Cool Places: Go­ing Deep at Barra Honda

Ex­plor­ing Costa Rica’s most mag­nif­i­cent cave

Howler Magazine - - Contents - By Karl Kahler

There's an un­writ­ten rule that all ad­ven­tures in Costa Rica have to be a lit­tle bit scary, and so it is with vis­it­ing the spec­tac­u­lar Ter­ciopelo Cave at Barra Honda Na­tional Park.

In the U.S., there would prob­a­bly be an el­e­va­tor. Here there's a 56-foot alu­minum lad­der at­tached ver­ti­cally to an un­der­ground cliff. It's the only way in and the only way out.

You'll be har­nessed, hel­meted and roped, of course, and any fool can climb down a lad­der — but pic­ture a lad­der that is straight up and down, and you have to start at the top of a 5-story build­ing. This is not for the faint of stom­ach, and you may be drenched in sweat by the time you reach the bottom.

Cav­erna Ter­ciopelo is the cen­ter­piece of Barra Honda, the only na­tional park in Costa Rica cre­ated to pro­tect caves. Some 42 caves have been dis­cov­ered here, but only 19 have been ex­plored, and only this one and a small cave for chil­dren are open to the pub­lic. The oth­ers are filled with bats whose guano can cause life-threat­en­ing lung disease.

Ter­ciopelo is filled with sta­lac­tites, sta­lag­mites and col­umns that re­sem­ble or­di­nary things — a mother hen and her chicks, a pa­paya, a fam­ily, grapes, teeth, and “el organo,” which is hol­low and makes dif­fer­ent notes when tapped in dif­fer­ent places, like an or­gan.

In the back of this main room there is an­other lad­der to a lower part, but it's short and it ac­tu­ally leans, so no ropes are needed. This will take you to the Fried Eggs Room, named for a hard­ened pud­dle in the mid­dle that looks like a pan of huevos fritos. There's even one brown sta­lag­mite that looks like a dark, robed woman — and is known as La Negrita, Costa Rica's pa­tron saint, af­ter the leg­endary statue in the Basil­ica of Cartago.

At one point your guide will have your group turn off all the lights and soak in the sen­sa­tion of to­tal dark­ness and the to­tal ab­sence of sound.

This en­tire moun­tain was orig­i­nally a co­ral reef in the ocean that once separated North and South Amer­ica, and you can still see fos­silized co­ral on the wall. Per­haps 70 mil­lion years ago, Barra Honda rose above sea level be­cause of tec­tonic plate shifts, and the co­ral died and be­came lime­stone.

Rain­wa­ter fell and com­bined with car­bon diox­ide as it seeped into the soil, and it turned into a

mild car­bolic acid that over mil­lions of years dis­solved and eroded the in­te­rior of the chalky moun­tain, cre­at­ing the caves.

Since the early 1900s, lo­cals were aware of deep holes in the ground where you could drop a rock and barely hear it hit the bottom. They could also hear a rum­ble in­side (which turned out to be bats), and they as­sumed that these were vol­canic craters.

The caves were not ex­plored, at least in modern times, un­til 1967, when spelunkers with moun­taineer­ing equip­ment be­gan en­ter­ing what turned out to be the largest net­work of caves in Costa Rica.

Imag­ine their sur­prise when they found the re­mains of six hu­man be­ings in a cave called Ni­coa. They are thought to be Chorotega no­bles who were buried here close to 2,000 years ago. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists the­o­rize that Ni­coa was orig­i­nally filled with wa­ter, and that the Chorotega would burn their dead and float their re­mains on a raft into the cave be­cause it was thought to be a gate­way to the af­ter­life.

Car­los Goicoechea, a found­ing mem­ber of the An­thros Spele­o­log­i­cal Group, was one of two peo­ple who first dis­cov­ered Ter­ciopelo in 1968. At the bottom they found a dead rat­tlesnake, but he mis­took it for a ter­ciopelo, a fer-de­lance, and that's how the cave got its name.

“We had a fever,” he said. “We were like 15 to 20 peo­ple with very lim­ited re­sources, and we would all go in a Volk­swa­gen, five peo­ple with all the gear on top and up front and on the back, and the road to Gua­nacaste was dirt. The trip took nine to 10 hours. We had to take a gallon of wa­ter each, or more. From 1967 to about 1973, we worked very hard, and the park was cre­ated in 1974. We had a lot to do with that.”

Barra Honda Na­tional Park is about 30 min­utes from the city of Ni­coya. In ad­di­tion to the caves, the 2,997 hectares of dry trop­i­cal for­est here con­tain a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of birds, rep­tiles, am­phib­ians and mam­mals (half of which are bats).

Good walk­ing trails abound, and there is a great mi­rador, a look­out called Na­caome, with a spec­tac­u­lar view of the yel­low and green plains be­low and the Gulf of Ni­coya in the dis­tance.

Hu­man re­mains found in­side Ni­coa Cave.

A visit to Cav­erna Ter­ciopelo starts with de­scend­ing a 56-foot lad­der. Photo cour­tesy of Grupo Espele­ológico An­thros

This for­ma­tion gives the Fried Eggs Room its name. Photo by Karl Kahler

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