After two days of relaxing on beaches, it was time for another adventure. Before going to Costa Rica, Dave had read about the Venado Caves near Arenal, and he was really interested in visiting those. I was less excited about the idea, due to the fact that you had to wade around in muddy water and squeeze through tight openings to get from one room to another. Thanks to Hurricane Otto and a lack of desire to take Blue off-roading any more than we had to, we ended up not going there.
So, while I was lying on the beach, flipping through our Lonely Planet Costa Rica guide, I saw that there was another set of caves in Barra Honda National Park, which was not too far from where we were in Playas del Coco. There are actually 42 caves, but only 19 have been explored and only 2 are open to the public! You can read all about it here: http://nicoyapeninsula.com/barrahonda/
It was about an hour and a half drive down to Barra Honda, and easy going, with the exception of the final several miles of dirt road. It wasn’t in terrible condition, it was just slow going and gave us the sense that we were heading into the wilderness, never to see civilization again.
Once at the park, we checked in at the ranger station. Nobody spoke English, so Dave spoke with them in Spanish and translated for me. We knew we’d have to walk to get to the caves, and the woman explained that it was a 4 km hike. That’s only 2 miles, I thought, how bad could it be? What I didn’t take into account was the fact that it would be almost entirely uphill.
We were introduced to two older men, Jose and Saturnino, who would be our guides for the hike and for the cave. We found out later that they were both in their late 60’s – Jose proudly told us he was 69. They were in better shape than Dave and I, and if it weren’t for my incessant need to stop to catch my breath or take a drink of water, they probably wouldn’t have stopped at all.
It was a beautiful hike through the forest. We saw a waterfall, lots of interesting plants and flowers, lots of Blue Morpho butterflies, and even an iguana peeking out of a hole in a tree!
The day was extremely hot and humid, so it didn’t take long for me to start wilting like a delicate flower. I didn’t want to look like a complete wimp though, so I pressed on. After a while, I didn’t feel hot anymore. I felt like a cool breeze was blowing over my skin. I even had chills from time to time. I discovered later that these are signs of heat stroke, and I probably should have tapped out right then and there.
After what seemed like half the day, we reached the cave entrance. It was literally a gaping maw in the rocks. Not at all inviting. There were two German tourists standing nearby looking down into it. They watched as our guides began stringing up the ropes which would be used for our harnesses. They wished us luck as we got strapped into our harnesses and made our way to the ladder.
Jose explained (in Spanish) where to put each foot and how to grab the ladder properly so we wouldn’t slip and fall right there at the top. Then, he went down, and then Dave. Then it was my turn. It was awkward trying to get onto the ladder with all the rocks in the way. The first few feet of the ladder were angled down only slightly, and then it bent and was completely vertical. And dark. Very dark.
The ladder is 55 feet long. That’s the height of a 5-story building. It was slippery with mud, so going down was slow and a bit nerve wracking. I kept looking down at Dave and I could hardly see him. He was like an ant down there with Jose.
Eventually I made it to the bottom, and immediately was given a headlamp to put on my helmet. I was still feeling a bit out of sorts from the hike up, and after climbing down the ladder, I would have liked to stop for a minute to catch my breath, but Jose led us off to explore the cave. The floor was sloped down and very wet and slippery.
Of course it was incredibly dark in there, being a cave and all. Jose led us down to a lower room and showed us the different rock formations – stalactites and stalagmites and that sort of thing. I noticed that my heart was beating super fast, which I thought was a little odd.
Deep in the cave there was another area with a ladder that went down to a lower room. This ladder was only about 10 feet, so there was no harness. Jose told me I didn’t have to go down if I didn’t want to, but I wasn’t about to sit there alone in the dark while he and Dave went down without me.
Once we were in that lowest part, Jose had us turn out our headlamps so we could experience the complete darkness and silence of the cave. I swear, my heartbeat was echoing through the place at that point. It felt like it was about to beat right out of my chest.
We climbed up the shorter ladder and began walking back up to the big one. Part way up the path, I grabbed Dave and asked him to stop with me so I could catch my breath. I don’t think he realized I was having issues until this point. We stopped and I tried to relax, but my anxiety was getting out of control. I tried to take deep breaths but began hyperventilating instead.
Jose indicated for me to come closer to the ladder, and he helped me into the harness. I’ll admit, I was hoping they were just going to hoist me out of there like a stuck pig, but no. I had to climb back up that ladder. This was the only point during our vacation that I actually wished I was sitting at my desk back at work.
By this time I was basically out of my mind. I wanted out of that cave so bad. I climbed, shakily, looking up at the pinhole of light that was the exit. I climbed that ladder like you wouldn’t believe. Dave, translating Jose’s instructions, told me to wrap my arms around the edges of the ladder, in case my hands got tired gripping the rungs. I wrapped my arms around the rails and climbed so hard. I was moaning and hyperventilating like a damn fool, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there!
Dave called up to me from below, telling me to slow down and rest, but I wasn’t having it. I power-climbed, smashing my knees against the rungs and at one point, pulling a muscle in my leg trying to skip a rung where the rock face stuck out too far for me to fit my whole foot on the rung. (I didn’t notice these injuries until much later).
Finally, I was at the top. I can only imagine how I must have looked to the people who were waiting to go down next. They probably heard me coming – moaning and cursing, and then saw my drained face pop up, followed by my guano-covered body. I bet I looked like a distressed swamp creature.
I stumbled away from the ladder, tore off my helmet and my harness and threw them both on the ground, and clumsily stomped over to a little picnic table. I was so happy to be out that I could cry, and I did. I sat there and cried and hyperventilated until Dave came out. He came over and comforted me, while also laughing at the hot mess that I was. Jose came out a few minutes later and poured out some water so we could clean off our hands.
I figured we were finally done and could go back to the car, but that wasn’t it. There was more to the hike, which led us to a beautiful spot overlooking a valley and the Gulf of Nicoya. If I hadn’t felt like complete crap, I would have been really impressed, but I was so done at that point.
The hike back was all downhill, but even this was difficult. I felt like it took hours and hours. I finally did catch my breath, but had absolutely no energy left. When we eventually got down to the bottom, we rinsed ourselves off in the outdoor sink and then went over to the car to change and get more drinks.
We drove all the way back to the hotel without stopping for lunch, because we were covered in mud. We showered hard – I’m not sure those white washcloths would ever be white again. We grabbed a late lunch/early dinner from Le Coq and called it a day.
Honestly, I was really surprised at how I reacted to the cave. I have always known that I am a bit claustrophobic – for example, when Dave would work on my old car, he would sometimes invite me to get down under the car so he could show me something. I could only tolerate it for a few seconds – the bulk of the car looming over me made me feel anxious.
Being in the cave wasn’t quite the same. We didn’t have to squeeze through any tight spaces, but maybe it was the darkness that freaked me out? Or perhaps I was just so heat-stricken that I ceased to think rationally anymore and just lost it? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I will not be going into any caves that require headlamps or rappelling gear anytime soon. Good thing we had another two beach days ahead to recover from that stressful day!