If you have ever been to Belize, you don't need me to tell you it's hot. If you haven't been here, Belize is hot. Thankfully there is a boatload of water around San Ignacio. In fact San Ignacio is also known as Cayo, which means Caye or key or island. It's right at the intersection of the Macal and the Mopan River.Jump to The Ruta Maya, Watery Caves, Swimming, Tubing or Canoeing
First a note on River SafetyThere are two ways to get places in Belize. You can take a guide or you can take yourself. The guided way is organized and relatively safe. If you choose to take yourself, you need to remember that Belize is a developing country. When people forget where they are, bad things happen. Never go places alone, unless you are absolutely sure what will be waiting for you. If you meet some guy that says,"yeah I can take you there", think twice before assuming it's safe. You also need to remember that the river can kill you. People have died tubing. Most of the places you can go are pretty well trodden, but if you choose to go down another river you need to be smart. If you go in small groups, you'll usually be able to see some really amazing wildlife. If possible bring life-jackets, you'll also need sunscreen and drinking water.
This is more of a special event. It happens once a year and when it's over a lot of people are in pain. La Ruta Maya is a four day race from the Hawksworth bridge in San Ignacio to Belcan Bridge, 175 miles (282km) down river in Belize City.
Now, oddly enough, the whole thing was started as a marketing gimmick in 1998, by Big H, a local orange juice company. They had started a new bottled water company and wanted something big to kick it off, so they came up with La Ruta Maya. Thankfully, in the following years, it's turned into something bigger and better than a giant ad. Anyone can enter in pretty much any kind of canoe. There are 8 different classes, but unfortunately you only win money for being the fastest. The winners usually come in around 18hrs of paddling. If you were wondering how fast that is, about 9.5 miles per hour. Held constant for 4 days. By three people. No switching paddlers. All you can do is take the pain, tape your hands and cry yourself to sleep. Really.
With that said, if you like pain (or have hands made of Kevlar, muscles like steel cable and a heart the size of your head), you can enter. The race is set to coincide with Barron Bliss Day, meaning it usually starts around March 9th. The basic gist of it is something like this. You register by the 26th of February, pay 250bz (125us) and on the day you head to the line. The first day is 49 miles, the second is 60 miles, the third is 36 miles and the final is 26 miles. Times are noted at the end of the day and started the next day in the order they arrived. The paddlers are met at the end of each day by their support crew, who should have tents, food and booze waiting. And that's pretty much it.
If you are coming in for the race and want a show-up-get-in-the-boat-and-go type of thing you'll want to give La Ruta Maya Outfitters a shout. For all the official rules, regulations and entry stuff go here.
On one final note. If you are going to do the race, everyone is going to tell you to pee on your hands. Gloves really are the better way to go.
Back in the day the Maya were all over the place. In fact there were more people living here then than now. With that said remnants of them are all over. Barton Creek Cave is one such spot that is pretty neat. After a lovely drive through a jungley paradise, you get your lamps and hop in your canoe. You see, Barton Creek is the inside of the cave. Its got all the neat formations that one would expect from a cave, but it's also got skeleton bits and Maya artifacts. Barton Creek Cave is believed to have been a site for Maya rituals...thus the bits of skeletons.
If this is the kind of thing that floats your boat. There are a couple of options. Now unless you are the type of traveler that carries a canoe around with you, you will need someone with a canoe to take you in. That usually means a tour company. The next option is to stay at the The Barton Creek Outpost. They will do trips for guests, but not walk-ins.
So this might sound like something that only crazy, thrill seeking freaks go in for. Well, it's actually quite the opposite. Depending on the company you go with, you will usually be wearing a life jacket, a helmet with a light and you might have to stay in your tube. There are also no rapids or fast moving water. This is something that you could safely take your grandmother on. That said, it is a really neat float. You're in the cave for about a half hour, and you get to see all the stalagtites, columns, and stalagmights that usually fill caves. So in conclulion, it's a good time but not all that intense...oh, and ask whether it's a cruise ship day, if it is, try to go another day.
Getting ThereThis part gets a little confusing. There is basically one place that all the cave tubing goes on. The river is at the Caves Branch resort, but you don't have to use them. You also might see a sign for a place called Jaguar Paw, they tube in the same spot. If you are staying in town, Destiny Tours, for example, does cave tubing at the same place. Basically, if you want to stay at the resorts near the place you totally can, but it's just as easy to stay in town and do it as a day trip.
Cristo Rey FallsThis is a spectacular place to go, albeit a little difficult to get to. When you get here you'll find a swimming hole fed by a small creek and cold water springs. There are calcium formations, rocks to jump off and waterfalls to sit under. It's amazing, and it's pretty off the beaten track.
Getting ThereIf you have your own transportation, it's a whole lot easier than if you don't. If you are driving, go across the Hawksworth bridge and through Santa Elena till you get to the D.M.V. It'll be on your right with a guard house in front and a chain link fence. The road is right beside it. Follow it. It's a rough road and a couple of places have a steep grade, but the buses do it so you can too. You'll continue on this road. You should go down 2 steep hills and then you start to climb again. Just when you start to climb you'll see a painted telephone pole on the right and a road to the left. Turn left. Follow that road till the end. It stops infront of a creek. If you walk across the creek and around to the left you'll be at the cold water spring at the top and you can just walk down the spring to the swimming hole. If you want you can also go under the barbed wire fence on the foot path from all the other people going under the barbed wire fence. If you are busing it, just take the Cristo Rey bus. The bus driver should know where to let you off. If not just look for the phone poll. From there you'll have to walk down the road on the left. It really is worth it.
Getting ThereFrom the middle of town walk down Burns Ave. (away from the police station) to the end. You'll see an orange grove infront of you. Turn right. At the bend in the road there will be a dirt road to your left. Turn there. It's about a mile, 1.9km from the start of the dirt road.
As of Feb. '11, there is a great little place at Branch Mouth (the Hammock Bridge). They have snacks, mixers, beer on occasion, and Fries and Chicken on the Weekends. They have also put in some BBQ pits and Hammocks. As for fun, they rent tubes, canoes, kayaks and they have a guide that can take you horseback riding to a lovely sink hole on the ridge named La Bianca.
SuccotzIf you want to go swimming somewhere that is great, not touritsty and easy to get to; this on is for you. The Mopan river runs from Guatemala to San Ignacio where it meets the Macal and becomes the Belize River and there are plenty of places to swim along it. What makes Succotz so great is that it's right off the road on a bus line, so there isn't a lot of walking time. There are little rapids that you can play in and there aren't usually many people there at one time. One good thing to do on a Sunday (since everything is closed in town anyway) is pay the dollar to get to Xunantunich and tool around for a while. Then head back to the river and spend the rest of the day hanging out there. Bring some drink or some cookies and you have the makings of a great day.
getting thereTake the bus to Benque, but get off at the Xunantunich ferry (it should be either 1-1.50bz) and walk up the street about 100ft to the rapidy part. There are quite a few little places to walk down. Then, all you have to do is strip down and enjoy.
Getting a TubeThere are two ways to get one. You can find them at some gas stations (You'll want a tube size of no less than 16 or 17). Save money and ask for a used one first. Option #2 is pool toys. I hope to one day organize a fleet of Shamus and Dragons and take to the river. Celina's sells tubes for $6-9bz. I recommend the 9bz as they are a bit "sturdier". If you want to go with style, A&R in Santa Elena has all shapes and sizes of floating bits of wonder. Two things with the pool toys: one, make sure they don't leak before you get out in the middle of nowhere. If they leak, take them back; two, don't go over super shallow spots where they might scratch the rocks. Now you are armed with a lobster or whatever your floating device looks like, you need to find a river.
Finding a RiverThe best run I've seen is in Bullet Tree. You can take a cab or a collectivo. A regular taxi is 12bz whereas a collectivo is 3bz. The benefit of a taxi is that they will drive you directly to where you wish to put in whereas a collectivo will simply drop you off at the main bus stop. You want to go to Paslo Falls road, which is a dirt road on the left before the main bridge in Bullet Tree. Go down a mile or two and get in. One of the nicer places to put in is at a little gazebo type thing on the right. On the left is a house with a gate and on the right is a little path to the water that goes by the gazebo (it's actually a massage platform). In the water there are nibbler fish, they nibble. Nothing bites and nothing stings. Now you're in the water, so where do you get out?
Deciding Where to Get OutYou have two choices of where to get out. The first place is going to be back at the big bridge in Bullet Tree. That should take around 3 hrs or so, depending on the level of the river. From here, you can simply catch a collectivo back into San Ignacio. The other place is the Hammock Bridge (see below). It's an extra 1-2 hrs. to the Hammock Bridge From there it's a mile walk back into town. It's a nice walk, but don't expect to do it barefooted.
Chaa Creek. So here's the rub. Chaa Creek is on the Makal River, which is up river from town and down river from Duplooy's - the botanical gardens. So depending on what you want to do, you can go early in the morning and catch the 9:00am horseback riding or you can skip it and head there later and just rent the canoe. Once you get the canoe head up river and pull out at Duplooy's. Have a nice day wandering around the gardens then comes the best part. When you rent the canoe you can just paddle back into town. It's like saying, "honey lets get in the car and head back to the hotel" except that you are taking a canoe back to the hotel instead of a car. You get out at a little dock just by the Hawksworth bridge and you're home.