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black hole drop
(Photo: San Ignacio Resort Hotel)

How to Explore a Black Hole in Belize

When you’re standing at the edge of an ancient sinkhole, strapped to a harness and about to drop 300 feet into a shadowy abyss, you might find it comforting to know that the first 10 feet are the hardest. This is what Justo, my Belizean guide, told me as he finished securing my rope. I was about to scoot myself off the edge of a cliff into a vast subterranean landscape and didn’t find it all that comforting. I was worried about the remaining 290 feet when I would be suspended in the air, holding onto a rope and rappelling, at my own pace, towards the ground.

The Black Hole Drop is an experience only available in Western Belize, far from the aqua-marine beaches and Caribbean cocktails of the coast, deep in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. If you’re staying in the nearby city of San Ignacio, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel can arrange for transfer to Caves Branch, an adventure jungle resort that offers this experience along with many other caving adventures.

The edge of the sinkhole is just a mile from the trailhead, but getting there is a steep and muddy trek through the Maya Mountains. Unlike any mountains I’d ever seen before, this range looked … messy. Unkempt and wild like frizzy hair on a humid day, large trees and verdant palms emerged from the mountainsides at jagged, careless angles.

From a distance, the mountains were intriguing, but up close, as our group hiked the trail, I discovered the magic in the unruliness. As we ascended, the guides decoded the surrounding jungle. Large cohune palms, which can grow as long as 30 feet, hung from the treetops. The trees with peeling red trunks are called “gringo trees,” nicknamed after Belize’s sun-sensitive tourists, and the scaly black ones are Black Poisonwood, which we were strongly warned against touching. At one point, Justo, who was at the lead waiting for the rest of us to catch up, stood with his flashlight at the ready, pointing to a small black hole along the trail. We peered in and saw eight eyes reflected at us, casting a spotlight on a hairy tarantula.

I enjoyed the hike so much that by the time I had reached the precipice of the black hole drop, I completely forgot what I had signed up to do. I watched as, one by one, the rest of the group slipped over the edge of the sinkhole and disappeared out of sight.

I was the last one to be hooked to the rope and began my slow walk backward toward the edge. I moved slowly down the rock face, gripping onto the rope as I leaned back. I kept my feet flat on the wall until there were no more footholds. Looking down, I saw the black hole, the dark opening in the canopy where I could only make out a few of the colored helmets of the rest of the group. I took in as much of the view as I could—the gaping mouth of the massive cave hidden inside the sinkhole, the small rainforest that overtook this sunken world–and then let out a whoop that echoed off the limestone walls. Eventually slipping beneath the cohune-ringed canopy, I landed with my feet back on the forest floor.

I had floated through the black hole and was not only back in the messy disheveled world of the Belizean jungle, but embedded in it. After a small lunch, we hiked out of the sinkhole and this time, there was a ladder. As I started to climb the trembling metal ladder, intensely focused on each rung, I could already feel myself missing how easy it was to let gravity pull me down into Belize’s mysterious depths.

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Jamie Ditaranto experienced the Black Hole Drop as a guest of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto and Instagram @jamieditaranto.

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