We walked over a river in knee-deep blue waters, our shoes slung over our shoulders to keep them dry for the rest of the hike.
Over a wooded hill and down along a path that is bordered by a fence, we walked along the same river we had just crossed, to the opening of the cave. The dense vegetation, limestone and warm temperature, equated for a heavy organic smell, layered by the rays of sun that lit the morning walk.
This was Tiger Cave.
Tiger Cave is located on the Rio Grande close to the village of San Miguel and Big Falls in Belize’s Toledo District. It is located on private land that abuts the contentious Hydro Maya Dam. It was discovered in the late 1970’s by Peace Corps volunteers: its name from the local legend that roars from a jaguar , locally called “tigers”, wear heard in the cave.
Manuel Bolon, our guide, carried our helmets, water and head lamps. As we arrived, I admired the entrance.
“Technically, there are two ways in: one to the right that is up-and-over and very steep, or we can go to the left down and under that rock.” he said.
I thought about crawling under the rock, and a wave of panic came over me.
I fear tight spaces. I need air, free breathing and light. When it comes to caves with their dark, dank smells and moist environments, accompanied by the sound of slow drips echoing in the long dark halls, I felt distrustful.
I pulled it together. “Just show me how to do it.”
With deftnes and ease, Bolon couched down and frog-walked through and opening under a large, wedged boulder. I followed suit.
From just inside the cave, I appreciated why the right side – although in appearance an easier opening, was the more difficult of the two ways in. “You see all the sliding broken rock? It is very hard to climb these especially when they are wet.” Bolon said. I nodded, feeling a familiar wave of “full-presence” come over me. I turned on my lamp and looked ahead into the darkness.
There haven’t been many times in my recent memory when I felt completely focused on a singular activity. I have a mind, like many, that wanders with constant thought.
Things that have pulled me into sharp focus: giving birth to my daughters, coming face-to-face with a wolf in my yard, and caving in Belize.
The cave consists of several chambers that vary from flat to craggy, to full of vegetation to completely dry. Natural openings illumnate a large chamber called “The double skylight”casting a religious, cathedral dome ray down to the bottom surface of the cave.
“This is actually cool.” I said. Bolon lead the way back and forth, over ancient drip formations that created layerd, shaggy pools of stone, and large columns and ribbons of rock.
The ancient Maya used caves for ritual ceremonies. The cave, or “actun” was a place closest to the underworld: a place for the dead and a pathway to darkness. I understood this at Tiger Cave, both intellectually and physically. I thought, “If there realy were a place on earth that you would wander and feel completely scared and lost, this could be it.” Fortunately, I had a guide, a lamp and a sturdy pair of shoes.
“Turn off your light for a moment.” We practiced the requisite “what to do if the lights go out” drill, where your guides asks you the safest course of action. “Sit still!” I blurted out. I could see how stumbling through the cave would lead you down a perilous path. “Its really dark.” I echoed, stating the obvious. It was in fact, the darkest black I had ever seen – a complete lack of light.
I could not see my hand in front of my face. Sitting still is exactly the right course of action in an emergency. In that moment. Fear and peace rushed through me. We turned our lamsp back on.
We climbed out and a sense of relieved accomplishment filled me.
“I have a lot of respect for you. You could really lose your way in there.” I said.
“Yes. We require that you have a guide.” Bolon said calmly with ease and mastery. I was happy to jump into the cool river pool below the path, and feel the sunlight in my face.
Tiger Cave is about 45 minutes from downtown Punta Gorda. Trips can be made though Bruno Kuppinger at Sun Creek Lodge that includes lunch and a great post-hike swim.
For more great pics of the cave check out :
Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons