Caving in Ecuador

Having never been even slightly tempted to go in a cave, I was surprised to find myself actually in one during our days spent near Cotopaxi. We were staying at the Secret Garden Hostel, which I would highly recommend, and the manager, Remy, proposed that we all take a hike down into a nearby canyon the following day. He and Carlos, one of the staff at the hostel, had recently discovered a system of caves running through the walls of the canyon and he was leading excursions through them for adventurous travelers. He suspected that they dated back to the time of the Incas, and after asking around at the neighboring farms and villages, came to realize that no one even knew they were there. These caves had likely not seen humans for hundreds of years! To make this discovery even more incredible, within the caves Remy had found shards of pottery and some tools. At the time we were visiting in April, he had recently sent everything to the university for further study and was stuck in a sort of deadlock with them – they desperately wanted to know where exactly he had found the artifacts, and Remy, very rightly, wouldn’t tell them until they shared their findings. See, in Ecuador, there’s a finder’s fee for valuable artifacts and Remy wanted to make sure he wasn’t swindled out of his. I would love to have an update on what he has found out since then, but can’t seem to find any information.

The view from the bottom of the canyon.

So when Remy proposed the caving excursion, my immediate reaction was “no way in hell!” But the intrigue and excitement of such a unique discovery was too much for me to resist, especially once everyone else had already jumped on board without hesitation, and I found myself saying yes. Nothing like a little peer pressure to get me out of my comfort zone! With my over-active imagination already warming up for a good workout, I proceeded to not sleep all night long. As soon as I would doze off, my oxygen-deprived brain would take me into the cave, where I would surely get trapped and then die many horrible deaths. The headlines would read: Landslide Traps Tourists In Caves, or Rabies-Infected Bats Attack Idiot Tourists in Caves. And so on and so forth. Suddenly, then it was morning and time to either put on my big-girl pants or back out.

We donned old shoes left behind by other backpackers, and grabbed our headlamps. Of course Mathieu and I didn’t have anything waterproof, because we had somehow neglected to pack rain gear for a trip to the Equator. (Yes…I know.) Then it was time to go, whether we were prepared or not. The trek down and through the canyon was an adventure in itself. In a freezing and constant drizzle, we forced our way through thorny bushes and thick undergrowth, grabbing onto whatever we could to keep from slipping in the thick, dark mud. Many times we faced our fear of heights, inching along a path just wide enough for our feet, and trying not to look down. After what seemed like hours, we reached a waterfall and the entrance to the caves. Scanning the wall of the canyon, I searched for an opening, but saw nothing except a sheer, fern-covered surface. Where were the caves and how were we supposed to get inside?

Do you see the cave?

The openings were there, but difficult to spot because of the lush growth covering the walls. And to get inside, one must climb up the wall, of course! With a helpful hand to give me a boost, up I went. Not surprisingly, the caves turned out to be nothing like what I had imagined. It was more like a tunnel that had been carved into the rock, with openings to the outside every 10 to 15 meters (30 to 50 feet). Remy and Carlos thought that they were perhaps once part of an Incan defensive system, which I can totally imagine.

Now do you see it? Hint: It’s right at the top of the picture.

Once we were all in, we crab walked and crawled single-file through icy, brown water trying hard not to hit our heads on the low rock ceiling. At times, we went through some particularly tight passageways and a few of the taller people had to push through on their stomachs, unfortunately for them. It was completely dark, as one would expect, and the batteries in my headlamp were running low. The weak glow of light it was emitting just barely illuminated the person in front of me. This forced me to narrow my focus to my most immediate surroundings, which kept me from completely panicking, and from thinking too hard about just how much bat guano can be accumulated in a cave this old. Instinct told me to keep my head down, but then I’d feel a tiny breath of air on my neck or head as the bats flew by and I’d have to shine my headlamp up at them so they would keep their distance. I had not previously realized that bats could be so silent, which was alternately fascinating and horrifying, depending on where they were in relation to my head. I never knew when they were coming, because I couldn’t see or hear them, so it startled me each time. At this point, I guess you could say I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life, but there was no way out except forward.

Once our fearless leaders had decided we’d gone far enough, it was time to find a way back outside. We attempted to leave through one of the openings, but there was nowhere to climb down. After crawling through one more cave, we decided that we’d rather find a way down from here instead of backtracking through the caves to where we had started. When it was my turn to climb out, I finally saw why they had hesitated. It was almost a sheer 10 or 15 foot drop down to the ground. My reserves of bravery were quite depleted by this point, and I did not feel confident about getting down in one piece. With almost nothing to grab onto that would hold my weight, and next to no footholds that I could see, I had to trust the people who had gone before me. As I really had no other choice, I went for it, with a helping hand from one of the hostel volunteers. He guided me down the side, pointing out a path I could not see on my own. Mathieu was close behind me, and he did great, especially considering how much he hates heights. Though we were soaked through and freezing, we felt completely elated to have pushed ourselves so far out of our comfort zones.

The best part came much later though. After we slogged our way back up through the canyon, with feet so cold it felt like they had been replaced by blocks, we arrived back at the hostel where there were warm drinks, a crackling fire and hot showers waiting for us. And scaring the new arrivals with tales of our adventure was pretty fun too.

**For more photos, check out Bela Lumo’s photostream on flickr or “like” Bela Lumo Photography on Facebook. I’m regularly updating the albums there. And as usual, please contact me directly if you’re interested in using my photos or purchasing any prints. Thanks!**