We had no trouble finding Charlie right outside the port. Big ole guy with a superman t-shirt, just as advertised. We were then led to a shaded area to wait for the rest of the people who booked with us (12 or so total). Our guide, King David, made sure he knew when we all had to be back at the ports. The ride to the tubing area was about 50 minutes through Brazil City. King David gave us a little Belizean history along the way. Throughout the hike to the river, King David tried to find some jungle critters and interesting plants. He also took us into a dry cave area to show us some of the features of the caves. We were offered "jungle snacks" also (termites). At the river crossing, we were allowed to stop and take a dip in the "refreshing" (read: icy cold) water. A few brave souls did. Unlike other tour groups, we didn't have to carry our inner tubes. Now, when we got closer to the river, every tour group in Belize was using the same trail. Several groups were breaking apart due to narrow areas along the trail, multiple groups, and the sizes of the inner tubes people (not us) had to carry. Once at the river, about seven tour groups were all vying for openings to get in. King David tied our inner tubes together so we didn't have to stick our feet into anybody's armpits (no kidding, some groups linked feet-to-armpit - GROSS). Once inside the cave, we had headlamps to help us see. King David pointed out only the important features unique to this cave, then he shut up. With 20 different tour groups inside a river cave, the noise echoes and carries. Nineteen other tour operators were loudly explaining stalagtites and stalagmites to their groups. King David had already covered this for us, so he didn't have to shout over the other nineteen, nor did he need to add his voice to the already deafening sounds of everybody else's. We were packed in there like sardines. It doesn't matter which tubing company you use - it will be loud, unromantic, and crowded. They all use the same cave system. Check how many ships are in port before you book this. That will matter.
Now, we had comfy, netted-bottom inner tubes with headrests. Several other tubers commented that they were a little jealous because we had the nicer tubes. Also, while still inside the cave, several other tour groups had their tours end. We floated gently down the ever-quieting river as one by one, the other tours had their patrons schlep their inner tubes out (wondering why we got to continue on the adventure). We did leave the cave system, and continued down the river, through the open jungle - this time, in peace! We got to hear the natural sounds of the jungle. At the end, we did get to carry our tubes about five minutes to the changing area. We were then allowed to change, shop, and enjoy a free Belizean meal. The meal was rice & beans, two small pieces of chicken, and a delicious warm coleslaw. It filled us up nicely. If you're one of those who need to super-size your meals, this will not fill you up. The meals were quite delicious, not outrageously seasoned, but nothing like you'd find in Kansas.
On the way back, King David did offer to drop some people off to shop in the city, he then took the rest of us back to port, then doubled back to pick up the shoppers.
So, why book with Charlies?
1. Half the price of booking through the cruise line. No joke. Half. Price.
2. No carrying your tubes.
3. No feet-to-armpit linkage
4. Yummy meal included
5. Small group size
6. Guide is respectful of the noise level in the caves
7. More time to enjoy the lush jungle from your inner tube
8. Quality inner tubes.
Side note: Some of the steps along the hike are rather steep and will be quite painful for anybody with bad knees. There are no handrails, either. Wheelchair and stroller access will not happen. It doesn't matter which tour company you use, they all use the same trail.