herman's Cave. (See the shuttle notes on how to find it.) In the dry season this tributary actually has the more reliable water. The starting point is on a short surface stretch between caves. The entrance to Cave 0 is quite low and has an easy but rocky rapid at the entrance. The ceiling stays low at the beginning but soon enters a large chamber. In the middle of this chamber you will notice the current jogging right through some large bolders and you should follow it. At about the 15 minute mark, about halfway through the Cave, you will pass a large window on the left.
Once out of Cave 0, it is a short float to Cave 1. Note this Cave 1 entrance is different than the one on the normal route. 10 minutes into Cave 1, you hit the confluence of the Caves Branch River and you have joined the normal route described above. For fun you can try to paddle upstream to the Caves Branch entrance (or vice-versa if coming in from Caves Branch).
Note A: the upper caves are pretty much "controlled" by Caves Branch Lodge and they are not very forthcoming with information or access unless you are paying for one of their expensive guided trips.
Note B: you also have the option to do the abbreviated tour of the lower 3 caves, carrying your boat up from the Jaguar Paw lodge (and/or paddling up the river from the Visitor's Center). This avoids a shuttle, but it would be a shame to miss Cave 0 and Cave 1.
Note C: the river continues, above-ground, down to the confluence of the Sibun (11 km more). It is a pleasant float, with small gorge and only a few very easy rapids to negotiate, and you will have left the tubing crowds behind. See the lower Sibun page for details.
Flash Flood Danger: High. Obviously you do not want to be caught in a cave during a flash flood, and the guides say that floods have occurred at all times of the day. Keep on eye on weather conditions and maybe check in with the Lodge guides if you have any doubts. There are reports that 2 kayakers died "many years ago" running the caves, apparently during high water.
Descent History: There are signs that the early Mayans passed through the caves thousands of years ago with rafts and pitch pine torches. The first modern exploration of the system was undertaken in the early 70's by Barbara MacLeod and Carol Jo Rushin (now Elron) who were cavers who joined Peace Corps to explore caves for the Belize Department of Archaeology. Barbara, along with Dave Albert and Jim Beck, explored significant passages using innertubes in 1972. The first through trip was in early 1973, with Carol Jo and one other person floating on innertubes while Barbara and a team which included Logan McNatt, Tom Miller, Roger Bartholomew, and others doing the jungle crashing and meeting them at the karst windows.
Scott Davis of Ceiba Adventures may have been the first to lead of group of kayakers down when he did it in 1994. The last 15 years more people have "descended" this river than any other in mayanwhitewater-land. Currently the traffic is so high in the lower caves that the Tourist Board is trying to limit the numbers to 400 a day!
Flow Notes: There is no on-line gage. Usually the river is very low and you want it that way. If it is almost dry (hasn't rained in weeks) or a raging torrent (heavy rain in the last few hours) I would (try to) check with Caves Branch Lodge, or one of the tubing companies at the exit, to get a feel for conditions in the cave.
Shuttle Notes: The shuttle is a long loop on the Western and Hummingbird Highways via Belmopan. The natural PI is at Caves Branch Lodge (entrance is at mile 41.5 on the Hummingbird Highway), but they won't permit it if you don't join one of their guided trips. The other 2 main PI options are: 1) the Hummingbird Highway bridge (mile 39.3), 5 km/1 hour upstream, and 2) the downstream "Slickrock" (4wd) PI, 2 km downstream. Get to the Slickrock PI by turning north off the Hummingbird Highway 100m west of the Lodge entrance onto a farm track and (switching to metric here) going 1 km to a river crossing (you could put-in here also), continue past the river 2.5 km to a T, take a left, and get to the PI in 150 m. To get to the "Cave 0" PI, cross the river again here, follow the edge of the orange grove for 1 km to a low point, then walk into the jungle 1 minute to find the Blue Hole tributary passing by. Note that the Slickrock PI is also on Caves Branch Lodge property, though they do not monitor it.
To get to the TO, turn south at mile 37 on the Western Highway where there is a large sign for the Jaguar Paw lodge. Follow the road 5.8 milesto the visitor's center (fee applies).
The shuttle is included if you tag along on a Caves Branch tubing trip, but expect to pay a hefty price.
Accommodations: The Caves Branch Lodge is nice but pricey. They will let you camp for a fee. The Jaguar Paw Lodge is even more expensive. For cheaper alternatives, there is primitive camping at the Blue Hole National Park just down the Hummingbird Highway, and Permita's B&B, pretty basic, is just past Blue Hole in Ringtail Village.
Nearby Tourist Attractions: St. Herman's Cave, Blue Hole National Park, and Five Blues Lake National Park are minor close-by natural attractions.