Gliding through the pitch black, feeling the wind gathering speed, pushing past my face and hearing the roar of the water up ahead growing louder and louder. I kept trying to swallow but the panic and uncertainty continued to rise up through my chest.
After an unforgettable morning exploring the Ancient Mayan City of Tikal, we had arrived back to the Guatemala-Belize border in search of our next adventure. It was here that we met Elio, a taxi driver by day and tour guide by, er, also by day.
Since it was already late afternoon, we had to hurry (I am not sure I would recognize the country if I were to do this at a normal pace again) to get to Jaguar Paw. It was here that I had been recommended to try cave tubing – a world away from my first tubing experience. It is not enough to just glide over clear turquoise waters or to drift through lush jungle greenery. No, tubing at Jaguar Paw sprinkles a touch of mythological magic onto the experience. It is said that this is where the entrance to the underworld lies.
Elio called ahead to arrange everything; entry, headlamp, tube, life jacket and helmet, then we were ready to jump into our tubes.
…or so I thought. A 30 minute workout hike through the jungle ensued, albeit on a well trodden path. The stumbling in my slippy plastic flip-flops and muscle ache from struggling to hold the huge rubber tube off the ground was soon forgotten when Elio began to introduce us to the jungle and Mayan legends.
We passed silk trees, prickly yellow trees, deadly black resin trees and found cahoon nuts, pineapples and termites. Then suddenly the trees gave way to a panoramic view of the river bend through a smooth archway formed from stalagmites and stalactites. Stunned by the view, I didn’t even notice the cave entrance opposite.
The cave walls and rock formations inside were streaked with copper and white, sparkling like diamonds in the beams from our headlamps. The stalagmites and stalactites grow by up to one cubic inch every 100 years, with the iron, calcium and quartz giving them their structure and colouring.
We moved onwards until the path opened and sloped downwards into a shallow, turquoise lagoon framed by overhanging rocks and vines. Our excitement dampened only momentarily by the shockingly cold water that we had just waded into and submerged ourselves in.
With all the grace of a beached whale, I hoisted myself into the tube, the coldness forgotten and listened avidly to our safety briefing; “to avoid crashing into the rocks, kick off them with your feet, watch your step inside the caves and when I say “butts up” lift up your lobster tails in shallow waters.”
Certain that we understood and that we were competent swimmers, Elio tied our tubes together, looped the end around his foot and started to paddle backwards into the mouth of the cave.
The temperature dropped, the jungle noises were silenced and the sound of our little splashes reverberated off the walls. We had entered the underworld. In Mayans culture the underworld was a place of loneliness and sickness not of fire and torture.
Turning our headlamps on and getting creative looking at the rock formations, we spotted an eagle, a mother with her child, Tarzan, jellyfish and a dragon, as well as the holes above us that were occupied by fruit bats. We glided past a tree trunk in the ceiling, proving how high the water levels had once been.
Feeling relatively relaxed, and completely awed, we were instructed to extinguish our lights putting our senses on high alert. My cocoon of safety dissolved and was replaced by the ice-cold vessel supporting me and the suspense of the impending waterfall. As the wind started to pick up, Elio’s comforting voice was suddenly audible over the roar and reassured us that we weren’t about to plunge over Niagra Falls and that the waterfall was in fact a series of small ones around the cave’s edge.
Suddenly, light penetrated the darkness from a cavern above, the system of waterfalls unfolded in front of us. Clear and magnificent, getting closer and closer, they engulfed us and we were momentarily lost to the spray.
The next part was unexpected; we climbed out of our tubes, over the waterfalls (I wish my headlamp had have been brighter) and began exploring by foot. Elio kept checking if we were OK, and carried all our equipment allowing us to enjoy the experience and focus on keeping safe.
Arriving at a pretty pool, where I imagined fairies would linger, we swam through an opening to the crystal cave, so named because of its high concentration of quartz, making everywhere twinkle in our headlamp beams.
An hour into our tour and we hadn’t seen another soul, we were so lucky to experience this alone. He said it could get quite noisy in there with all the tour guides who can each take up to eight people per tour! They tie their tubes together and pull them all through the water just like Elio. I can’t imagine how tiring that would be, considering much he had to work with just the two of us.
Inside the crystal cave we found Mayan pottery with patterns and colours thought to date from 300-500BC, and climbed through tunnels to the sacrificial areas where ashes still remain.
Once back in our trusty tubes, we continued to float be pulled around the cave system towards the exit. It was surprising that there wasn’t a natural flow or current, and that channels had been crested to encourage water to flow in the correct direction. Elio was working hard to pull us through the shallow waters –lobster tails up – whilst we worked hard to avoid the small biting fish, which we were told were harmless.
Eventually, light started to illuminate the cave and an opening into the world came in to view. Emerging into a glorious late afternoon, the sun and fresh air was exhilarating. Still all alone apart from the large fish swimming along side us, we glided along the river and we were able to admire the jungle scape, listen to the trickle of water and the sound of bird chorus.
Rounding the river bend, in the shadow of the huge tree that the Mayans referred to as “The Tree of Life” we waded out of the water. The tree signified the connection from heaven, to earth and into the depths of the underworld and seemed an apt place to step back into reality.
We took our tour with Elio perez. firstname.lastname@example.org (005016517318) a fully licensed tour guide and had the most amazing time and personalised experience. It costs us $70 US/$140BZD per person for transport and everything included for tubing and crystal caves.
I would definitely recommend taking his tour as it included a lot of extras that mainstream tours wouldn’t have time for. He was very knowledgeable, charismatic and passionate…who better to trust to take you to the underworld and back.
Note: Unfortunately the only photos I managed to get were stills from a video on my GoPro and non of the footage (predictably) from inside the caves came out well.
Last modified: 29th June 2016