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Navigating the Caves of Puerto Rico

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A visit to la Cueva del Indio, the Cave of the Indian, will reveal how the Taino Indians, the native peoples of Puerto Rico, took refuge in cave systems to escape the harsh sun and rains of the island. The caves are burrowed deep down under the jaggedly sharp limestone formation that hugs the northern coast of the island and hides an ancient collection of petroglyphs.

Climbing carefully over the treacherous, almost knife-like rocks that line the path to the caves, I surveyed the scene in front of me. The Atlantic Ocean stretched from as far as I could see until it reached the coastline, with five-foot tall waves violently crashing into the rocks, ever so slowly carving away at the boulders. I shimmied down a tall wooden ladder to get into the damp, dark caves, with the only light streaming through the various holes in the top of the cavity.

I admired the petroglyphs, which have existed for perhaps thousands of years, but assuredly since before the time Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493. Scientists today believe the carvings were made during a ceremonial celebration. The petroglyphs have no doubt stood the test of time and weathered the force of the ocean, as they were still clearly visible in the limestone. Intricately shaped forms with eyes and faces, strongly resembling misshapen human beings, were drawn about the caves.

I left la Cueva del Indio in hunt of the big kahuna - the Camuy Caves. Carved by the Rio Camuy, the third-largest subterranean river in the world, the cave system stretches over 10 miles with 220 caves and 17 entrances known to exist. Scientists believe the entire system holds another 800 undiscovered caves.

After arrival to the visiting center of the caves, park rangers drove my group and I deep down into a small valley to the mouth of the caves. While descending, I observed the lush green ferns and trees of the Camuy Park, which were still dripping from a recent rain shower. As the water hit the ground, it sizzled, evaporating into the already much too humid air. We pulled up to the entrance of the Clara Cave, a huge chamber measuring 700 feet in length and 215 feet in height.

Walking down into the cavern, I held onto the hand rail for dear life - underground, in the shelter of the cool cave, the wet and slippery slope leading into it was barely walkable and many were slipping and sliding. This adventure is only for the strong-legged.

Clusters of two-foot, five-foot, and ten-foot long stalactites poked down from the rock wall leading into the cave, all dripping with warm condensation. The rock was rough to the touch, with millions of small air pockets having been carved from the water over thousands of years. Inside the cavern, the tour guide pointed out famous rock formations that resemble skulls and faces that have been featured in movies such as Batman and Pirates of the Caribbean. Overhead, I could hear thousands of bats voice their frustration to our intrusion.

We continued deep down through the cavern to an exit point, a thousand year old sinkhole that used to cover the rest of the cavern. Fifty-foot long vines hung from the land on top of the sinkhole down into the cave. I admired the falling leaves from surrounding trees blowing into the cave, glistening in the afternoon sunlight. A light rain misted us as we stood in the sinkhole.

As natural wonders, the caves of Puerto Rico awed me with their strength and majesty. As humans, we will be on earth for only a glimpse of time, while these natural works last for thousands of years, to be enjoyed by generations to come. Seeing these ancient designs put my time on earth into perspective.

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