Sitting now on the balcony with the best view in the hotel, looking out on the jungle we’ve just been playing in, watching the light fade and listening to the roar of the river below.
Drinking a coldish beer.
This morning we got up and had breakfast, then went and waited for the group to go explore this cave here in Rio Claro. We met a couple from Oakland, Erin and Jonathan, and chatted with them for a while until the Colombian members of our group and the guide showed up.
We got a brief lecture telling us about the animals we would see and which ones might want to eat us. Perhaps to Lisa’s consternation, Jason’s (our guide’s) accent mostly eluded me, and my translation boiled down to “there are ants. Also we jump into the water a few times”.
We then donned helmets and life vests and carried our somehow-waterproof $3 flashlights in inexplicably perforated plastic bags through the jungle.
After walking for some time along the pathways we were mostly familiar with, we swung on a vine like Tarzan. I had always been a bit dubious about whether that was possible, but I can now attest that it’s a real thing. There are vines hanging from trees in the jungle that can support your weight without even showing signs of stress.
After we each got a turn swinging across some marble steps to a stump there, we moved on and checked out some pretty gnarly stalactites right off the path, or an extension of where we were already used to walking. Already I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t bring my dSLR, since it was not waterproof and was the only camera I had.
We walked on a bit further and came to a rope across the river. This was where we would cross. The water was a bit cold, but we got across ok. I figured out that rather than trying to walk the whole thing, it was a lot easier to just use the rope to pull myself across, letting my legs sort of float behind me and downstream, pulled by the current.
We walked for about 45 minutes over marble steps (the whole hillside is made of marble, as are all the caves we’d be passing through) before reaching a massive ficus tree, where the guide picked up a rock and banged it gingerly against the side. The whole tree resounded with each thump, and I believed him when he said that it could be heard from a mile away, and was used by the natives for communication.
We kept walking, stepping over massive fallen trees, ducking under branches, and carefully placing our feet on one irregular, water-pocked and sharp-looking hunk of marble after another. It was pretty amazing to see all of these sitting there naturally on the surface, the man-made steps having disappeared by the river.
Finally we came to a clearing where it was possible to sit down and the guide began talking about what we were going to see.
Essentially, we were about to go into a beautiful and very wet cave filled with devil birds from hell. These birds are apparently the size of doves and are the only avians to use echolocation. They make a screeching sound and live up near the tops of the caves, flying out each night to eat insects.
We finally stepped into the cave, with a fair amount of trepidation. Laughably, I carefully stepped from rock to rock in order to stay dry for as long as possible. This worked pretty well, though my feet got wet a few times.
Once we got into the cave proper, where no more light could penetrate, we started hearing the birds. Now here’s the thing. The birds roost up somewhere vaguely above you where you can’t see, and you’re not allowed to shine your light up at them, because it agitates them and presumably they might swoop down talons blazing and carry pieces of your flesh off with them, or something like that.
So we hear these things, but can’t see them. And I call them things, because when you’re there in the darkness of the cave, unable to look at them for fear of infernal retribution, they stop being birds in your mind and turn into some kind of demonic presence. As we’re first approaching their area, we start hearing the sound they make, which is a sort of cross between shriek and a growl. This sound reverberates and resonates in the cave, so that they sound much bigger and more menacing than they are, or so you hope, as you step carefully beneath them in the dark, through an alien environment of water and rock.
As you go through the cave, you’re actually walking through little crevices in a mountain of marble, with all shapes of odd brown stalactites that creep along the walls and look like horrible and slimy guano, but are in fact hard, solid stone.
You move on from the more familiar terrain of pebbles piled together in little beaches into smooth-worn stone channels under a foot or so of cold water, which flows past you in some path it knows, leading forever downward. It is only because on the way to the cave itself, the guide earlier pointed out the exit, where you emerge from a mouth in the mountain down into the river, that you are able to remind yourself that you’re not descending into some cold place from which you will never return.
There are other living things here in the cave, none of them familiar and all of them somehow horrible. I’m sure to Lisa’s delight, I found clinging to one of the walls the hellacious spider scorpion, a cousin of the terror that had run across her sandaled foot in the darkness the night before, prompting a scream and I’m sure a brief questioning of just what the hell we were doing out in the middle of the jungle, anyway. Until I find a picture, the best way I can describe these things is as 6-inch versions of the murderous, unthinking insectoid aliens from the movie starship troopers.
That’s six inches with their limbs all folded up and their pincers held back. I don’t want to imagine what they look like when they’re actually attacking. So it was good to know that these things were there with us in the dark.
Eventually the little stream gets deeper and deeper, and you come to your first waterfall. Here the guide points down at the pool below, and tells you that you will go completely under water, but because of your life vest you’ll float immediately back up, so there’s nothing to worry about. So you jump, and plunge into the water and bob back up to the surface, now completely and inescapably wet. You climb out of the water onto a little ledge hanging over the pool, and there wait for the other seven or eight people to make the same jump, the ledge feeling more tiny, crowded and slippery with each body it has to support. The guide then shows you the next jump, and points very carefully to a spot in the darkness. Jump here, he says. Not there, or there. Jump right here and you’ll be ok.
Before your eyes roll back into your head, you jump where you think he said and are tasked with telling each person behind you where to jump in what seems like an incredibly dangerous game of telephone, especially considering the linguistic divides between yourself and the people whose lives and ankles you are now charged with protecting.
But everybody makes it.
For what seems like hours of delight, you keep descending. Somehow someone has misplaced his helmet. This blew my mind. You’re jumping from slippery rocks blindly into rock-bottomed pools. Every surface around you is literally hard as a rock, and many of them have sharp pock marks. And you somehow take off your helmet and forget it in the darkness.
At any rate, we finally reach one cavern that is outside the birds’ territory, where we sit down each on a stone. At the last second for some reason I had moved away from Lisa to sit on a more comfortable rock, at which point the guide tells us to turn our flashlights off. Though I’m pretty sure she understood the gist of what he was saying, Lisa holds onto her last trickle of light as if for dear life, until I translate and say that yes, in fact, he wants us to sit in the complete darkness.
This, of course, is a kind of darkness that we almost never encounter in our modern lives. Darker than any moonless night we’ve been in. Darker than your closet when the lightbulb goes out. This is a place where there is no light of any kind, the sun you once knew and vaguely remember is blocked from you by hundreds of feet of solid rock.
When Lisa’s light went out, my eyes still couldn’t understand the darkness; my mind created images that were not there as I saw colors and shapes despite the absolute lack of stimulus for my eyeballs. Even the ambient sounds of each others’ breathing was drowned out by the stream running beneath us. Though in my mind I knew that others were around me, it was hard to force myself to recognize that as reality in the abyss.
We turned the lights back on and were still there, in the cave, all present but for one helmet. We walked past a few more turns then squeezed through a little crack, past a final stalactite the size of a station wagon standing on its front bumper, and could see light again. The mouth of the cave let out some eight feet above the river, and the surface was again part of reality, the world we had once known had indeed sustained its existence since our departure from it. Green, leafy vines hung down from the rock above.