South of Melchor de Mencos  and skirting the border between Belize and Guatemala is the Maya Mountains–Chiquibul Biosphere Reserve. Although its name makes it sound rather official, it is really the epitome of a “paper park,” as it lacks any real protection and is being lost due to the advance of the agricultural frontier originating around populated areas in southern Petén. Still, there remain some beautiful areas of intact forest and the park is certainly worth saving for the ruggedness of the terrain and its corresponding ecological and biological diversity.
National Geographic has put the word out concerning the existence of Central America’s longest cave network, the Chiquibul caves, which originate in Guatemala but continue for most of their expanse in Belize. The Zactun entrance (Guatemala) is the passageway to the westernmost Xibalba cave, harboring one of the cave system’s largest chambers, averaging about 80 meters (260 feet) in width and accentuated by spectacular vaulted rooms.
The caves are extremely remote and have been explored only by hard-core spelunkers. They are probably more easily accessible from Belize, which is where most scientists studying the caves have focused their efforts. It will be interesting to see if any work is done on the Guatemalan side during the next few years.
Access to the caves begins from the town of Dolores, 24 kilometers north of Poptún . From there, a gravel road leads to the settlement of Sacul Abajo. A rough dirt road continues to the village of Las Brisas, which is the final jumping-off point for the remaining 3–4-hour hike to the Zactun entrance.
Dr. Ric Finch, a retired geology professor, has been leading trips to Guatemala since 1987. In April 2007, together with Antigua resident caver/explorer Mike Shawcross, Finch led a cavers’ trip to various sites in Guatemala, including the Chiquibul caves. Finch and Shawcross scouted the access routes and contacted local guides in the village of Las Brisas. The trip may be replicated in the coming years. For more information, contact Rutahsa Adventures (299 Allen Hollow Rd., Cookeville, TN 38501, 931/520-7047 U.S., www.rutahsa.com ).
The Río Chiquibul originates in the hills of Belize and flows westward into Guatemala, going underground in many places through the Chiquibul cave system. It’s a cool jungle river perfectly suited for rafting trips. Maya Expeditions (tel. 2363-4955, www.mayaexpeditions.com ) offers 1–3-day river trips ($85–130) via raft or kayak combining a visit to some little-explored caves along the river’s course. Longer trips, including horseback riding to Mayan sites, are also available.