When you run adventure tours for a living what do you do with your free time? Go on an adventure of course!
The Portobelo Tours crew have been working hard lately so holding to the old maxim that a change is as good as a rest, Amy, Austin, Heather and Jim set off last Saturday on a trip to the legendary caves of Lake Bayano.
The drive was uneventful and when the continuation of the corredor norte to the airport at Tocumen is eventually opened, it will be shortened considerably for anyone wishing to avoid the Panama City traffic on their way towards the Darien.
We arrived early afternoon at the lake and although we had not made a prior booking for a boat to take us to the south shore where the caves are it didn’t take Austin long to befriend one of the lancha drivers who helped us strike a deal with a colleague for the 40 min trip. The ride reminded me of trips on Lake Gatun since both lakes are man made and have similar features. Small uninhabited islands with only water birds in residence, the lake surface broken by a multitude of eerily decaying trees, drowned when the lake was formed in 1976 for a hydro-electric project.
Our driver set us ashore at the mouth of a small river and pointed us to a green house a hundred metres or so upstream where we could ask about accommodation. It turned out the people there rented a small cabin which was available for the night so we quickly settled into our new base.
For anyone planning a visit to the caves we would thoroughly recommend securing this place if you can for one simple reason. IT’S RIGHT NEXT TO THE CAVES! And by that I mean it’s literally less than a hundred metres from the entrance. Being a long time caver Austin was by this time incandescent with anticipation and had to be physically restrained from plunging headlong into the caverns.
The river we had come ashore at is the same one that runs through the most famous cave system, so with head torches on and sticks to help navigate the rocky river bottom, we waded into the mouth of the cavern. The first stretch of the cave is open to the sky and feels quite spacious as the light filters down the steep canyon walls from the jungle above.
In the few dry patches bats roost and whether because of the time (evening was approaching) or our noisy progress the air was filled with the flapping presence of little leather wings. The river winds upstream and at each curve the depth of the water varies so that it’s possible to find a route that keeps that the bottom within reach. That changed when we came to a slightly narrower straight section where the sandy bottom drops away dramatically and there is no option but to swim for it! Thankfully we only had to swim for a few minutes when the bottom rose to meet our feet and up ahead there was a suggestion of light.
As we continued the roof overhead became taller and taller until it split to reveal the jungle and sky some 30 metres above and we were able to switch the torches off and enjoy the majesty of the cave in the shafts of evening light. Given the late hour we decided to continue only a little further before heading back and were delighted to discover another cavern with access to the sky above only a little further upstream.
After a remarkably bug free night and a breakfast cooked in the little kitchen that is part of the cabin we set off in search of some different caves that Austin had talked to our hosts about. He was looking in particular for dry cave systems where the build up of bat guano could support a population of insects, specifically, hopefully, COCKROACHES! We arrived at the site with muddy feet. The path along the shore is short but pretty poorly drained and consumes shoes with ease. The river that had carved the canyon we were looking for was not running when we arrived but must have been quite a torrent at least part of the time in the past judging by the depth of the gorge. At least 30 meters deep. We followed a two inch pvc pipe uphill for a while until it disappeared into the dry river bed where we could nonetheless hear the sound of running water.
A nearby opening in the canyon wall led through a low ceilinged, dry floored cave to a chamber where the noise was coming from. The pvc pipe we had followed before emerged from the surface of a splashing pool of water ahead, it’s open end propped to catch an inflow coming from deeper in the mountain. This was the source of the water that supplied the few houses at the entrance to the gorge. Since the water from the pool never re-emerged in the river bed outside we assumed that it probably continued to flow down into the rock below the river until it reached the level of the lake in some flooded chamber below.
A large opening a short scramble up one rock face led to a dry chamber beyond and Austin’s hopes rose. It petered out after a few metres but a small opening remained between the limestone ceiling and the earth floor.
Torch in hand Austin wriggled his way forward into the chamber beyond and was able to walk around. Less brave than the intrepid Mr A, Amy and I took turns to squeeze into the narrow passage where we could see him searching for further openings. Nothing obvious presented itself so he returned to the outside world and we rejoined Heather who had been exploring further still up the river bed.
The disappointment at failing to find any cockroaches was soon forgotten as we came to the realisation that far from having only one cave to explore this region is literally peppered with caverns and caves. Indeed, as we took the boat back across the lake later that day and looked back over the skyline to the south it was clear that it’s jagged outline with barely a gentle slope anywhere is solid evidence that hills are alive, if not with music then with lots of potential adventures. Who knows, lurking in one of those caves there may be an undiscovered cockroach waiting to have Austin’s name on it!