If you are heading to Belize in early March, your trip coincides with Baron Bliss Day which has developed into a national festival. So if you are going to be in the neighborhood, why not plan to spend an extra day or two taking in BBD!

In recent years the festivities have included a multi-day canoe race, the La Ruta Maya Belize River ChallengeThe route runs west to east along the Macal and Belize Rivers, once the only link between beautiful San Ignacio, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and the bustling port of Belize City. This is a race for everyone (not just professional racers)!

http://youtu.be/CibtbsoBF5E

The canoes will leave San Ignacio on March 8 and arrive in Belize City on March 11. The teams, which race for station prizes along the way, battle for the major cash prizes awarded at the end of the race.

La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge  is a grueling multi-day canoe race traveling a perilous river route across the country of Belize. The route runs West to East along the Macal and Belize Rivers, once the only link between beautiful San Ignacio, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and the bustling port of Belize City. This is a race for everyone (not just professional racers)!

There are 8 divisions for the race:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Mixed
  • Masters
  • Dory
  • Intramural
  • Pleasure craft
  • Family Adventure Race

The race occurs each year in March, coinciding with Baron Bliss Day. This year (2011), the canoes will leave San Ignacio on March 4 and arrive in Belize City on March 7. The teams, which race for station prizes along the way, battle for the major cash prizes awarded at the end of the race.

Why not come to Belize early, and either watch the canoe race or join the team, and then go out to our island right after? Our private Belize island will be waiting for you!

When we first thought about venturing down the Caves Branch River, Belize, in the mid 1980’s. We had some basic information about the run from a friend in Moab who had actually been on the first exploratory trip through the caves a few years before. That group of cavers had explored the river cave system from the bottom end up before taking their first trip downstream on inner tubes. So, we knew that the caves were navigable with the exception of one cave that ‘sumped’ underground, but which had a portage route around it to another entrance below. (Click on any image to see the full size.)

The Caves Branch River passes through four caves as it runs through the limestone foothills of the Maya Mountains. The caves also have numerous ‘windows’, or openings, to the outside as the river runs though the caves, allowing various access points along its course. But, the surrounding terrain is thick jungle with no roads or trails, so it is a real adventure to run this stretch of the river.

We were running various rivers with a group of river guides when we decided to run the Caves Branch, and although we knew where the put in and take out were located, and that there was a portage around a cave somewhere, we didn’t know which cave had the portage. We planned on asking a local expert, Ian Anderson, at the put in where his jungle lodge was located. Unfortunately he was not there when we arrived, so we launched anyway.

After paddling a few miles we arrived at the entrance to the first cave. It was a bit nerve wracking because we knew one of the caves did not go through, but since we were all strong paddlers in kayaks we thought we could handle it. The first cave had very fast current and the river was wall to wall. But we were able to see light downstream from the first window so we knew it was a ‘go’. We continued on, and again we could discern light downstream so we were able to relax in knowing it went through. After exiting the first cave, we started down the second. However, we could not see light as we descended into the darkness, and about 200 yards in we came upon the sump. Fortunately it was quiet current at the sump so we were not swept into it. Now we had to back track back out of the cave, which proved quite difficult since there was a small rapid. A couple of our stronger kayakers were able to eddy hop back up however, and then they lowered throw roped back down to the others could haul themselves back up and out of the cave. We were all quite nervous and were thinking about what would have happened to us had we not been able to get back up that current!

Now we were faced with a portage, but there were no paths and we were in the middle of thick rainforest and had no real idea of where the river went from there. So we sent out scouts in several directions. Fortunately, one person did find an overflow channel that he knew must lead back to the river eventually, and it did. He returned after a half hour and we were then able to portage and get back on the river through a cave window.

As we proceeded, we were all extremely apprehensive because we did not know if there was another sump, and we were not seeing any further light down the cave. But, the current was much slower and we knew we could paddle back upstream if we found another sump.

The next anxious moment occurred when we heard a roaring sound approaching, which sounded like a large rapid. As we cautiously proceeded, we eventually came to a side stream that joined the main river, and the sound of its small waterfalls had only been amplified by the cave. The main river continued on as slow water, and we were much relieved when we finally emerged from the last cave.

After scouting the river successfully, we began to run the Caves Branch in kayaks and rafts as part of Slickrock’s Belize Adventure Week trip, and it is still the highlight of the trip today!

The Macal River, which we run a section of on our Belize Adventure Week trip, has a long history as part of Slickrock’s past trips and itineraries. Slickrock’s founder Cully Erdman led a team on the first complete kayak descent of the river’s stunning canyon around 1990, with only 2-3 portages around the bigger Class VI drops. An earlier expedition had traveled down the gorge with inflatable kayaks, but it took them 3 days because they had to portage virtually every rapid. From this experience, Slickrock began the first raft runs down the second half of the gorge, then recently made accessible by a road down to a new hydro plant which also dried up the river above that point. The run was incorporated into Slickrock’s new Adventure Week trip in the early 90’s.

The new hydro-electric project, which has now added a second power plant, incorporates a large holding reservoir in the upper reaches of the drainage which then release water according to a schedule for electricity production. The water is funneled through a tunnel that contours along an elevation while the river bed falls through the gorge, then the water is dropped back into the canyon at the hydro plant where the stored pressure creates the necessary conditions for power production. To us river runners, this has been a travesty as we have lost a long section of whitewater. The environment has also suffered, as the holding reservoir has flooded a large area of pristine rainforest, including a rare nesting area for the Scarlet Macaw. A long battle against the developers was lost in creating this project. Now, a second diversion and power plant has been completed (just last year) which has dried up the section of river we used to run with our rafts and kayaks for Adventure Week.

The Macal trip was Class IV-V whitewater and a very technical, low volume river run with several portages. We flipped rafts nearly every run while threading through tight rapids, steep chutes, and several waterfalls. But the run was made safe because it is a ‘drop-pool’ river, which means every big rapid ended up in a quiet pool of water where we could collect and regroup all the rafts. Scouting was necessary at many rapids, and we employed safety kayakers on every trip. It was certainly a high adventure trip!

However, the Belize Electricity Board began a new water release program a few years after we began our trips, where they started releasing water only at nights for power production during peak usage times. So, we ended up being able to run the river only during rainy periods when enough overflow and input from other tributaries provided enough water. We were only able to run the river about half the time after that. So after a couple of years struggling with the erratic flows, we quit running that stretch of river and went to the Mopan River in kayaks. This year, we have moved back to the Macal and are running an easy stretch below the second, new power plant.