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CAVES HAVE ALWAYS fascinated me. When I was a child, summer vacations were spent traveling around the country with my parents. Every time we happened upon a cave we stopped and visited. It had always been my dream to discover a cave one day; a cave of my own, to wander through without guides, walkways or unnatural light. My dream not only became a reality while I was living in Costa Rica but also one of my worst nightmares.
December 5, 2002
My friends Juan, Rico and Gabriela invited me to go on a picnic. I had no idea where we were headed, but exploring Costa Rica was always an exciting adventure.
Gabriela — a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde French Canadian, and now a resident of Costa Rica — spoke English, Spanish and French.
By now I was good at Spanglish, understanding most of what was being said, and able to convey what I needed to in a roundabout way. Gabriela and I became the closest of friends while I was building houses on the beach. She became my private interpreter when dealing with serious matters, such as with architects and contractors.
Juan was a tall, burly, dark-haired, bearded Tico, (A polite term used only in Costa Rica to refer to a male Costa Rican; Tica for a female, and Ticos collectively.) He was one of six Tico friends who gathered at my house on Sunday afternoons for English lessons and was the stereotypical class clown.
Rico was of slight build, somewhat shy, and probably the most sensible of us all. He attended Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica during weekdays. It’s about a four-hour drive from the beach, and he returned for weekends.
On the morning of the picnic, the four of us hopped into Juan’s rickety car which started screaming for a tune-up as we pulled out of my driveway onto the Panamanian Highway. I listened to the car begging for help and prayed we would make it to our mystery destination and back safely.
We’d stayed on the highway for about a half hour, then turned off and followed a bumpy dirt trail through a huge plantation of African palms. It conjured up the feeling of being on a safari. The trails cutting through these plantations always came to a dead end, as they were built for plantation workers, not the public. We kept driving until the trail ended at a blockage of weeds vibrant with blossoms in every color. Beyond the floral rainbow was a wooded area at the base of a mountain.
Juan, wiping sweat from his face, said with a broad grin and one raised eyebrow, “Time to get out and hike.”
We unpacked our gear and wound our way down a narrow, zigzagging path flanked by exotic tropical plants which led us to the picturesque Damas River. My friends couldn’t resist taking a dip in the deep blue pool in the river’s elbow at the end of the path. The water was cool and crystal clear.
Not being a swimmer and having a fear of deep water I perched on a large, smooth rock at the river’s edge and watched my friends playing like dolphins — splashing, bobbing and swimming.
“Come on in, Dusty,” they shouted.
It was a hot muggy day, and the water looked inviting. Feeling light-hearted, I laughed and said to myself, what the heck? I slid off the rock, flung my flip-flops toward a cloudless sky and began wading through the water in their direction. As the water became deeper I felt a strong current against my legs, causing my brave attempt to join them vanish.
I stopped and yelled to Gabriela,Juan and Rico I would rather go exploring up the river in the opposite direction. This was because I could see the water wasn’t as deep upstream.
“Tenga cuidado, muchas serpientes peligrosas y caimanes agua.” (Be careful, many dangerous snakes and alligators here.) Rico shouted, in a way that made it difficult to determine if he were kidding or not.
Oh, well. I’d rather die from a poisonous bite or be eaten by an alligator rather than drown, no matter how cool, blue and crystal clear the water is, I chuckled to myself as I began walking upstream, staying close to the foliage-covered bank.
Not long afterward I came to a clearing where I spotted a variegated philodendron plant atop a small hill. Unable to resist taking a cutting from the plant to add to my “rainforest” garden, I scrambled up the slope. When I reached the top I saw another hill, very steep, with what appeared to be an opening in the earth halfway up its side.
My heart pounded. After a moment, I sprinted toward it as fast as I could, slipping and sliding on the stones and loose earth. It seemed to take forever to get there. Before I made it all the way up the slope I began slowing, panting and trying to catch my breath, all the while hoping what I was headed for was what I thought it was; an opening in the earth leading to a cave. If it did that would turn my lifelong dream into reality.
As I drew closer I could see there was an opening in the vegetation. I approached the entrance slowly, in awe. Then, in my excitement of having found a cave, I threw all caution to the wind, sat on the ground and scooted my way inside. Suddenly I was sliding down a slippery slope of moss-covered rocks which were causing me to bounce around like a ping-pong ball. It seemed an eternity before I finally hit solid ground.
What have I got myself into? I wondered as I lay there laughing at myself. Whatever it was. it couldn’t be as bad as all the things Rico warned me about. I knew I would be bruised, but I was still alive to explore the cave -- my own cave!
After a few minutes waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I looked around and found myself inside an enormous chamber with what appeared to be huge stalactites dangling from the ceiling, illuminated by the dim light filtering in from the mouth of the cave. My dream came true right then and there.
On hands and knees, I scrambled to the mouth of the cave and raced back to my friends with the exciting news. Much to my disappointment and disbelief, they were not impressed. Worse still, they pooh-poohed the idea of exploring the cave.
“We’re not dressed for it.”
“I don’t want to get all dirty.”
“We don’t even have flashlights.”
“There might be bats in that cave and I don’t want to walk in guano,” Juan added, with a look of disgust on his face. They had no idea the disappointment I felt by their lack of enthusiasm for going inside the cave. I sat down to think, dangling my aching feet in the river’s comforting water.
Okay, tomorrow is another day, I told myself while planning the details of my adventure. Tomorrow I’ll explore a small portion of the cave myself and return another day to do a full exploration with other friends willing to join me. Yes, having a flashlight was a good idea, and, yes, short pants and flip-flops wouldn’t do.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing alongside the river munching on cheese-filled empanadas Gabriela had prepared that morning, an assortment of fresh fruits and melon slices, and sipping chilled agua de pipa, the liquid from inside a young coconut.
As we were leaving I made mental notes of the landmarks along the dirt road and where it intersected the Panamanian Highway for my return trip the following day.
Juan’s rickety car got us back to my place without problems. I invited my friends in for coffee and dessert. We sat in the rancho situated between the house and the small, narrow river at the edge of the property.
Laughing and joking, we recounted the fun we had picnicking at the Damas River. I was tempted to bring up the possibilities of exploring the cave but didn’t. We sat there watching a spectacular golden-orange sunset over the nearby Pacific Ocean. Another beautiful day in paradise had come to a close.