"Watch out for the hole," the Cave Man calls.
We've just climbed a limestone outcropping on Puerto Rico's northern shore, where we've come to explore hidden caverns and petroglyphs few tourists ever see. The view merits the short climb: Rock arches reach out into blue-green sea, flanking a sheltered cove with a sandy beach. A hundred feet below, waves pound on jagged rock.
While my husband and I gape, our tween son has gone ahead, following a twisting path. I tear my eyes away from the view and find my son staring at the aforementioned hole, which turns out to be a child-size opening hidden by shrubs that drops 100 feet to the rocky shore far, far below.
I feel faint. The Cave Man, however, remains unconcerned. He has discovered a cove, normally pummeled by waves, that looks accessible today. He proposes that we scramble down onto the sea-sprayed rocks to explore.
I'm still deciding which variation of "Hell, no" to deploy when my husband and son say "Sure!" and disappear over the edge. I sigh. I'm no great fan of heights, and the online description of this excursion specifically said "no climbing." But my only child is descending a slippery chasm, so down I go.
The Cave Man picked us up in San Juan in the morning. When we met, I told him I wanted to write about the trip. He was willing, but only if I didn't mention him by name. It's not that he's hiding anything, he explains, but he doesn't really want an influx of new business.
"I want these trips to stay special," he says, "so people can feel my enthusiasm."
I feel it, all right. His website promised caving with no rock-climbing or rappelling, which met my risk-averse mom standards. So much for that.
Yet climbing down to the ledge is not as scary as I imagined. I've just managed to relax when the Cave Man suggests going even farther out, to the edge of the cove. The view from this ledge is even better, and the sea is such an intense wintergreen color, I half expect it to smell minty. Waves burble up through a hole in the rock, and I point my video camera at the roiling water, admiring how the rush of the tide surges and swirls in the opening.
I don't notice that the next wave is unusually large until it sprays an Old Faithful-size blast of water over me and the camera.
For the first time, I see real concern on the Cave Man's face. Then he learns that the camera is waterproof.
"Ah, that's great," he chuckles. "Seriously, though, the tide is coming in. Let's get out of here."
We climb a set of stone steps into a depression, and that's when I see the ladder. Made of odd-sized planks, frayed rope and rusty nails, it leads into the sunlit mouth of a cave about 20 feet down. The others scramble down the ladder, so I steel my nerves and begin my descent. To distract myself from mental images of the ladder's spectacular failure, I ask who else has made this trek.
"I just had an 85-year-old woman do it. I've had babies in backpacks."
I don't know what makes a person put a baby in a backpack and take it into a cave, but I suspect it has to do with a lack of child care. Nevertheless, I feel oddly buoyed.
Below, the Cave Man grins. "These places," he sighs, "are magical."
He points out the petroglyphs on every surface - even on the ceiling high over our heads - animals, faces and patterns carved by Taino Indians more than 1,000 years ago, which give Cueva del Indio its name. We venture deeper, around a corner where sunlight illuminates flowing water that runs through the cave.
Then we scramble up a smooth ledge that's slick with something I'm praying isn't guano, arriving at an opening overlooking the sea. Bats flit above us, and I recall a nurse who said that if you wake up with a bat in your bedroom, you can assume you've been exposed to rabies. I'm looking for a way out when the Cave Man says, "This is really nice. When I come with people from the cruise ships, they just want to get in and get out. They don't want to get to know the place."
Well, I can't get lumped in with them. I stuff my worries down and just enjoy, marveling at the striations of orange and gold in the rock. When we leave, ascending the ladder is easier, and I'm feeling much more confident, unconcerned about the guano smears on my clothes.
After stopping at a restaurant for crispy fried marlin and mofongo (mashed plantains), we head to Cueva Ventana, where locals file up a trail from a gas station on Highway 10. After a few minutes' hike, we reach the cave mouth. A steady procession enters: Toddlers in flip-flops, grandmas and a golden retriever are making their way down the slick, narrow steps into the darkness.
Inside, Ventana's air is fresh and cool. We soon learn why: Passing through a pitch-dark section of cave, we round the corner and see sky. An open section of cave wall reveals a panorama of green hills and a meandering river far below, a vista stretching out to the mountains in the distance. It's shockingly beautiful, worth every tense moment of the descent.
The Cave Man, I decide, is all right. We might have different outlooks on risk, but without him, I wouldn't be here.
Alisson Clark is a freelance writer from Gainesville.
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IF YOU GO
Puerto Rican caves
Cueva Ventana and Cueva del Indio are near Arecibo, Puerto Rico, about 90 minutes by car from San Juan. (Find details on each at puertoricodaytrips.com.) AirTran offers daily nonstop flights between Tampa International Airport and San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. Last week a trip booked online for early August was $295 roundtrip in coach.
Though the Cave Man made me swear not to reveal his identity, for those interested in his tour, an Internet search for "private cave tour Puerto Rico" will point you in the right direction. A six-hour tour for two is $355, plus $55 for each additional person.
OTHER DAY TRIPS FROM SAN JUAN
- In the midst of the tropical forest, the eye-popping Arecibo Observatory telescope, the largest of its kind in the world, explores the mysteries of the galaxy. It's a long, hot climb up to the visitor center from the parking lot, but standing over the telescope's 20-acre dish is truly astounding. naic.edu.
- Bioluminescent plankton create an otherworldly glow in several of the island's bays. Most accessible for day-trippers is Fajardo's Laguna Grande; San Juan hotels can arrange a kayak tour with a reputable outfitter.
- About 45 minutes south of San Juan, paddle out to Cayo Santiago, known as Monkey Island for the colony established by researchers in the 1930s. Watch the monkeys swim and play, then snorkel a shallow shipwreck. Local innkeepers Bob and Keishya Salko offer guided tours, as well as tandem hang gliding flights. barefoottravelersrooms.com.