Saturday, February 2, 2013

Plan A: DON'T FALL


The day finally arrived.  I’d read great reviews of the caving adventure offered by Aventuras Tierra Adentro, and I’d stalked their website, and paged through tons of photos, and I was PUMPED to go on the tour. 
And last Saturday was the day.  And it lived up to expectations.

From the moment our bus pulled up at the meeting spot in San Juan at 5:45am (yes, that meant leaving Guayama at 4:30 in the morning on a Saturday), I sort of felt like I’d been transported out of Puerto Rico. 

Simply put, this company has their sh** together. 
It’s not that most tourism companies in PR don’t…but I had never experienced the level of professionalism, organization, and technology that this company uses. 

The guides, Hannibal and Rossano, hopped out of the bus (literally—bounded with high energy) and greeted all of us.  After we’d checked that everyone was present, Rossano rolled out the red carpet to the bus (I’m not kidding), and we boarded to the Indiana Jones Theme music. 

The one hour bus ride to the bakery in Hatillo was anything but your average 6am sleepy-headed ride in the darkness.  Rossano gave us the intro to the day, complete with videos, sound effects, lighting effects on the bus, and side commentary from Hannibal that kept everyone entertained and engaged. 

When we arrived at the bakery, we had breakfast (the guides had taken our orders and called them in ahead, so they were ready when we got there), filled out our release forms, picked up our knee pads and “safety kits” (backpacks with our helmets and life vests), and packed our backpacks (food and water, double-packed in ziplock bags they provided so we’d have dry food for lunch). 

Then, it was off to the start of the adventure.  We received our harnesses and put them on.  I lucked out both times we had to harness up that day—each time after I’d slipped it on and started to attempt to adjust it, a guide just came up and cinched it up for me snuggly.  


See?  The guides have got us covered. 

Then there were more safety instructions (all comically scripted between Rossano and Hannibal, of course).
Plan A: Don’t fall.
Plan B: Do it right, and you’ll always be securely clipped in while climbing or descending, so you won’t die. 

Finally, all our harnesses had been checked and double-checked, and we’d proved we could clip and unclip properly, and it was time to go. 

The adventure started with 3 ziplines, descending us down through  a sinkhole to get to the mouth of the cave.  The first was a warm-up.  The second was long and with a great view—we didn’t worry about braking.  The third was short and fast.  The guides had the trip down to a science, and we never had to wait long to begin the next zipline. 
After the 3rd, it was time for the rappel.

What a difference for me between the first time I rappelled (2 years ago, in Costa Rica) and yesterday.  The first time I rappelled, I was petrified.  It was a free descend from a 50’ platform on a tree.  The second time I rappelled, it was an 80 foot drop along a waterfall.  Not as scary.  Yesterday, I’m ashamed to admit I sort of zoned out for the rappelling section of the safety talks.  And I didn’t even think for a second as I got clipped in and started descending 130 feet over the sink hole.    When I was about halfway down, the guide at the bottom started telling me, “let go of the rope!”  I let myself descend faster, but it took me a moment to realize he actually wanted me to let go completely.  When I did, he controlled my descent, and gave me a speedy ride!  It was pretty exhilarating. 


Let go of the rope! 

After the rappel, we took off our climbing harnesses and put on our life jackets and gloves.  And then, into the cave we went! 

At the mouth of the cave

Being in the cave was awesome.  We picked our way over and around boulders, and sometimes walked through shallow water of the river running through the cave.  After only a few minutes of walking, we came to the first point where we climbed a rock and jumped from it into the water.  The first jump was a short fall, and the point was really to make sure that we were all comfortable doing it, because later on, there would be a few jumps that we’d have to make, or be left behind. 

Once in the water, we stayed in it for a little bit, and swam along the quiet underground river.  Then there was more walking, with Rossano pointing out beautiful cave formations along the way.  We also saw lots of bats, a few cave spiders (which are pretty huge), one little scorpion, and some people saw a shrimp swimming in the water. 

One of my favorite parts of the tour was the “nutella swamp.”  What was once more or less a lake in the cave has dried up, but is now one big mud pit.  We had to go through it to get where we were going.  Twice, actually (there and back).  Before we began to cross it, we stopped and were given a very important instruction: “DON’T LOSE YOUR SHOES!”  We all tightened our laces to the point of discomfort, and then we began.  I was picking my way through the ankle-deep muck when Josh sprinted past my left side.  With a laugh, I took off behind him.  A much  quicker and more fun way to traverse the mud!!  Of course, being the graceful swan I am, I did fall.  Soft landing, though, and just ended up with one arm covered in mud up to my elbow from catching myself. 

Not to worry, though.  We were back swimming in the water again before the mud could dry. 

At one point, we came to a jump, and Rossano instructed all of us to turn off our headlights.  Then, one at a time, turning on a light briefly in between, each of us jumped into the water in total darkness.  Taking that jump without being able to see the water beneath was a little disconcerting…but pretty awesome.

Once we were all in the water, we swam through a section of the cave Rossano calls “the sump.”  The ceiling is low, and so if the water rises (which it can do quickly in a flash flood), sometimes the water comes to the ceiling.  Because of some rain on the south side of the island, Rossano had made sure we hurried along until the sump, in case the water started to rise.  Thankfully for us, we had a good 2-3 feet of headroom, and the swim was really cool!! 

At about the midway point of the cave, we stopped for lunch in a pretty large cavern.  One or two of the guides must have run ahead unnoticed (or maybe they went down and set it up before any of us got there in the morning—I don’t know), and the place was filled with tons of candles.  Soft mood music was playing, and the guides passed out cushions and directed each of us to our “table for three” …or four… or two.  Little touches like that made this tour really special! 

After we swam out of the cave into the daylight of the sinkhole once again, we traded our lifejackets for climbing harnesses once more and began the climb back to our starting point.  The trip included ladders, via ferratas, a zipline, and my favorite part—a monkey bridge.  A monkey bridge is 2 horizontal cables, one directly above the other.  You stand on one, hold onto the one above your head (and you’re clipped in, of course, so if you slip you’ll only fall 3 feet), and walk sideways across the cable.  It should be scary.  We were up pretty high, and I definitely looked down and enjoyed the view—and the fact that there was only a cable supporting me, no bridge—but I felt completely safe and enjoyed every minute! 

Josh and Amanda and I were the first ones back, and we were far enough ahead of the others that we took our time and filmed a slow-motion video of us coming across the finish line to the victorious music the guides had playing.  Nothing like a little fun to end the day.  J 

Survival!  ;) 

The day was definitely one to remember.  We did so much, and the tour company was just phenomenal.  I’d definitely recommend Aventuras Tierra Adentro if you’re looking for an extreme adventure in Puerto Rico.    

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