Trapped Under Paradise

In the fall of 2013, I got stuck in a pitch dark cave underneath a popular backpacking destination in Guatemala. When I finally made it out, I was told if I wanted to survive this adventure, I needed to drink as much of an $18 bottle of rum as I could.

Winding above the clouds in Guatemala, my friends and I arrived at Semuc Champey. Deep in the limestone mountains, the Cahabón River plunges into a series of caves it has worn out over the millennia, leaving above a series of cascading pools like some kind of pre-historic paradise.

One of the streams coming out of the mountains feeding the Cahabón created its own cave system that locals lead tourists through. Our guide, a young man named Alejandro, gave us each a small wax candle to light our way. He stuck two in his headband and lit them up, sort of like a pre-industrial headlamp.

As the sun disappeared behind a wall, we giggled at how reckless it felt to be making our way up a cave with little more than candles and screamed any time a bat fluttered or a drop off in the floor gave way and one of us bobbed under water for a moment. Every now and then one of our candles would go out when a hand dipped below the surface or a breeze blew by and we would all huddle together to relight the thing before another disappeared.

There were several waterfalls in the cave and the guides had set up long metal ladders to scramble up the sides. It was thrilling feel the mountain above us and the water rushing past us as we held onto a tiny ladder lashed to the side of the falls.

When we finally reached a point where the stream disappeared into the rock face, we turned to make our way back down and asked what happened when it rained outside and a group was still in the cave. Alejandro laughed and said the cave floods when all the water above comes rushing in. But, he shrugged, you just go to the highest point and wait for the rains to stop. Just a few hours!

By this point, Alejandro had started paying attention exclusively to my two friends, both of whom were female. He held their hands as they climbed over rocks and quickly relit their candles anytime they went out. Meanwhile, I started to fall farther behind.

When we came to the largest waterfall in the cave, I struggled to see where the ladder was. Water gushed all around as I hunched over at the roof of the cave, knowing the drop below was at least twenty feet. Suddenly my candle went out. Complete darkness. The rush of the water all around me had taken my tiny flame away and the group was too far ahead for me to see a thing.

I crouched down, and started to yell. My voice echoed off the walls and was quickly swallowed by the roar of the waterfall. Feeling around for anything that resembled a ladder, I only felt slimy rock. Eventually I sat down and just let the spray of the water splash against my face.

Alejandro did finally pop his face over the cliff ledge and grinned at me. He guided my foot to the top ladder rung and took me back to the rest of the group.

When we made it back out we laughed with relief over how stupid we had probably just been. Natalie, a nurse, explained that we weren’t totally safe yet. Caves are crazy good at cultivating weird bacteria and amoebas that could wreck our digestive systems and our best shot at getting rid of them was hard liquor. A lot of it.

We walked back to the hostel holding our stomachs and wondering what was swimming around inside. Was something crawling through my gut right now like I had just moments before been making my way up inside the mountain? I grabbed a bottle of Flor de Caña rum I had been saving for a special occasion and a coke from the hostel’s bar and we settled into a spot overlooking the Cahabón River.

Every toast was accompanied by a chorus of kill the bacteria! as our drinks got stronger and stronger. We drank like our lives depended on it. By the time we staggered back to our thatch roof hut, we were completely wasted, but as the next day would tell, we had indeed killed all the critters we had ingested.

A rueful hangover was the only side effect of our cave adventure, but that $18 bottle of rum was still the best money I ever spent.

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