PACKRAFTING BELIZE: CAVES, WATERFALLS AND REMOTE JUNGLE PADDLING IN THE LAND OF THE MAYA
Words & Photos by David Plante
I’ve been fortunate to have paddled many rivers in the Canadian North over the past three decades using hardshell canoes, folding canoes, oar rafts, SOAR boats, and kayaks. Two milestones happened this past year- I retired after 35 years as a veterinarian and discovered ultralight backpacking and packrafting. A perfect combination for an aging paddler! I’ll happily trade multiple portages carrying 75 lb canoes and barrels for an eight-pound raft and all gear in one trip! Last year was my first foray into Packrafting- a three-week, 200-mile expedition in the Arctic Refuge in Alaska. The travel was challenging, the views and wildlife beyond spectacular, and the experience life-changing.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge // June 2019
The group consisted of Shawn Hodgins, the owner of a Canadian based outdoor adventure company, Didier Maclaine Pont, a retired outdoor gear retail business owner from Holland, Ajinder Archer (AJ), who splits his time between Canada and Belize where he provides logistical services for outdoor adventures, and Ever Alejandro, an upcoming guide from Placencia, Bz. Ajinder (AJ) and Ever both joined us for the Sibun River.
High in the Maya Mountains // Left to Right – Ajinder, Ever, Didier, Shawn, and Dave
Shawn and I have explored several Central American countries over the past few years. We chose Belize for ease of logistics and our personal familiarity with the country as well as previously developed local contacts. We decided on three rivers:
Caves Branch River System: to explore the Mayan underworld in a packraft.
Sibun River: suggested by AJ over the years. He had been there once via helicopter, and his description of its beauty and inaccessibility was magnetic!
Moho River: A three-day paddle with lots of runnable waterfalls.
Shawn and I had both paddled the Caves Branch and the Moho several times–never in packrafts–but the Sibun River was by far the main attraction. It was remote, rarely ever visited, and extremely wild.
Caves Branch River
Subterranean Belize has some of the most incredible cave systems in the world. They were used extensively by the Maya people for rituals and sometimes for shelter. Caves Branch River is a popular tourist area for day-trippers wishing to explore the Maya caves. We decided on a three-day paddle through some of the rarely explored sections of the river.
Spirits were tense as we paddled in pitch black for hours at a time using headlamps to light the massive cave system, sometimes paddling in some significant current. Eventually, the cave would open up as a massive window lighting up the dense jungle as the river enters the surface world.
We camped each night near a cave entrance. The last day we entered a part of the cave system popular with cruise ship day-trippers. Local Mayan guides were leading mass numbers of headlamp illuminated inner tubes carrying adventure seekers. It was a striking contrast to paddle through the extreme isolation of the first two days, then suddenly, the sheer blackness was interrupted by hundreds of tubers appearing as bobbing fireflies in the darkness.
The gravel road weaved through the jungle then through pine forests as we ascended the Maya Mountains. This is the most remote area of Belize with massive tracts of forest preserves, wildlife sanctuaries, and abandoned artillery ranges that littered the rarely visited area. These were used by the British military, who often trained in Belize (Belize was a British colony formerly known as British Honduras). The rutted road eventually became impassable, so we unloaded and packed up our gear, and said farewell to our driver as we began our descent to the Sibun River.
The hike began high in the pine forests of the Mayan Mountains.
AJ had run the Sibun once before. That time, his group had hired a helicopter to drop them off at their put in. Others had rappelled down the cliffs to access the river. We decided to backpack in with our packrafts at a point further upstream.
AJ managed to get our permits from the forestry department and hire a local “chopper” who spent two days cutting a machete trail down the mountain to do a preliminary hike down the steep path and set up rappelling gear on the steep cliffs towering above the river.
I won’t lie; the jungle hike was challenging. It was extremely steep at times, very slippery, and the jungle heat was oppressive. We found ourselves clinging on roots and branches as we traversed along cliffs. We also had to be very careful on what we touched; thorns were common on many of the branches, and the tiny slivers were difficult to remove.
Left: Long, steep and slippery descent to the river. // Right: Jungle camp on the Sibun River
After about eight hours, we reached the last cliff, which was essentially a falls with the awaiting repelling gear. Along the trail, we were introduced to what Ever called “Doctor Flies” because when they bite, you go to the doctor! They are a type of horsefly, and they are stealth with an itch and welts that come later. We were all muddy and exhausted by this point and opted to climb down to the river as we had been hiking instead of risking the ropes with our gear. The night was quickly descending on us.
Our put-in site was further upstream than the other reports we had seen. We decided to take a day and explore even further, carrying our packrafts upstream for a few hours. The river was small and very clear with small rapids. Dense jungle-covered steep mountains lined both sides of the river, and thousands of fish scattered in the current. Some smaller fish were jumping very high out of the water, and fish-eating bats would swoop down and catch them. Huge mountain mullet were abundant.
The following days we progressed down the Sibun, and we were able to run all the rapids and big drops (with some scouting). Most of the drops were RII- RIII, but there were many technical runs that required very close attention. While exploring a small tributary to a falls, we were treated to a surreal scene with hundreds of small fish jumping and flying in the air while fish-eating bats swirled inches off the water surface and then disappeared into the cliff wall at the waterline. Reflected light beamed through the jungle onto the water and then projected like a scene from Fantasia on a cliffside to create a magical show of swirling lights. This place was truly special.
The Sibun River Gorge - Jungle Adrenaline!
We finished the river in four days, a day earlier than expected, and camped on a remote farm along the river. We shared some beer with the farmer Molito, who also helped us out with vehicle shuttles.
The Moho River flows from the mountains in southern Belize in an easterly route over a series of limestone falls. There are a few small Mayan villages, and Mennonite farms carved out of the jungle in this district, and the Guatemalan border is not far away.
We arrived at the small village of Blue Creek early enough to explore the nearby Hokeb Ha Cave. According to Molito, our local guide for the Moho River, hundreds of Mayans sought shelter from the invading Spaniards in this cave. We were in awe as we swam in the darkness of the caves guided only by the light of our headlamps.
We camped at Molito’s farm. He and his family generously provided us a place to camp with roosters, pigs, and several dogs and plenty of traditional Belizean foods to eat. The next morning, we shuttled a few hours on rough gravel roads to our put-in on the Moho River.
The Moho River descends through a vibrant jungle with toucans, parrots, kingfishers, and egrets. Howler Monkeys roar like lions at dawn and dusk. Spooked iguanas plunge into the river from overhanging trees as we drift down the river.
The generally peaceful current of the river is interrupted by small rapids, and many runnable falls with up to 16’ drops into the warm tropical water.
Moho River Packraft Camp
Listening to the jungle at dusk is mesmerizing. Bats flutter through the trees, beginning their nightly rounds. Howler monkeys scream in deep guttural calls. We paddlers recalled great feats of adventure with friends next to a fire over a mug of rum and fruit squash.
Parting Shot: Lime Caye
To finish up this successful trip, we readied ourselves the next day to make our way to Placencia on the Caribbean coast for a couple of hours boat ride to Lime Caye, a remote island paradise where we spent a few days healing from the “doctor fly” bites!