After arriving back at the trailhead our guide, Carlos, led us to a small restaurant outside a hostel for a late lunch. While we ate as a group Carlos describe our next adventure. Up river about 2 km was a series of large caves. These caves had natural spring waters gushing out of them. Carlos told us we were going to explore nearly 1km into one of the largest caves. He told us there would be some climbing and some swimming. He told us we would see waterfalls and underground rivers. One of our group asked if they should have brought lights and Carlos replied with, you guessed it, “it’s OK no problem. I thought that obviously they would not send us into a cave without lights. They either had good waterproof lights or the cave was open enough for there to be decent visibility. I was wrong, wrong and wrong. Everyone was excited to see this cave and the mood was jovial on the hike to the opening. However when we approached the mouth of the cave it quickly became much more subdued. My vision of this massive opening in the side of the hill with a gentle brook flowing out and rocks and paths clearly seen from outside for us to explore is not at all what we found. Carlos led us to the side of a cascading waterfall and just to one side was an opening just large enough to park a car. OK not what I was expecting but I will go with it. Ashley gave me another one of those, “What the heck are we doing” looks when she peered into the sheer blackness of the cave. I said don’t worry I am sure they have good lights and a clear path. And just as I said that, Carlos called us over to line up to get our lights. See, it’s OK, no problem. We all lined up at the mouth of the cave with the rushing river on large slippery rocks while the roar of the river tried to drown (probably the wrong word for the moment) out Carlos’ instructions. Carlos reached behind a large rock and pulled out an elongated box. I thought that it was a strange shape for a box of flashlights or headlamps. The moment he pulled out the “lights” Ashley shot me a look that would freeze the gates of hell. The lights were candles. Yes candles, in a cave full of water. He told us they were good for an hour which is how long the excursion underground would be. He began lighting them as each member of our group tried desperately, but without showing it, to be the very last one lit. Once all the candles were lit Carlos had us follow him into the cave. I was still reeling from the fact that the lights were candles so as we entered the cave I began looking for the wires running overhead to the actual lights or maybe the emergency lighting. There were neither. Other members of the group had the same concerns and I could see them looking for and not finding any backup system to our candles. I heard the French couple say to each other. “I think it’s just candles”, as they cautiously followed the group.
Now normally Alexander and Victoria are out in front leading the way on most all adventures. I am usually right behind them motivating and pumping them up as we go. Not this time. Alexander was visibly nervous and cold and Victoria was stoically silent as she maneuvered in the cold, wet darkness. I should say that the candle light provided very little light as far as what you would need to walk and climb. We pretty much found our way by feel with the candle helping just a little. As we progressed deeper into the cave, the water became deeper and deeper. I just kept thinking that this first part of the tour was to give us a little scare and then it will open up with lights and maybe a Starbucks and everything will be better just around the next dark bend. There was no Starbucks around the next bend and there was no light either. There was just another small cavern that we could not see. Another rock to kick under water that we could not see. Another tight section of rock to squeeze through and more cold water. We reached a point where Carlos told us it gets deep and we will have to swim across to the next rock. I figured he was joking about swimming and even now that maybe it was an embellishment. I mean, our lights were candles for god sake! How are we supposed to swim with a candle? Just as that thought entered my mind Carlos demonstrated holding the candle in his mouth (not joking) and swimming across the 10m cavern. Another death look from Ashley. (You would have thought that I scheduled this adventure when in fact this was her doing.) We managed to swim across with most of the candles still burning and we relit the ones that went out. Finally Carlos brought us to a stop that he said was the end. The group as a whole was visibly relieved! At “the end” was a very small pool and a rock wall on all sides that we could jump off and into the pool. Carlos demonstrated and put on a little show for us. Most of us though were just looking for the way out here at “the end”. Once Carlos’ acrobatic show was over he nonchalantly said “OK guys let’s go back”. GO BACK?! Was what each member of the group asked. Carlos just shrugged and said yeah we go back the way we came. We all looked at our “hour long” candles that were just little stubs in our hands knowing there is no way we can make it back before no candles would be burning. Luckily the way back was much quicker and we made much better time as we all had a clear goal and we all worked together to achieve that goal. The goal of course was not to die in the cold, wet dark cave. We came to one point and Carlos stopped us and asked if we wanted to take a shortcut. There was a resounding YES but I sensed a catch. The shortcut required us to climb into a rock tube about 1.5 meters in diameter with 10cm of water running down the bottom. The tube ended shortly and at the bottom of where the tube ended was a small hole where, when you held a candle near, you could see the water rushing down. You could hear the water falling but could not tell how far. Carlos’ “shortcut” involved him pushing you through that hole which was shaped and the size of a slightly flattened hula hoop. Did I mention that you could not see where you will land? Did I mention that the hole you drop vertically through was barely wide enough for a body? Did I mention that water was gushing down this hole to so it was like you were being flushed down a dark cold toilet that you could not see the bottom? Did I mention that there was no way we were going to keep our candles lit? Did I mention that my kids are 9 and 11? Yeah this was stressful and more than a little scary. Ashley and her mama bear strength without hesitation said she was going first. I have to say she made me awfully proud. Victoria stoically went second without discussion or hesitation. Next Alexander who did need a little reassurance and maybe a little more than a push from Carlos. I followed into the darkness hoping to see my family on the other side. I got into position above the hole. Carlos had me cross my arms and put my head back as not to crack it open on the rocks just in front of my face. I leaned back and he shoved me through the hole. Water crashed all around me for just a moment and then I was falling into the blackness. I fell about 2 meters into deep water. I came to the surface to find water cascading down upon me from above and utter pitch blackness. I looked forward and saw nothing but rock wall, to my right the same. Behind the falling water, I saw nothing but rock. I turned to the left and could just barely make out a ladder and my beautiful family, alive and waiting for me on the rock ledge. That was INTENSE! Carlos and the rest of the group finally made it through and we continued on to the exit. We made it out alive and we all felt relief to see the sun again. Every member of the group approached me and Ashley and told us they could not believe how well Alexander and Victoria managed to keep their cool throughout the experience. Looking back at the cave tour all four of us agree it would be much more enjoyable the second time when there is not as much unknown involved. I still think if, ok when, we do this again I will have a waterproof flashlight with me. After emerging from the cave we used inner tubes and floated the river back to our lunch spot. We still had the “safe 4wd” trip back to the car and after the cave tour/adventure/ordeal/most stressful 2 hours of Ashley and Dan’s life, the ride was a piece of cake. Oh, and sorry for not many pictures but, as you can imagine, a water-filled, dark cave that seemed to be trying to kill us was not the place for a camera.