Here Come the Floods: Whitewater in Belize

Each year, between June and January, the rains descend upon the small Central American country of Belize. And with that rain, the rivers are transformed into a roiling mass of whitewater. Until recently, however—with the exception of gorgeous waterfall views—visitors to Belize didn't appreciate the benefits of the country's enormous inland river network. But in 1994, a group of world-class kayakers took on all but five of the class V and VI rapids on the Macal River. Since then, outfitters have been teeming to promote the perfect whitewater trip—not a difficult task in a country rich with rainforest and abundant wildlife, where rivers spill out into downy-white beaches and unmatched coral cayes.
Since Belize is small and many of its southern rivers spew paddlers directly into the Caribbean, trips that combine whitewater, historic ruins, diving, and sea-kayaking are quite common and easy to arrange. On the Macal River, the largest drainage of the Maya Mountains, outfitters usually manage to paddle eight or nine miles a day through the 20-mile granite gorge. The gorge's walls, clad with jungle vines, drenching waterfalls, and clandestine limestone caves, tower 1,500 feet above the river. The river flows close to the Guatemalan border through the west-central Cayo District before pouring into a lush valley and joining the Mopan River near the town of San Ignacio—an ideal home base for river running in the Cayo District.
Novice paddlers, however, should forego Macal's serious Class IV to V+ rapids and opt instead for one of the country's more serene alternatives. The Sibun River, blessed with a series of Class-II rapids, combines modest thrills with lazy float time alongside jungle-swathed, wildlife-rich riverbanks. The Mopan River also offers shorter, Class-II rapids, and runs near the Xunantunich Maya ruins (where the 200-foot-high Castillo pyramid resides). The Macal, Mopan, and Belize Rivers—bodies of water that border on the extreme during the high-water season—all run from San Ignacio, but to the north, rivers such as the Upper Swasey and Raspacula Rivers offer solid rides for beginners, should you be with more paddle-savvy travelers. The Cockscomb River Basin also has a number of lesser rapids along the Swasey River or South Stann Creek, weaving you deep into the jaguar preserve where the country's copious wildlife lingers in the shadows.
Belize's river fun doesn't stop above ground; the country's extensive cave system will lead you deep into the subterranean heart of the country. In ancient Maya times, this network of caves was considered a sacred access point to the celestial underworld, and exploration of these caves has uncovered pottery shards and skeletal remains from ceremonies. In the hills south of San Ignacio, Caves Branch River winds lazily for five miles through four caves, past monstrous stalactites and stalagmites, best seen from the comfort of an innertube.

Published: 14 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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