One misstep and we'll probably all die.Or become horribly mangled.
Or smack our heads so hard we'll forget our names.
These are the thoughts going through my mind as I stand wobbly-kneed at the rim of the Caverna Terciopelo, the only publicly accessible cave in Parque Nacional Barra Honda. A single rope is about all that's keeping me from plummeting nearly 100 feet into the foreboding black hole below.
Slowly (at least in my case) the three of us - Matt, Andrew and I - descend rung by rung into the cave's hollow throat. As we inch deeper into the earth, the oppressing heat of Costa Rica's dry season begins to cool and my stiff-shouldered stress begins to fade as I reach solid ground.
Riddled with stygian chambers much like the holes in Swiss cheese, Barra Honda is unique among Costa Rica's network of national parks. First explored in the late 60s, the mesa looming over the Río Tempisque valley was originally thought to be a volcano due to the sound of bat wings heard echoing from within its limestone caves.
According to its website, Barra Honda's crowning glory is its 42 known caverns, less than half of which have been explored by humans. Terciopelo, named after Costa Rica's deadly fer-de-lance snake, can only be reached by way of a single aluminum ladder - the same one I am clutching at desperately right now.
We hadn't planned on coming here. The intention was to drive to La Fortuna, where we'd get settled, look for some caves in the area and possibly catch a glimpse of Arenal. But a single sign and the promise of adventure suddenly changed our minds. We figured we could make a quick stop to explore on the way.
And explore we did.
After checking in with our guide Norman, we set out for Terciopelo. A short, rocky drive (during which we didn't think our little Daihatsu - or its tires - would make it) we reached an empty parking area and pulled into place. Bags packed and bug spray sprayed, we followed Norman onto the trails threading through the hilly landscape.
Withered, sun-baked tree trunks poked through the earth like stubble. The low grunts of howler monkeys and the sing-song language of birds married overhead. Every once in a while a lizard would dart out into our path only to race back to where it came from with a rustle of leaves.
As the half-hour walk ended, we were each handed a helmet, then wrestled into our harnesses. Following Norman, we began our descent one at a time stopping only until the sounds of the surface had faded away. Adjusting to the dim light, our eyes fell on spectacular dripstone formations rising and hanging from the ceiling like icicles.
"It takes a million years to make one centimeter," Norman tells us in Spanish, pointing to a stalagmite, a bulb of water hovering at its tip. "Don't touch that."
However, we were surprised by how much we could touch. Crawling over stalactites blackened by years of hands and treads, Matt, Andrew and I noticed the cave had no barriers protecting the formations from those choosing to venture into its depths. Broken pieces sat on the ground. A naturally formed staircase served as more of a suggestion than a rule. At one point Norman even told us to strike hard a formation, one known as The Organ, to hear the haunting melody it produced.
By the time the day ended, we were eager to get back to the car and fill up our now empty water bottles. A few handshakes and a mouthful of Clif bars later, we were off in search of our next adventure.
How We Did It
About 80 USD per person; Must have a guide to access the cave.
Getting there by car
Parque Nacional Barra Honda is a short and relatively easy drive from Hwy 21 (Tempisque Road). After you have crossed the bridge continue for 15 km until you see a sign to your right to Barra Honda. After passing through the village, it's about another 4 km to the park.
If you are coming from the Nicoya Peninsula (the way we came), keep an eye out for the sign to Barra Honda, around 2 km from the turnoff of Hwy 21.
What to bring
- Hiking shoes
- Plenty of water (also bring with you on the hike); we would recommend carrying a CamelBak
- Camera or smartphone
- Granola bars or some other portable snack