We waded in knee-deep water for a while, then the cave seemed to expand and the ceiling was suddenly 40 feet above us. The river had done a masterful job of carving its way through the cracks in the rock over the millennia. In this expanded section, we stepped around small pools of water and slide down flumes of slick rocks a few feet at a time.
The cave got narrower and the water deeper. If you turned off the flashlight or moved out of the path of the light, the darkness was absolute. I directed the flashlight to light the way for Lina ahead of me. The person behind me did the same.
Jesus started describing some of the inhabitants of the cave. Most notably the guácharo birds that roost in the cave walls near the ceiling.
We slid down an especially well-designed rock flume, and as people began to mill about, Jesus directed the flashlight beams at the ceiling. Unseen birds suddenly came to life. A number of them screeched in protest. A couple of the cavers that hadn’t followed the flashlight beams jumped in surprise. They laughed nervously upon discovering it was only some fat, roosting bird and not a menacing cave monster.
Jesus continued talking, his tone serious now. Not close enough to understand, I saw him leap backwards and disappear. A quiet splash could be heard over the agitated guácharo.
The nearest cavers stepped forward and peered down. They didn’t look too satisfied. One person jumped. Then another.
When it was my turn, I peered down into a sea of lights. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a small pool about 12 feet below. So this is how it ends? My body shattered by some unseen rock just below the surface. Brilliant.
I jumped. It was surprisingly deep, my feet did not touch bottom.
Once everyone was treading water, we swam towards a fast moving chute of water. It projected us down a few yards into a smaller and narrower pool.
As I waited, I flicked the light around and noticed an especially dark crevice in the wall. A trained beam into the depths of the gaping hole, revealed a large, angry crab, orange pincers ready. It dawned on me that this whole time I had been sharing these dark pools with all his fighting buddies. I suddenly felt an urge to get out of there, sure there was a fleet of surly crabs aiming for my tender parts at that very moment.
The group continued down the descending river, with nary a report of crustacean attack. Relieved, I zig zagged steadily from deep pool to deep pool, never pausing long enough for the crabs to hone in on my location.
We journeyed in silence for a time. The dark gradually lost its absoluteness, and a faint glow gained ground. There were no other huge leaps, but we did have to repeatedly sluice and slide down rocks with short bursts of momentum.
A final large pool came into full view. Beyond it was the exit with such light you could see the ceiling 30 feet above and a lip of a cliff that was the only way to leave.
The entrance was below the edge of the cliff, so you could not see out. Only the light came in. Maybe another leap of faith was in order.
Someone must have felt sorry for us, because they had built a chain/rope ladder against the cliff face. Peering over the edge, you could be forgiven for finding little reason to be impressed with their craftmanship. It was a solid 20 feet down. Next to a roaring waterfall. Jumping was not an option, as one sharp boulder and her family occupied the exact spot your flailing body would strike.
The Rio Claro was directly below us. Swift and gorged and not at all merciful. The strategy was to climb down the ladder, hop across a fierce channel a few feet wide and grab the sharp boulder. From there, two permanent ropes stretched across the width of the river, which you would use to pull yourself across, while the current did everything in its power to take you from this world.
Jesus said a few things and headed down the ladder. I was among the first to go down, Lina ahead of me. As I fought the wet, awkward rope ladder for the reward of staying on it, I intensely studied the cliff face and didn’t look down. Hopping across the channel was difficult only because everything was wet. Reaching the bottom you alighted upon another slick rock that did not want you there.
The two people ahead were already putting the rope crossing to the test, while Lina and I made it to the boulder. Just behind us, a women slipped while transferring from ladder to wet rock and plunged into the river. Without thinking, I slide into the current and grabbed her by the life vest and pulled her back. One less victim to mourn.
We crossed with little fanfare, although exhausted when crawling up the sandy beach. Other people were swimming and milling about, oblivious to the dangers we had faced and the fact we had just survived a journey to the center of the Earth (well, at least underground through a tunnel carved out by a river).
Alex was waiting on the river bank, and after a short debrief, he affirmed his decision to stay behind. Probably wise, as he would have made excellent crab bait.
We hiked back to the main lodge, and finding nothing of note happening, we drove to a nearby restaurant on the main road.
After devouring a healthy-sized repast of bandeja paisa, we made it to our cabin and got comfortable (me with a hammock) for the evening.
Pablo Escobar’s resort and dinosaur park (Hacienda Nápoles)
As the cave walls echoed splashing water, a deep unease set in. This river was getting faster and deeper. Our frenzied flashlight beams bounced off the slick stalagmites and stalactites, barely penetrating the oily darkness. Suddenly, terrifying shrieks from above drowned out any thought of retreat. Our guide stopped, turned to us to yell unintelligibly in Spanish, and then leaped backwards into the darkness.
We departed Medellin, Colombia early for a 3-1/2 hour drive to the Rio Claro nature preserve. Located along the Rio Claro (or Clear River), the Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro El ReFugio is designed for the adventure set to play. Whether its river rafting, caving, swimming or something else, they have your poison.
Our plan was to spend two days to relax and partake in water activities. After checking in to our mini-cottages by the pool, we went to explore the options at the main lodge a few kilometers away.
It was afternoon and the only activity left for the day was caving. Sounds like fun. We met our guide at the main lodge and introduced ourselves to the 10 or so other brave souls.
Armed with waterproof flashlights, helmets, life jackets and stuff to get wet in, we hiked upriver for 20 minutes to a crossing point. I use this term lightly. The standard practice, contingent on nature’s mood, is for the guide to swim across the river with a rope and tie it off on the opposite side. Hand over hand, we would then pull ourselves across the river, fighting the clawing current. Yet nature’s mood was to weep the previous few days. The river was swollen and perilously swift with the dirty run-off of too many tears. The river did not live up to its name today.
Our guide (let’s call him ‘Jesus’) waded out to a large protruding rock, then leapt from his perch, rope in hand. He swam with determination to the far shore. The river pulled and dragged him downstream. Only a few strokes from the tie-off point, he let go of the rope. The river was too wide. The rope would not reach. He swam back across.
Jesus presented his charge of potential spelunkers two options; forget caving completely or swim for it without the safety of a rope. Be disappointed or be swept away because you lack the strength to cross. Go home or try to survive the merciless river. Live or die. We chose to die.
Jesus began describing how to get across and where to start the swim. He indicated how quickly you needed to move yourself to avoid hearing a chorus of ‘Adios, vaya con Dios!’ from the group. He was very clear. You must move your ass. Everyone seemed in good spirits and ready for the adventure. All except my friend (let’s call him ‘Alex’) who lacked confidence in his ability to swim the mighty river. Alex decided that his quest had ended the moment Jesus spelled out the truth of the matter. It was up to me and his wife (let’s call her ‘Lina’) to carry on with the others.
Jesus spoke in a hard to understand English, so quickly he established that most people could understand Spanish well enough. English was scrapped.
Jesus waded out to the rock and crossed again easily enough with his practiced strokes. The next person stood on the rock and watched Jesus wave for him to jump. He did with a huge splash and made it across only a few feet further down the river than where Jesus was waiting to pull him in. One after another people waded to the rock, jumped and swam for it. One woman didn’t quite have the strength to get across quickly enough and zipped past the reaching hands. Jesus jumped in after her and managed to drag her to safety before the river could claim her.
Then it was my turn. As I waded to the rock, the water shocked me into full alert mode. I stood on the rock and watched as everyone already waiting waved me on. I made a mighty leap and then swam like I’d never swam before. It was a good 50 feet of angry river to cross. I put my head down and gave it my all. I could see the outstretched hands swiftly passing by but with an extra burst I was there. Safe. Now the real adventure begins.
With no river fatalities and only one person left behind, we set off into the Colombian jungle. The rainforest trees loomed over us. Mossy vines hung within arms reach. We picked our way up a muddy trail, gingerly stepping over the swathes of ants with mandibles poised to do harm. Jesus stopped at one point to pound on a huge buttress root as if it was a gong. The booming sound surely alerted the most dangerous predators to our location.
After 45 minutes of sweaty uphill trekking, we came to a 100-foot cliff face. We scrambled down into a rocky creek-bed. A small river disappeared into a dark hole in the cliff.
Jesus stood outside the cave entrance and gave us some additional instructions in rapid-fire Spanish. Not understanding much of it, I figured we’d walk into the cave, explore for awhile, get a little wet and come back out. Wrong.
Here began the caving (spelunking) part of our journey. Jesus was very adamant. You must stay with him at all times. Based on his tone, I assume they were still looking for the bodies of those that had wandered off in previous trips. We pulled out our waterproof flashlights, tightened our life jackets, adjusted our helmets and stepped into the shallow water flowing into the cave. The first 20 yards of the cave ran along the base of the cliff. The ceiling was only about 8-10 feet high at any given point. Parts of the cliff face had been worn away by the river, so there was plenty of light.
As the darkness got more pervasive and the flashlight beams became the only illumination, I thought of the horror movie The Descent. I just hoped we were the only living things down here.