Belize is famous for its barrier reef but in the west, only half an hour from the border with Guatemala lies San Ignacio. The countryside around San Ignacio is potted with wonderful cave formations that are famous for their more adventurous pursuits such as caving in the Crystal Cave.
The Crystal Cave is the hardest of all treks around San Ignacio. The cave system, like many others around here, is very large and plunges deep inside the earth. Much deeper than you can descend on the tour. The focal point of everyone as they descend quickly down into the darkness is a cavern aptly called ‘Wonderland’. Filled with otherworldly crystal formations formed over millennia as minerals are transported through the earth.
Soon after starting out you will quickly realise that this won’t be as easy as you may have initially thought. The notes for this highly specialised tour does state that you need to be in good physical condition.
Crystal Cave – The Adventure Starts Before You Arrive At The Cave
The tour starts with a 70 minute drive to the Blue Hole National Park. It is the same body that represents Belize’s most famous attraction of the same name in the Caribbean Sea. You will leave the transport behind after picking up your equipment; a hard hat and some water. Make use of the admittedly basic facilities because they are the only ones in the national park.
The cave entrance is a 45 minute hike along the trail. Be mindful of swarms of army ants whose bites resemble wasp stings. You are advised to step over them and with good reason; if you forget you are soon reminded how painful even 1 bite can be. The trail is fairly flat for the most part but uneven with tree roots. Where you do encounter boulders be mindful that they will be very slippery. Places can be exceptionally muddy. This is the rainforest after all.
Crystal Cave -What To Wear
Wear old clothes. Particularly bottoms. They will get muddy on the trek and will be an altogether different colour when you leave the cave.
There is a rudimentary shower system using collected rain water to wash off after your experience. Even if you don’t want to shower after, a change of clothes is advised. The tour usually finishes with a refreshing swim at a cenote 5 minutes away. Because of the downpour the night before our visit, we decided as a group to just head straight back. Don’t forget your swimming stuff just in case.
You will spend a large part of your day clambering over fused boulders and squeezing between impossibly small gaps. A good pair of hiking shoes is advised. Anything with excellent grip. Some of the rock is slippery, some isn’t. To avoid any unnecessary injuries, and the national park rules also stipulate it, you must wear closed toe shoes. Leave the sandals at home for this trip because you are checked by a ranger before heading out on the trail.
Crystal Cave – How Physical Is It?
The short answer is very physical. I would actually say its probably the hardest single day tour I have done in any country. I was completely exhausted when I emerged back into daylight. My arms and legs ached for days afterwards.
The physicality does put some people off. The alternate ATM cave, a semi flooded system in the same area as the Crystal Cave is a far more popular option. Unlike the ATM Cave though, you are allowed to take pictures in the Crystal Cave whereas any photography has been banned in the ATM cave thanks to the actions of a thoughtless tourist.
Entrance to the cave starts with a steep descent into the impossibly wide opening. The trail drops sharply and to the left as you descend. The surrounding groundwater makes some sections of the trail incredibly slippery. If you have to, go down on your bum. This type of caving isn’t about keeping up appearances. Its real and can be very dangerous if you don’t respect your surroundings.
Having safely negotiated the cave entrance your guide will explain how to get through a ridiculously small opening into the next section. This sets the pace for the rest of the day. You will spend hours clambering through small passages and tight spaces as you descend further and further down.
Don’t be afraid to use the natural footholds and grab points in the rock. Your day will require a lot of upper body strength as well as strong thigh muscles as you negotiate the harder spots in the cave.
Crystal Cave – Descending Into The Unknown
Every twist, turn and drop leads to another chamber more beautiful that those that preceded it. It’s not all crawling though. There are cavernous chambers that can easily swallow a church. Beautiful to admire from the inside but incredibly difficult to photograph with only headlamps.
Mayan priests used the cave system for sacrifices which is astounding considering how difficult it is to negotiate with modern day caving equipment. Your journey down into this underground labyrinth intersects with some sacred sites a few times.
One particularly harrowing section houses the skeletal remains of a young sacrifice who more than likely would not have known his journey into the cave would have been one way. A collapse many years ago has crushed his skull but its still recognisable as is the blow to the cranium that killed him. The rest of his body is now fused with the surrounding rock after being absorbed over hundreds of years of calcification of the rock surrounding his final resting place.
Not far from here you will be given the option to return to the surface or carry on to ‘Wonderland’. After all the effort put in to get this far, Wonderland is still an hour away and further down still. There would be no shame in turning around and heading back. Listen to your body. Remember that getting back up is more physical than getting down.
Wonderland – Crystal Cave’s Most Beautiful Asset
Sitting in the aptly titled “Cathedral” (a massive void at the bottom of the navigable 180 meter system), resting before our final barefoot onslaught into Wonderland I was glad my decision was to keep going no matter how tired I already felt. 180 meters down after climbing a sheer wall the Wonderland chamber opens up. You will find that walking around without shoes is strangely easier than you first imagined. Wear socks for more traction and its probably best to bring a dark colour. They will get soaked and covered in clay.
Crystals shimmer in the glow of your headlight before the light can’t penetrate the darkness any further. Very few people get to see Wonderland and time is running out slowly. The same processes that have created the cave will seal it off from the outside world once more. Geological forces, like time, wait for no one. Before you go writing a memo to your future great great great grandkids, there is plenty of time left.
Wonderland is exactly that. A wonder of nature, forged over millennia in the cold dark solitary abyss of the caves of Bolivia. The cave system was once completely flooded. There is no way of knowing if that will happen again in the future. Its definitely possible. It is yet one more amazing fact to ponder while sitting in the Cathedral getting the shoes back on ready to take on the return journey.
Ascending Crystal Cave
Going down was hard. Much harder than I thought it should have been but getting back up is the real workout of the day. Carefully negotiating crevices and boulders the size of cars with already tired arms and legs is the real challenge of the day. Until after one final impossibly small gap between 2 boulders brings you back out to the mouth of the cave and the slippery trail back to the surface.
The light is initially blinding after spending the last 6 hours in almost darkness but be on the look out for the army ants on the way back to the car park. They wont show any mercy to a knackered cave explorer.
The photos on this post really don’t do justice to the cave. You will get filthy, you will be exhausted and you will most certainly ache the next morning. The Crystal Cave will test your stamina and challenge your perceptions. You will emerge from the inky black underworld with a new definition of beauty. The only way to truly experience this wonder of nature is to take it on yourself.