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Spelunking Costa Rican Style

by Michael L. Smith

Descending into the void, I wondered if I would ever touch bottom. I knew there was a bottom. I could hear Pino down there talking; not to me . . . he was chatting away with Cristino and Saturnino, his cohorts topside. They were discussing the flies buzzing around the entrance, wondering what may have fallen down the shaft and died, and the probability of rain. I was staring at a wall of rock and concentrating on lowering myself down this modern-day rope ladder into the darkness of Terciopelo Cave at Barra Honda National Park.

It's not that I was scared, or even nervous. In situations like this I tend to have what some might call a "reckless bravery;" but I have always based it on studying the situation before acting. This, however, was my first time on a free-hanging, six-inch-wide stainless steel and aluminum ladder, and scaling the seventy feet to the bottom was quite an experience.

After touching down and gaining my balance, I turned around. This room was gigantic! Its ceiling almost the full height I had dropped. Only a narrow shaft of sunlight pierced the darkness. Immense stalactites hung from the ceiling and pillars emerged from sloped walls, and in the distant obscurity . . . shadowy hints of what was to come. This was promising to be much more of an adventure than I had anticipated.

Barra Honda Peak, rising 1000 feet above the surrounding plains, is composed of reef limestones formed near the end of the Cretaceous period, some 60 to 70 million years ago, when the area was still part of the ocean floor. More than 42 caves of varying depths pock the hill, but only 19 have been explored. The deepest, Santa Ana, drops 790 feet below the surface. Terciopelo, the only one open to the general public, is said to be the most beautiful and to hold the greatest number of formations.

Pino explained that four rooms compose Terciopelo, and that we would climb down a ladder (standard aluminum type this time, firmly anchored, thank goodness) to get to numbers three and four, reaching a final depth of 200 feet. Hard hats in place and flashlights beaming, we continued our descent into the bowels of the hill.

I had read that this cave was well-decorated with a profusion of various types of formations. I never imagined that they meant the formations covered every square inch of wall and ceiling. This was a cave like none I had seen before. Complex sculptures of calcium carbonate were everywhere. On one wall, out of reach, was a creation that looked like a small altar, complete with adornments. The top of a stalagmite looked like a modern art carving of a human form. Nooks in the walls were filled with miniature scenes of extreme intricacy. There were many columns where stalactites and stalagmites had joined after their millennia of determined growth. In other places were columns-to-be . . . only fractions of an inch remaining before contact would be made and their journeys ended.

There were no guard rails, no marked paths, no electric lights. Pino and I were the explorers. We were seeing the previously unseen. We were wearing hard hats because there were stalactites hanging everywhere and we were climbing through forests of them. We had a sense of adventure and discovery that people don't often find these days.

The Barra Honda caves are recent discoveries. It was known that the hill was riddled with holes, but no one had any idea of what those holes hinted. The early Indians knew they were deep and named the hill for that characteristic. They measured distance with a rope barra (bar). When they dropped their barra down one of the holes, it took a lot of rope to reach bottom. The Indians said it was a "barra honda," honda meaning deep.

Speleologists discovered human remains here, in Nicoa Cave, in 1970. Some time later pre-Columbian artifacts were found in the same cave. Other explorations determined that this hill is an important aquifer for the surrounding villages. After realizing what lay hidden below the surface, the government created the national park in 1974 to preserve yet another unique part of Costa Rican geography.

Don't think the only thing to do at Barra Honda is spend a couple of hours in a cave. Except for the few farmers who cleared part of its top to raise corn, rice and beans in years past, and an occasional forest fire, the area is unmolested by the hand of man. Wildlife flourishes. This is a true treasure of nature. Birds abound, monkeys clamor through the trees, white-tailed deer and tepezcuintle (paca) forage the forest floor. Sitting at the ranger station, the peaceful solitude is broken only by the chorus of howler monkeys and magpie jays. From the lookout near the peak, you can see the surrounding flatlands stretching to the Nicoya Gulf, seven miles distant.

The hour-and-a-half hike up the hill to Terciopelo Cave was an adventure in discovery. As we walked along listening to the birds and monkeys, the guides pointed out many interesting aspects of the surrounding greenery. Indeed, if I hadn't gone near the cave, I know I would still have come away with the feeling of a day well-spent with nature.

As Pino and I finished exploring and made our way back to the first room, I noticed that I could see much more than when we first arrived. Two hours exploring by the weak beams of flashlights had accustomed our eyes well to the darkness. This room now begged to be examined further, but as Pino walked over to tap out a tune on one of the giant formations, we heard the thunderstorms issuing their warnings and knew we would need to make the hike back down the hill in haste. Reluctantly I buckled myself into the harness, tied on the safety rope, and began my ascent into the light.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Michael L. Smith. All rights reserved. Please address your comments to Michael L. Smith.