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Old December 27th, 2005, 08:29 PM
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Default X-Stream Belize Cave Tubing Review (really long)

My boyfriend and I recently returned from a 7-day Western Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Glory. We booked a cave-tubing excursion in Belize with X-Stream (belizecruiseexcursions.com). The tubing itself was fun, but we definitely would not use X-Stream again. I’ll explain several of my reasons below, but my biggest concern was that they got us back to the port only 10 minutes before the last tender of the day! The X-Stream staff didn’t seem to be concerned about the timing, but that was cutting it way too close for my comfort.

We chose with X-Stream because they seem to have a number of good reviews on various Internet message boards (perhaps not the most reliable source of information, in retrospect!) and their response to my questions through their web site (both via e-mail and through “live chat?) were prompt and professional. I had corresponded with another company as well, and X-Stream seemed to “have their act together? a little better. X-Stream’s charge was $60.00 per person + 8% tax (vs. $89 for Carnival’s cave-tubing excursion), with 10% payable up front as a credit card deposit. I made the reservations online on December 11th for a December 20th tour date. As promised, we received our e-mail confirmation less than 24-hours later.

I had a hard time finding a disposable waterproof camera with flash in local stores before leaving for the cruise, but Carnival was selling them on the boat for about $14, and we noticed that they were available for slightly less than that at stores in Key West, our first port.

The Glory was scheduled to dock in Belize at 8:00 AM ship time, an hour and twenty minutes prior to X-Stream’s scheduled 8:20 AM local departure time. On the advice of a Carnival purser, we went down to Deck 0 as soon as we’d docked (before any announcements had been made) and joined in with groups of passengers who were waiting to get off first for Carnival tours. We didn’t have the numbered tour stickers that everyone else did, but it didn’t seem to matter. We had been told that we would need to explain that we needed to get ashore quickly to make a private tour, but no Carnival employee even asked us about it. After waiting with the group for about 20 minutes, we were guided onto one of the first tenders and spent 15 minutes or so riding to shore. As soon as we stepped onto the dock and walked a few steps, almost every person we passed asked us which tour company we were looking for and then cheerfully directed us down the pier to the main courtyard/bandstand (a few hundred yards to the right from where the tender let us off) where the X-Stream representatives were waiting. We noticed that everyone in Belize was very helpful – staff from competing tour companies and shops seemed to look out for each other.

At the bandstand, we met “Denise,? the X-Stream employee who checked us in and turned out to be our driver for the day. She looked at our printed e-mail confirmation and asked us for the $105.60 that we still owed. My boyfriend gave her six $20 bills, and she seemed slightly annoyed and nonplussed by this, as she didn’t have the ability to make change. Luckily, I had six dollars with me, so that worked out – but her attitude during that interaction was our first hint that this tour might not be as professional and smooth as we had hoped. Denise explained that we were the first members of our party to arrive, and that we were waiting for 10 other people. We asked if we could walk around and look at the shops while we waited, and she said sure. We arranged to meet back at 8:45. It was an overcast morning. After looking though some of the shops for a few minutes, the skies opened up and it started to pour. This worried me – did we really want to hike through the rainforest for 45-minutes in this kind of rain? Also, it was getting really cold! When we got back to the bandstand, I asked Denise if the tour would still take place even though it was raining so hard. She said yes, they were still planning to go at this point. I asked her if it would still be any fun in this kind of weather, and she shrugged and said “You were going to get wet anyway.? She didn’t seem at all interested in reassuring me. To me, her attitude seemed to say “Well, it’s too late to change your mind now – we already have your money.? Perhaps I misunderstood, but that’s certainly how it felt at the time.

My boyfriend and I conferred privately about whether we wanted to bail on the trip or not. The weather looked absolutely miserable, but it wasn’t as if we had some other really great option for how to spend the day. Also, we knew that the caves were an hour away and that the weather could change again. We decided to go through it – if nothing else, we figured it would be an “experience? and a good story. So, we waited another 45 minutes for the rest of the group to arrive (all from The Glory, but they hadn’t caught the early tenders). Finally, the entire group was there, and Denise and another X-Stream employee, our guide “Alisa,? led us through the port tourist area to our van. The rain had let up a little at the point, but previous downpour had turned the little street into a river. We had to wade through shin-high water to get to the van. The van was air-conditioned and seemed to be in pretty good running order, but it was far from new. It smelled very musty inside – maybe because the watertight seal on the sliding panel door was missing. There was a big gap of daylight around the door, even when closed.

The drive to the cave park took a little over one hour. Alisa chatted with us intermittently about life in Belize and what we could expect when we arrived at the caves. She was asked if it would be safe to leave our personal belongings in the van while we were tubing, and she said it absolutely would – that Denise would be with the locked van at all times. I asked her (thinking about our late start) if there had ever been any “close calls? with private groups not getting back to the port in time for the last tender of the day, and she said “never with X-Stream.? That sounded good!

When we got to the park, it was wet and gray, but no longer raining. We pulled up next to a little restaurant, and everyone got out and started applying sunscreen and bug repellent (a necessity because of the risk of botfly and malaria from the jungle mosquitoes in Belize). While my boyfriend and I were getting organized and applying the bug repellent by the van, we looked up and realized that Alisa and Denise were leading the group away to go to the restrooms and to get our inner tubes from an area on the other side of the complex – a few hundred yards away. They were already halfway across the parking lot and Alisa didn’t seem to realize that we weren’t with them. We obviously needed to catch up, but I didn’t want to leave the van – it was unlocked, with windows rolled down and the sliding door wide open. Along with towels and a change of clothes, we had shopping money (a few hundred dollars in cash), IDs, cruise passes, digital cameras, etc. in our bags in the van – I didn’t feel comfortable walking away under those circumstances, especially not with the crime problem I’ve heard about in Belize and the dozen or so Belizean men who were sitting on the porch of the restaurant and eyeing the whole scenario. So, my boyfriend ran to catch up with the group while I waited with the van until they got back. When they returned, I explained to Alisa that I hadn’t wanted to leave the van unlocked like that (she just said “Oh!? and smiled and shrugged in an “ooops? sort of way). My boyfriend had picked up a tube for me, so I quickly raced to use the restroom and then re-joined our group for our trek to the start of the caves. Alisa distributed life-jackets (required that day) and head lamps.

While I was at the bathroom, Alisa and Denise apparently asked the group who wanted to order lunch at the restaurant for $5 after the tubing. When I got back, my boyfriend told me that everyone else wanted to get lunch, so he’d ordered it for us, too. I’m a vegetarian, so I knew I’d skip the chicken, but Alisa assured me there would be plenty of sides to fill up on. Plus, I knew that X-Stream would provide fresh fruit and bottled water, so that sounded like there’d be more than enough for me. Alisa once more reassured one nervous mother in our group about the timeline for the day. She said there would be ample time to eat and still get back to port with at least an hour to walk around and shop before the last tender.

The walk to the put-in point for tubing wasn’t strenuous, but the trail was steep and rocky in many places, and it was extremely muddy and slippery from the rain, so it took a lot of concentration. Even though everyone in our group seemed reasonably fit and used to hiking, there was a good bit of slipping, and I can see how it would be easy to get hurt under those conditions. I found myself wondering what would have happened if we’d had some older or less-fit members in our group – it really wasn’t the “easy 30-minute walk? that we’d been led to expect.

At the beginning of the walk, we crossed the river while holding onto a rope to help us keep our balance in the thigh-high current. I was surprised to see two Carnival photographers there to snap our pictures – even though we weren’t on the official tour, they apparently didn’t want to miss the chance to sell us some “Belize Cave Tubing Tour? photos to us when we got back to the ship. We laughed at the commercial opportunism, but that didn’t keep us from paying for the nice pictures later!

Alisa kept the hike going at a good clip. She didn’t pause to talk along the trail, and we never stopped for the promised “dry cave exploration.? There was no mention of that omission, but I assumed that Alisa must have been concerned about the time, so she was trying to keep the group moving. Still, I estimate that the hike took at least 45 minutes through the mud, but I wasn’t wearing a watch, so I can’t be sure. The scenery in the jungle was gorgeous, but Alisa didn’t provide any commentary about the plants or rock formations we passed by (or if she did, it would have been only to the group members who were directly behind her – she didn’t speak loudly to the entire group, and we were walking single-file, by necessity). We didn’t see any animals that I remember, other than a large termite nest. Some of the flora was labeled along the trail, so that was interesting, at least.

When we got to the top of the trail, we had to wait a while for another large cave-tubing group (30+ people) to put their group in the water. I don’t know if they were from the Glory or not. I assume it wasn’t an official Carnival tour, since Alisa insisted that they don’t go that high or do the multiple caves that X-Stream does.

We had a choice of how to enter the water – you could jump in from a ledge or you could ease yourself in backwards holding onto a rope. The water wasn’t nearly as cold as I had feared – cool, but not at all unpleasant (and I’m usually really wimpy about the cold – a true Florida girl). I’m guessing the temperature was at least 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

The float through the caves was nice. It’s spooky and different. The water was a little swifter than I expected. You really had to back paddle against the current sometimes to slow yourself enough to steer and avoid hitting rocks. Some members of our group had more trouble than others, and there were a few minor injuries (scrapes, etc.). Alisa provided some advice, but I think she could have done a lot more to keep the group together and guide people through the difficult areas. An explanation of basic paddling techniques (one woman didn’t understand what it meant to “back paddle?) and of how to use your feet as bumpers when you’re about to hit a rock could have gone a long way at the beginning of the trip. Also, she didn’t provide any commentary about the caves themselves, and I never heard her point out any unusual rock formations or anything like that. There was one point where she had us all turn off our headlamps so we could see how dark it really is in the caves. That was pretty cool.

It seemed like we spent more than an hour in the water (again, hard to say exactly, because I didn’t bring my watch). When we got back to the beginning, it was easy to take out and just a short walk back to the van and the complex of park buildings. Alisa asked the men in our group to go return the tubes and the women to help Denise load the life jackets and headlamps into the van. We all changed into dry clothes and waited at the restaurant for our lunch. Since the food wasn’t ready yet, there was a little time to look at some of the handicrafts and t-shirts being sold at the site by local vendors. I bought a nice woven tote bag. Alisa and Denise showed us where our tables were, and then I didn’t see them again for a while. The service was slow (the small restaurant was full of tour groups), but when our food finally came out, it was delicious! They had even prepared a special vegetarian plate for me, with a baked pasta dish instead of the barbecued chicken. Denise must have asked for it on my behalf – which was very unexpected and appreciated. Everyone in our group seemed to love the food. The garlic bread was especially wonderful – not to be missed. We had our choice of banana or chocolate muffins for dessert. We were not offered the promised fresh fruit or bottled water by Alisa or Denise (again, no explanation for the omission), but nobody seemed to miss it because the meal was so satisfying.

However, the entire meal took place at a very leisurely pace. We were served slowly; we ate slowly; everyone lingered talking afterward. Neither Denise nor Alisa was around to hurry us along or let us know how much time we had left. When they did return and we all paid and piled into the van, I was startled to see from the van’s clock that we were more than an hour behind the departure time that Alisa had mentioned right before the hike. It was almost 3:00 PM ship time, the port was at least an hour away, and the last tender was scheduled to leave at 4:15 PM. Hmmm!

The ride back to the port was quiet. Denise turned on the radio (Christmas music) and no one talked much. Alisa didn’t provide any more commentary on Belize or even ask us how we had liked cave tubing. Several people slept.

When we got back to Belize City, we seemed to take a different route back to the port than we had the first time (or maybe the streets were just much more congested and traffic slower, so I noticed the route more). Anyway, there were a couple of narrow one-way streets where our van was sandwiched in a line of cars, with no way out except straight ahead. I occurred to me that there was absolutely no margin for error here. If any one of those cars in front of us got a flat tire or ran out of gas, I don’t know what “Plan B? would have been. Alisa’s walkie-talkie wouldn’t have helped us much, unless they could have been used to convince our ship to wait for us.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the van pulled back up to the port entrance a few minutes after 4:00 P.M. ship time (according to the van’s clock and my boyfriend’s watch). There was no comment at all on the late arrival (certainly no apology), and most of the other members of our group seemed either unaware or unconcerned about how close we were cutting it. I heard one man even asking Alisa if X-Stream offered tours in Costa Maya, Mexico, our next port. That surprised me, but it made me realize how differently people can perceive the same set of events. My boyfriend and I were very displeased with X-Stream’s service, but others in our group were clearly happy with it. Interesting!

Anyway, we still had to walk back through the shopping area to the tender location, so my boyfriend and I left the van immediately (no tips to Alisa or Denise – I had my tip money ready, but we weren’t exactly in a tipping mood at that point) and walked quickly back to our arrival spot. We got there at 4:06 – no time to shop, but almost ten minutes to spare before the last boat. Dozens of other Carnival passengers filed into line behind us, so it wasn’t like we almost missed the ship. But it made me mad to think how very easily that could have happened, if any little thing had gone wrong on the road back. Next time, I will stick with the ship’s excursions. Everyone I talked to who went on Carnival’s tour had a great, stress-free time.
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belize, cave, cruiseline, excursions, jungle, malaria, mosquitoes, rafting, risk, river, stream, tubing, xstream

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