As we took the first few steps back up the trail, we heard the sounds of arrows whizzing through the air above our heads. Our eyes followed the sounds, and we all turned back to the huge hole as our brains struggled to identify the images: swallows arriving home and plunging headlong into the sótano that we had just rappelled into and then ascended out of. Sótano means basement, but in these cave-filled limestone mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, it usually refers to a giant pit.
This one, named Hoya de Guaguas, was the second of three sótanos we planned to drop into as part of our 10-day caving trip, and is the most voluminous pit of the area: it encloses six acres at the bottom of its 600-foot cliffs. The group included NOLS instructors Rainbow Weinstock (the trip’s mastermind), Scott Christy, Nick Cross and myself, along with our friends Sal Wilson and Jaime Navarrete. We had all just exited safely, packed up our ropes, and shouldered our packs without much enthusiasm.
At a previous shallower sótano, Sótano de las Quilas, we had watched flocks of green parrots spiral lower and lower around the mouth of the pit and eventually settle and disappear into jungle of their same color. This time, there were no parrots, and we were all more tired as we finished the ascent. Negotiating our ascension gear and ourselves over the limestone lip at the top was more complicated and harrowing. Compared to our day at Quilas, the uphill hike back to our vehicles would be longer, the weather hotter, and we didn’t have any beers waiting for us hidden in a cool spring.
But suddenly we forgot everything but the swallows. We dropped our packs and perched at the edge. The swallows dove in waves of hundreds of birds. They gathered in slow, ominous circles in the sky, then seemingly all at once careened past us at dizzying speeds into the giant cave below, each individual bird’s flight audible to our awestruck ears.
We laughed in disbelief. We looked at one another with wide eyes. We didn’t speak much. We craned our necks and I practiced different ways to focus my eyes, first trying to follow the quick flight of some individual bird, and then attempting to see them all at once. Rainbow and Sal took photos, but we all knew that this wasn’t an event that could be captured in pixels. I struggled to absorb as many memories as I could, knowing I was witnessing something unique and possibly miraculous.
|Another group of NOLS adventurers explores Mexico's underground.
© Rainbow Weinstock
For me, this was the goal of the expedition: to experience wonder, to be taken aback by beauty, to intentionally put myself in unfamiliar situations that could take my breath away. Among cavers, this area of Mexico is well known as a facilitator of that kind of experience. Two previous groups of NOLS adventurers had made pilgrimages to the area and served as inspiration for our visit. In 1972 Jim Ratz, Haven Holsapple, Alan Robinson and my father George Hunker visited the region on the way to the high altitude volcanoes farther south in Mexico.
Another expedition, including John Gookin, Mike Bailey, Joe Farrell, Rich Brame and Neyney Wolf bought a used NOLS Rocky Mountain bus and drove it to the area during February of 1988. They spent a substantive amount of time exploring the area and visited many of the same caves we did, as well as others such as El Tigre, one of three caves in Mexico known to contain the blind cave fish Astyanax fasciatus mexicanus.
I was enchanted by my dad’s tales of his trip: in order to complete the fourth descent El Sótano, the deepest pit in Mexico, he and his friends commissioned a custom-made super-long rope and hired a burro whose sole purpose was to carry the rope. They stationed someone at the top of the pit at all times out of fear that someone might cut the rope. This type of quixotic adventure—wandering the jungle behind men who carry very big knives, accompanied by burros and ropes thousands of feet in length, confusing the sounds of birds with flying arrows, seeking a giant sinkhole or an entrance to an alien world populated by fish without eyes—ignites my imagination.
It is not as logical and comprehensible as a climber’s quest to reach a summit, which likely explains, in part, why caving remains a relatively unpopular pursuit stereotypically enjoyed by offbeat characters. Less than a sense of accomplishment, we are motivated by the desire for pure exploration and feelings of wonder and awe.
|NOLS Instructor Nick Cross descends into Sotano de Guaguas.
© Rainbow Weinstock
During our trip we visited a combination of sótanos and more traditional caves. One cave involved crouching and walking crab-like along an underground stream. In another, the cave that taught me the Spanish word for vault (bóveda), we craned our necks inside a colossal room dominated by a calcite formation so large that our powerful headlamps couldn’t illuminate it all at once.
The trip’s original motivation was a pit called Sótano de las Golondrinas, which at 1235 feet deep is the second deepest pit in Mexico and the 11th deepest in the world, and had been dropped by both of the previous groups of NOLS instructors. One of our guidebooks proclaimed that it “may be considered the most spectacular and renowned pit in the world." Golondrina means swallow, and like at Guaguas, thousands of swallows exit the sótano every morning and return every afternoon in dramatic fashion.
Rainbow, Nick and Sal all rappelled to the bottom and, looking like hi-tech inchworms, ascended a single strand of free-hanging rope back to the top. The staggering depth of the sótano required special considerations. A 1200-foot rope is hard to come by; we tied two 600-foot lengths together. A lengthy rappel heats up a metal rappel device to a point that it can melt rope; they carried spray bottles of water to cool their equipment.
After an arduous hour-long ascent, encouraged by Black Sabbath in his earphones, Rainbow happily declared it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Meanwhile, Scott, Jaime and I ate dozens of tacos up on the surface, kept tourists out of the rigging, and waited for our friends and the swallows to return. Our physical challenge for the day was hauling the 60 pounds of rope back up after the others had finished the ascent.
Experiencing the Unknown
|© Rainbow Weinstock
Despite the amount of time we spent underground and suspended in the air, it was impossible to forget that we were not in the United States. We drove through the mountains on relatively new and very rough dirt roads, and hiked on ancient trails that emanated the presence of the countless people who had walked before us throughout hundreds of years. We practiced our Spanish and learned bits of Huastecan, the area’s indigenous language. Along with the countless enchiladas and tacos, we tasted foods we had never heard of.
I was invited into the house of a man named Alejandro who owned one of the caves we visited. With tender reverence, he showed me his shrine of a saint’s picture surrounded by candles and flowers, which was beside an enormous pile of drying coffee beans.
We didn’t have any maps. We found most of the caves and sótanos the same way: we would do our best to follow the directions in our guidebooks, then encounter residents of the area (usually kids or wiry men with machetes) who would guide us to the entrance and treat our interest in venturing inside, which they rarely shared, with tolerance. The area was a dense, luxuriant jungle where local crops include bananas and shade-grown coffee.
All of the caves we visited had enormous entrances but were still hard to locate in the jungle. There is no doubt that many more caves in the area exist undiscovered or secret because their entrances are small or don’t happen to be near a trail. This fact loomed, smirking in the back of our minds throughout the expedition. The knowledge that the caves we explored were only the most accessible and most famous of the area added excitement to our journeys. We all must have dreamt of the pristine, furtive labyrinths lurking beneath our feet, waiting for us to discover them.
Anything is Possible
|Preparing to go under can be a task as technically challenging as climbing mountains.
© Rainbow Weinstock
Cueva Linda (“Pretty Cave,” which I now think of as a charming understatement) was harder for us to find than most. We wandered through fields along various trails looking aimlessly for holes in the ground. A man who didn’t speak saw our backpacks and ropes and motioned for us to follow him. I chatted politely at him in Spanish but he didn’t respond. He just kept walking, turning around occasionally to encourage us to keep following him. He led us right to the spectacular, gaping entrance and, still without speaking, left us there.
At first, the cave was a gigantic borehole passage. The ceiling was high above us and we strolled straight down a majestic corridor. We admired gorgeous, pristine calcite cave formations: long soda straws dripping not-quite-vertically, huge bell canopies, walls of flowstone and draperies. Eventually we reached a vertical drop. We set up a rope and rappelled down.
At the bottom, Scott yelled, “There’s another rope. I’m going up it.” One ready-rigged rope led to another and another. Some brought us farther down; others went up vertical walls that we would not have been prepared to lead-climb. We were grateful to and impressed by those who had gone before us. This “nylon highway” quickly brought us deep into the cave.
I descended the final rope first. I reached the bottom and started exploring ahead of the others. The large passage we had followed throughout the cave continued, turned a couple of corners, went slightly up and slightly down, and brought me to a place that I struggle to describe. Everything else that had impressed me in the cave joined in a gestalt; formations exuded from and dripped into one another.
The only response I could muster was, “I have no response to this,” as I stood and stared. This jewel of a grotto turned out to be only the beginning. We continued into more stupefying cave. The next vast room was entirely white and dripping. Even to those who have never been inside a cave and never seen the counterintuitive, alive-looking shapes made of rock, the names of the formations are evocative. We ogled oceans of cave pearls, broomsticks, cave bacon, stalagmites, and pale turquoise pools surrounded by delicate, translucent rimstone. I won’t forget Scott’s words: “If rock can do that, anything is possible.”
It was clear that very few people had been to this part of the cave. We saw footprints, but not many. The formations were undisturbed; unlike every cave I had ever visited in the U.S, nothing was broken or smashed. I stopped nervously at times, looking for a path to continue forward that wouldn’t have everlasting impact on the fragile, unique formations that had taken — at a minimum — thousands of years to form. Rainbow, Scott and I pushed deeper while the others sat and absorbed beauty to the echoing music of Nick’s harmonica. We scouted for the most-traveled path, which was still hardly traveled at all.
We kept caving because there was more cave, but we all secretly wished for the passages to end because we were being ethically torn. We had the caver’s compulsion to see what’s around each corner combined with the undermining knowledge that we might cause permanent damage to the cave with each ginger footstep we took. Our exploration became more and more halfhearted.
Finally we all felt that we had to turn around. I couldn’t wait to get up the first rope and return to well-traveled passage. I was emotionally drained. We sped up and down all the many ropes, inhaling relief with each step closer to the surface. As we had throughout our expedition and as in all explorations, we’d experienced some of the unknown and were changed by it.