In 2009, I was in Belize and hankering for a real adventure. I wanted something a little different, a little daring, and I found it with an excursion called The Black Hole Drop.
I was staying at the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, located 12 miles south of Belmopan, the capital city, and nestled in the middle of the rain forest filled with rivers to tube in, cool places to explore, and a giant sinkhole that was home to Actun loch Tunich, the “The Mother of all Caves.”
According to the hotel concierge, we’d hike an hour into the rainforest, rappel 300 feet into the hole, eat lunch, explore the cave, and then climb back out.
Jack the jerk
To get there I jumped into a van with 5 other travelers and took a short drive to a small clearing next to a dense patch of rain forest. We loaded ourselves up with water (it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and began the hour long hike to the hole.
During the beautiful but uneventful walk, a man in our small group, I’ll call him Jack, chatted incessantly about his recent adventures. He’d been all over the world doing “amazing” things, he said, and he was a little concerned that our “little activity” may not have enough of a wow-factor for him. He got on my last nerve in under a minute.
When we arrived at the hole, it was a massive crater filled with trees that had the density of a head of broccoli, making it almost impossible to see the bottom, but we could tell it was a long way down. Across from us we could see white jagged rock peaking from behind thick vegetation and the top half of a black arch that was the mouth of the cave.
As we explored our surroundings we found the terrain a bit tricky. Large rocks and a twist of exposed tree roots made it difficult to navigate, not to mention the fact that we were situated on a 45-degree incline. Gravity kept pulling us towards the hole. We quickly adapted by leaning up hill when walking, grabbing branches along the way to use as an anchor. One wrong step and any of us could’ve rolled right off the ledge. Some people in the group just sat down, unwillingly to risk it.
After a few minutes we were asked to take a seat under a weathered bench resembling a bus stop. There they lectured us about the equipment we would wear, safety precautions, and what we could expect from the experience. We learned that we would repel off the rock for the first 20 feet, after which the wall would curve away from us, and we would hang suspended over the floor. From there we’d lower ourselves down. Mr. “This is going to be a cakewalk” turned white.
We were each handed a helmet and a rigging made out of seat belt material that encircled our legs, waist, and shoulders. At our waists, another contraption of pulleys and a carabiner was added to connect us to the big rope that we would use to make the descent.
Next they showed us how to hold our hands: left hand on the rope above our head, the right hand below our butt. The right hand would regulate our speed depending on how quickly we let the rope slide through our fingers—how fast that was, was totally up to us.
As we listened, Jack began to crack, he began asking question after question about accidents and death, as if he wanted to hear that everyone had died before him. (In case you’re wondering – no one every died doing the Black Hole Drop.)
As soon as the guides asked who wanted to go first, my hand raised reflexively. Any way to get away from Jack—even if it meant tackling the scariest thing I’d done to date—was high on my agenda.
I grabbed the rope as instructed, backed myself up to the edge, leaned back and started to walk down the wall of the hole. It was surreal to see everyone staring down at me with big wide eyes as I slowly lowered myself below their Nikes and into the pit.
My heart thumped in my ears, but I felt secure in my rigging. I was determined to go slow and take it all in.
Hanging mid-air in a giant terrarium, birds flew around me at eye level, apparently unnerved by a human hanging in their space. It took me a minute to get my breathing under control, but as soon as I did it was a spectacular ride.
The first 200 feet was above the trees, and relatively silent. Unless the guides yelled something to me I could no longer hear my companions, only the slight creak of the rope sliding through my rigging.
The last 100 feet I was at treetop level, which was very cool. I hovered there a moment, imagining myself as one of the many animals that called this high perch home, and view, commonplace.
Below me, a guide waited patiently, anchoring the rope with his weight.
When I landed and disconnected from the main rope I was told to wait nearby until everyone made it down.
Jack, as expected, was a big girly man during the entire descent. Also as expected, the minute he was safe he adopted his earlier bravado as if he hadn’t already outed himself as a wuss.
Once everyone was at the bottom the guides unpacked a picnic lunch and we ate under the canopy. We could see the mouth of the cave a short distance away – big and black with a patina of green that covered every surface. Huge rock formations jutted out everywhere, with palm leaves so big and prehistoric looking that I was convinced we’d just repelled onto the set of Jurassic Park.
Actun loch Tunich
After lunch we headed into the cave to explore. The ceiling arched overhead like an amphitheater and huge stalactites (mineral deposits that form over hundreds of years) hung down like giant green icicles. Boulders the size of houses littered our path. The place was so huge it could’ve swallowed a stadium.
We walked inside for over an hour, climbing through formations and learning about sacrifices that had taken place there centuries before during the Mayan era.
At the end of the tour we were directed outside and led to a rickety ladder that soared 75 feet straight up the hole’s wall. Just before I began to climb, a safety rope was attached to my rigging in case I accidentally fell off. (The thought of that unnerved me more than the previous descent for some reason).
When we finished with the ladder, we found ourselves on a narrow ledge that connected to a trail of switchbacks that would lead back to the top, opposite from where we started. There we would begin our return hike to civilization.
I was sad when our little adventure came to an end. It was more fun than I could’ve imagined, and I was proud of myself for not chickening out at the last-minute.
I would do it again in a heartbeat….. sans Jack, of course.