Sunday, March 6, 2011

Las Cuevas

There is nothing more primal than a man in a cave.

My day started with the piercing beep of my watch alarm.  I pressed the button to illuminate the digital screen—it said 5:30.  After several attempts to ignore its call, I finally awoke from a stupor to see Mario chipper and ready to catch the bus to Gualaco.  He and his crew of cousins, half brothers, and half sisters met us on the walk over; all of them fighting the morning cold of 65 degrees with sweaters and hoods scrunched around their face.  We made sure we were at the bus stop five minutes before the supposed arrival time while we knew well that the bus was going to be late. 

The bus arrived about 20 minutes late and we were on our way.  The morning mist still blanketed the surrounding mountains as we slowly wound our way through the valley.  Five minutes outside the city, the road changed from delightfully paved to ridiculously unpaved.  The old American school bus rocked side to side, up to down as we all tried to capture any glimpse of sleep that we could.  We started gaining altitude through the hills and the road became reminiscent of one of the “most dangerous highway” shows that you might see on the Discovery Channel.  While we climbed, pick up trucks passed on the left during blind turns, completely ignoring any resemblance of traffic law. 

I distracted my fears by looking at the scenery.  The sun had just peaked far enough over the mountains to bring light to the valley, the light brought warmth, and the warmth brought more conversation to the group.  We marveled at the mountains, the morning mist, and the array of cattle and horses that climb the steep hills to get to fresh grass.  Every once in a while we saw a patch of scorched earth that looks completely foreign to the lush, green and almost jungle-like environment.  I knew from my time in Guatemala, where I had a class in environmental education in Central America, that this was the tell tale sign of the slash and burn technique.  Practiced all around the world, although typically in the Third World at this time, slash and burn involves cutting down trees in the desired area and subsequently setting them on fire.  It is an easy solution to the fact that the farmers cannot cultivate land where a forest or jungle exists.  The soil created by the slash and burn technique typically yields good harvests for the first and maybe the second harvest, but the land is eventually rendered useless.  As population increases in the Third World and as demand increases for food, more and more people resort to the slash and burn technique as a quick fix to their poverty, with little regard to the sustainability of the practice.  This is an environmental and cultural disaster.  Any area not designated by the government as a protected area is a potential area for bad agricultural practices.  This is destructive to the environment, especially as we begin to realize the impact on a global scale.  Solutions are few and far between, but as always, the solution involves education. 

The area in which we traveled is for the most part uninhabited.  Residents of Gualaco or San Francisco seem to own the land and use it to raise cattle, grow coffee, or God knows what.  Mario explained that the area, not too long ago, was completely covered in water, which destroyed the local economy.  In 1998 Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America with a vengeance, with a reported death toll of around 8,000 people.  What was even more devastating than the loss of life was the economic implication.  In an already developing economy which subsists on their commodities, the Hurricane took them back to square one.  Foreign aid flooded Honduras as most of the country opened their palms looking for help.  As is the case whenever the Third World sees a natural disaster, corruption played an important role in attempted recovery.  Money entered the country earmarked for recuperation from the Hurricane and ended up in the pockets of those that were charged with the responsibility to care for their citizens.  It has been an uphill battle for the citizens of that valley, but after that kind of devastation it can only get better. 

We got off the bus a couple kilometers before Gualaco to begin the rest of our journey on foot.  When you ask directions or ask how far something is in Latin America, I think the standard answer is “Oh, it’s not too far, maybe about a 30 minute walk.”  I grabbed a can of Sprite at the local store thinking that a thirty minute walk would only require mild refreshments.  What I didn’t know, was that I had drilled the nails into my own coffin. 

The walk was as beautiful as it was strenuous.  We climbed what seemed to be 80 degree inclines only to be dropped back down the mountain just so we could go back up again.  This cycle went on for almost two hours as we worked up a good sweat and marveled at our surroundings.  Trying to cross a river, I slipped on a rock and planted both of my feet in 8 inches of water.  I couldn’t believe I could be so clumsy.  Had I known then what I was about to get myself into, I would have had a different attitude. 

We arrived at the house of one of Mario’s family members.  The clay house sat on a small hill in the valley overlooking the same beautiful scenery that we enjoyed on our way.  After about 4 hours of traveling and 4 miles of walking, I needed to take my morning dump.  I asked Mario where the bathroom was and he pointed to a small outhouse constructed with about 6 planks of wood, a concrete base, and a porcelain toilet without a seat.  I made a mess in there—an absolute mess.  I took water from the horse’s trough and did my best to get the toilet flushed and the porcelain clean before we left for the caves. 

When Mario’s cousin invited us to go to the caves, I thought they might be a small opening in the Earth that you could poke your head into.  I was wrong.  We followed the river to where it originated and pushed through the brush to find a small opening leading into what seemed to be a small cave.  I made the decision, since I was already wet, to leave my jeans and hiking boots on and to just plunge them into the fast moving underground river.  I got out my only source for light—a cell phone with a built in LED flashlight.  We continued to follow the underground river through the cave and came to what appeared to be the end.  Just as we thought about turning around, we spotted an opening formed in the shape of a cylinder that we would have to do our best to climb through to continue our adventure.  Rob climbed through first since he had spent a good portion of his college years at a climbing gym.  Mario and I went next, and the girls decided to back out. 

As soon as we collected ourselves from the climb, we were able to focus our light on the surroundings.  That small space we came through gave way to a massive room of rock formations and the continuation of the underground river.  The river rushed beneath our feet as we were suspended by large boulders, hopping from one to the other to make our way further into the cave.  The boulders leveled into gravel and the gravel dropped off to a steaming pool of water.  The temperate had dropped significantly in the cave and the water was just a little bit warmer allowing a hint of steam to emerge from the surface.  Again, we thought about turning back, but the adrenaline of continuing was too strong.  Before taking off my shirt and leaving my backpack on a nearby boulder, I was able to snap a few pictures before I plunged into the water.  The water was so deep that none of us could touch, and we grabbed the rock formations for support as we continued.  And so it was for a half hour or so, one football field into the cave led to two and two to three.  We made our way from deep pools to dry rooms, until finally we met our match.

Our last pool led us to a small opening in the rock.  We treaded water just thinking about whether we wanted to see what was on the other side.  We decided we had come too far not to see.  We swam carefully through the small opening in the rock to find another large dry room.  We all stood up, proud that we had taken another huge step.  We were extremely quiet as our lights were individually spanning the large room.  Then, just as I was about to break the silence with some useless banter, Mario whispered with wide eyes like a small child, “Mira, Arriba” or “Look, up”.  The ceiling appeared to be moving with thousands of bats.  We disturbed them from an afternoon nap and they began to fly around us squealing in their shrill tones.  The bats began flying out of the opening that we had only just squeezed through.  I squeezed through the opening and got to dry land as soon as I could to grab my backpack and make the journey to find the sunlight. 

The most technical part of the adventure was the climb to get out.  It was still very dark in the cave and I was climbing with my bag strapped to my back as well as my cell phone flashlight in my mouth.  Just as I lifted myself into the sunlight, I lost my foothold and slipped slightly losing the flashlight from my mouth.  I heard it clink several times on the way down and I wrote it off as a loss.  Mario wasn’t satisfied with ruining such a fun cave adventure and he decided to go back in.  After about 15 minutes of intense climbing and a couple bruises and gashes he emerged victorious from the cave with my cell phone in 3 pieces.  I put the battery back in and it turned on just as good as it did before it took the plunge. 

The four cave adventurers emerged from the mouth of the cave victorious, each of us with his own battle scars.  I hit my head on a rock formation as we were walking and I have a pretty disgusting gash to show for it.  As Mario was diligently searching for my cell phone he slipped on a rock and scraped his back leaving a trail of blood on his shirt.  Emerging from the cave I realized how good it is to breath fresh, above ground air in the presence of the warming sun.  Walking through the cave, I realized that there is nothing more primal than a man in a cave. 

We returned to the house which was a couple minutes from the caves to cook some lunch that we brought.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether their lifestyle is better than ours.  They cultivate their own coffee, butcher their own meat, and they fetch their own water.  They work the land day after day for vegetables and when they get hungry they have to do the honor of killing their own cattle.  In that moment, that was the lifestyle I admired.

After lunch we were exhausted, battered and bruised.  We were all at each other’s throats and the walk home for the most part was lonely.  I had run out of my can of Sprite a long time back and we were taking the 4 mile trek back at the worst possible time—noon.  The sun beat down on us as we climbed large hills only to be dropped off on the other side.  I don’t think I have ever been as thirsty as I was on the way back.  Though there was one experience I could draw on.  The one thing I learned from the marathon was that I should have run it faster.  If I was on the course less time, maybe I would be less tired.  So, I tried to walk as fast as I could just to finish quicker.  When I finished the walk I busted through the doors of the local store, ripped open the refrigerator and chugged two Gatorades, an apple juice, and a sprite.  I never tasted anything as sweet as the cool, refreshing bite of a Gatorade.  I made it—a caveman back to the comforts of modern civilization.              


  1. Awesome! What an adventure... and the pictures are just fantastic. Bravo!

  2. We should all strive for a simpler lifestyle, we would be much happier. But our human nature pulls us the other way.....

  3. not sure whats better the picts or your nugget

  4. What an adventure. Great pictures!