Visiting Crystal Cave (Cow Mountain Cave) – The Best Cave in Belize
Caves are one of the highlights of visiting this region of Belize. There are many scattered throughout the country that contain Mayan ruins and artifacts through only a handful are eligible for public entry. Exploring caves is a very unique experience that adventurous travelers to Belize should take full advantage of.
By far the most popular cave for visitors is ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) Cave. ATM is a wet cave so the cave contains water. Venturing into this cave means you will be wet while exploring the cave for the benefit of seeing crystal formations, and many artifacts, including a skeleton. In doing research on which cave to explore, I found another cave known as the Crystal Cave (also known as Cow Mountain Cave). While I could not find much about it, I did read it was more physically challenging than ATM. We are always up for a physical challenge so we decided to give it a go. And wow, we had no clue what we were in for.
The only company I could find that offered the Crystal Cave tour option was Maya Walk Tours so I booked through them. They are a very well rated tour company so I felt good about the experience we had ahead. A driver picked us up at the Airbnb at 7AM and took us to our final destination to meet our guide. The drive was under an hour and a half so it was certainly not around the corner from San Ignacio but it was a comfortable drive.
We made it to St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park where we met our guide, Marcus. He had on a shirt for Belize Rescue so I knew we were in good hands! Kevin and I used the bathroom, ate our bananas, and felt prepared for the journey ahead. Marcus asked several times about our water supply, evaluating that our 40oz Hydro Flask each would be enough for us. Marcus informed us this was the best and most challenging cave in Belize that was open to the public. We were excited to get started!
At 8:40AM, we started the trail through St Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. It was a mile to the Crystal Cave entrance. Along the way, we spotted different plant life, identified trees, and learned all about leafcutter ants – and yes, they are fascinating insects!
The trail starts out on a pebble road and then transforms into uneven surfaces, including stairs and climbing. The uphill portion was a majority of the trail to the cave and included the most difficult trails in the National Park. Perhaps this hike would be the toughest portion – it was certainly getting my heart rate high and the sweat going already.
We made it to the top of the cave entrance and had a quick celebration that the hike was over. Based on the many experiences we have had, I should have known that the toughest parts were up ahead. One look into the entrance of the cave and I began to wonder what the heck we signed up for.
Marcus gave us a final call for bathroom use as it would not be permitted in the cave. We were going to be there for the next several hours so emptying at this point was a good idea (even though I did not – bladder of steel!).
The drop into the cave was vertical and while we were told there was rappelling, there was no set up for such an activity and Marcus confirmed, no rappelling. How were we to get into this cave?
Marcus tied a rope to a tree that was to be used as a counter balance as we scaled the rock into the cave. I entered last as I watched Marcus demonstrate the dance. Kevin aced the first challenge easily. Marcus instructed me to turn around so my front was facing the rock, making it hard to see the foot placement beneath me. There were natural “nubs” in the rock that lent itself to our use. There were several moments of panic until I accidentally turned to look down and I realized I was not that high from the next landing and could see the foot “nubs”. First challenge complete.
The entry into the cave seemed to have been the toughest part – if I conquered this, the rest will surely be easy. Poor Marcus, I cannot have imagined what he thought seeing my entry into the cave and knowing what was ahead.
The section right after the entry was a gradual descent away from the light and into the darkness. We said our goodbye to the light for the next several hours. The headlamps did a wonderful job illuminating our way and I could only imagine what the pitch black would look like.
After we made our way into the cave, the rest of the journey was four hours of caving and bouldering. Some sections were easy, others were very challenging. The rock was wet most of the time which made foot and hand placement extremely challenging. I had concerns being so high from the ground standing and spent most of the time on my butt as another point of contact to help me navigate the rocks. Sometimes I would have to use every ounce of upper body strength I had to hold on while my feet were waiting to catch up in supporting my weight. From hugging rocks and straddling them like a horse, I managed my own way through the cave. The mud turned to clay which made it even more challenging to grip the rock. Some portions of the cave were extremely tight – I was happy to not have claustrophobia but I will tell you, it mind was ready to develop that phobia. Some rocks were just far enough that a simple step would not be enough and a leap of faith was required. I do not put my fate into a leap of faith so I waddled my way on my butt throughout.
With every obstacle, there was a bit of relief and excitement to have conquered a small section of the rocks that allowed us to continue on our journey deep into the cave. Kevin was in his glory – he was a natural at this stuff and loved every challenge. For him, this was an adult playground climbing, caving, bouldering through.
Navigating these rocks came with an incredible reward. Enormous caverns revealed themselves, full of crystals that sparkled as the headlamp illuminated the limestone.
Marcus would stop periodically, remind us to drink our water and then tell us about Mayans and how they used the cave. It was fascinating to learn the details though very difficult to imagine how the Mayans navigated this so long ago. We also observed several Mayan artifacts such as pottery and weapons, fire pits, and then a mostly intact human skull presumed to be from a sacrifice.
We made it to a decision point – to continue onward to an area known as “Wonderland” or start making our way back out of the cave. I will not lie, my vote was to get out of the cave, but Kevin and the other member of the group voted to keep going. Marcus also agreed it was worth continuing forward. So onward we went.
This section was the toughest portion of the cave. The rocks were wetter, steeper, and trickier to navigate. It was very difficult at points where it was almost impossible to rely on our shows to provide friction to grip the rock or stop a fall. My hands cut up in several spots – in my attempt to stop my fall (successful) I ended up with some unfortunate scraps (unsuccessful). Marcus bandaged me up so I could continue using my hands and lowering the risk of an infection into my wound.
We reached a point where we could only proceed with socks or bare feet as the cave persevered in this section. In the giant cavern, we took our shows off and proceeded without them – they were less helpful anyway.
Then we reached Wonderland – full of limestone crystals, enormous structures that came from above and below. The cavern was large but it was completely full of these limestone crystals. It is amazing how preserved it is. This is one of the reasons why you complete Crystal Cave – absolutely incredible.
And then I think the worst part of the cave was experiencing the toughest part twice to go back to the decision point of the cave. It was tough, I was tired, I was hungry, and my leg muscles were shaking from exhaustion. Joints at my shoulders and hip hurt from over extending to make ends meet for safe crossing. At each successful completion of a rock climb, I would breathe a heavy relief and quickly prepare for the next one.
We made it back to the decision point vertical climb was now a vertical descent where a sled would have been useful. I could not believe my pants did not rip during this entire adventure since my butt dragged me through most of the cave. Guess that is a good testimony for these pants!
And then we reached the point where our decision was made to continue on – progress that we were finally starting our journey out of the cave. And this time we would not retrace our steps but continue the loop through a new area.
There were parts where crawling was necessary then parts where army crawling was necessary. At one part, Marcus laid down waiting for us to catch up – I saw him and asked “Do we have to look like you?!”. He laughed and explained this juncture. This is the part – after all this time – I almost lost my cool. We had to lay down and scootch our body to a floating rock out of reach, transition the weight to our feet then glide down into the crevices below. There was a part where I had to remind myself that I am not claustrophobic as we waited in the small space waiting for our turn to pop up out of the rock. There were sections where Marcus had to tie up a rope to help us get up, down, and across portions of rock where “nubs” were not an option.
And as I struggled at one section, I heard the team ahead exclaim that they can see light. I just had to get through this rock to see the light. The rock was so wet that my feet could not get a good grip on it so I held on with my hands for dear life as my foot finally caught a nub to push me up through the rock. Light!
It then felt like a dash to get out of the cave. Climbing up and out of the cave – while physically exhausting – was the means for getting out and completing this enormous task. We made it to the area where we first rappelled into the cave and now it was time to climb out. As opposed to before, I was the first one to go and get out of the cave. After four hours from the time we entered the cave, we completed this crazy challenge.
And we could not have been happier! Wow, while we were exhausted, we were certainly celebrating far more than we did earlier. What an insane cave. While I am glad we did not know all the details of this cave going in, I feel like it is important for people to know more about it than what we did. It is physically very challenging, it is intense at times, and you need to know yourself to understand if you will be able to complete the cave. There is no way out other than the path you are on and that fact alone is what kept me going. I had no choice – if I wanted to get out, I had to keep going. And while it was challenging, we got to see a beautiful portion of the world that not many people get to see or experience – and that was so rewarding.
We were warned going into the cave we would be a bit dirty coming out but I do not think I realized just how dirty I would be. And honestly, I did not care as I had to use every portion of my body to help me progress through the cave. I am not sure any part of my clothing went untouched by Crystal Cave.
We then started the mile hike back to the entrance of the National Park. It felt like we were running at points just to get to the end! We kept asking where the gravel part of the trail was – then we knew we would be close to completion. Finally, the gravel appeared! At 2:14PM, we made it to the entrance where we started – six hours later from when we started.
Our first mission was to hit those bathrooms up and wash off as much dirt as possible from our hands and face. It certainly made me feel more alive to be able to see my hands again and cleanse my face.
The reward for completing this physical challenge was lunchtime and it was the most delicious thing we could have asked for – rice, veggies and stewed chicken. Carbs and protein were exactly what we needed after that workout. And Marcus said during high season he could be doing this tour up to three times a week! He must be in the best shape, I cannot imagine doing this more than once. Along with lunch, we had rum punch to celebrate, pounded multiple water bottles, and even had the most delicious chocolate cake.
The final stop of the tour was the “Inland Blue Hole”. The water was a bit too cold for me – had we gone straight here after the cave and hiking I would have been all in. After a big lunch, not so much. It was very pretty and all the people in it were taking their Instagram photos. Other guides with groups asked if we were just in Crystal Cave so it must be a known thing when you look as much of a hot mess as I did. While many people jumped in with their cave clothes still on, we all decided to dip our toes and head back to the car.
The drive home was a wonderful hour and a half nap as we all recovered from the day – much needed and well deserved!
Wow, I still can’t believe we did this. It was certainly the highlight of our trip and something we will never forget. The physical challenge was so much more intense and terrifying than I expected, but I conquered it. Before we parted ways, I thanked Marcus numerous times for keeping us safe and helping me at the toughest parts. I was happy to have Marcus as our guide through this!
While many people visiting Belize go to ATM cave, it is probably best it stays that way. The average person cannot complete the Crystal Cave. However, I am sure there is a percentage of people that were bored by the adventure of ATM and could use something a bit more challenging. That is where Crystal Cave fits in. And while the ATM is full of people, Crystal Cave was empty. For the entire day, there were a total of eight people for the entire day – two groups of four, each with a guide.
Since I could not find much information on completing the Crystal Cave other than it was more challenging than the ATM, I hope this account can help you decide if Crystal Cave should be on our Belize list.
Is Crystal Cave for you? You should…
- In shape with good flexibility and strength
- Into caving, bouldering, and physical challenges
- Not claustrophobic
- Be adventurous
- Not mind getting dirty
What do you need to complete?
- At minimum long pants but would even recommend a long sleeve athletic shirt. I was the only one with a long sleeve shirt and I was so grateful to have more skin protected from the rock.
- Good grip shoes that have flexibility. My Xero shoes were actually one of the best shoes you could wear doing this due to the tire bottoms and lots of flexibility.
- Lots of water – at least 40 ounce a person if not more.