The most popular day trip from Medellín is to Guatape, but I skipped it in favour of Río Claro for reasons that will soon become obvious.
Río Claro is a nature reserve about three hours from Medellín. I struggled for hours on the internet trying to figure out which bus would take me there, what my options were for lodging, etc. In Colombia, things are best done in person. I walked into the office in Medellín and walked out 45 minutes later with everything set to leave the following day. Ximena treated me like family. She offered to have her husband pick up my bus ticket for me, she made sure my onward bus ticket was waiting for me at the registration desk, she arranged for the driver to pick me up in between stops in the middle of the night, and she called several times while I was there to make sure everything was going fine.
The trip was off to a great start, and only got better.
I took an early morning bus, arriving in Rio Claro at 11am. I checked into my room, which, at COP 90,000 was quite expensive for my budget. However, it was necessary for reasons that will soon become obvious. The price included meals, and I would be saving money by taking an overnight bus the following night, so I justified the expense. After two weeks in hostel dorms, even the bit of privacy was heavenly. One whole wall was open to the jungle, there were no bugs, and there was a thunderstorm at night.
Now, for the reason I came…the Caverna de los Guacharos (Cavern of the Oil Birds).
I started to develop an interest in caves a few years ago based on travel related instagram accounts I follow. This fascination grew into an obsession, apparently. I didn’t realize how much I talked about it until earlier this year in Barcelona. My friend Nathan introduced me by saying, “this is my friend, Lauren, she is really into caves.” Nathan, and several others, were thrilled to hear that I finally got to go into a cave (actually, I went into a cavern – caves have only one entrance, and caverns have two).
The excursion is described on the website (using Google Translate) as follows:
Go through the bowels of the earth to live a unique and unforgettable experience. This cave carved by the Bornego broken, which still runs on its soil, is 400 meters long, with monumental halls of high domes studded with hanging stalactites nesting unknown “guacharos” (Endemic Birds of Colombia and Venezuela in danger of extinction). From the entrance to the exit long continuous naturally sculpted marble galleries are crossed. Observe the different formations and textures of its rocky walls, shadows and reflections of light after speleothems and folds, is an amazing adventure that will leave its mark on your memory.
To reach it you have to take a hike by trail, smelling of forest, the forest of elves.
The website uses the following photos to set expectations:
I imagined we would go for a little walk, wade through some puddles, and check out some stalactites. I have never in my life had an experience so undersold! I have no pictures of my own because I didn’t bring my camera, but it did, as promised, leave its mark on my memory.
We started out with a safety briefing that I didn’t really understand, but I figured it couldn’t be too complicated to just walk and follow the guide. Our “hike by trail” was in fact the most intense hike I’ve ever done. We had to climb up a very steep hill and back down, balancing on jagged and slippery marble rocks. I suppose it was technically a trail, but that would be generous. It was more like a route through the jungle. We went through a primary rainforest (a virgin rainforest), stopping along the way to admire a highway of ants carrying leaves, tropical flowers found nowhere else, and a massive colony of termites. It wasn’t the same without David Attenborough narrating, but it was amazing nonetheless.
If the website had accurately described the hike, I probably would not have gone. I’m not in great shape and I would have worried about hurting my back. I was indeed in a lot of pain the next day but it was absolutely worth it. And I learned a good lesson about saying yes to challenges.
About an hour later, we arrived at the entrance for another safety briefing. This time, the concern was for the safety of the Guácharos (“oil birds”) that live inside the caverns. We had to be careful not to hurt them by shining our lights at them. Guacharos are considered the missing link between bats and birds; they are nocturnal, use sonar, and they are terrifying. Indigenous people thought they were witches, and when you hear their scratchy cawing it is difficult to disagree. Did I mention I fucking hate birds? I fucking hate birds.
The journey started out as advertised: walking through a stream that was up to our ankles, sometimes shins. Pretty soon, we were jumping into pools of water up to our waist and I was thinking this is the coolest thing I have ever done. Then the guide said “Guano. Keep mouth closed. Don’t touch walls.” We made it into the main room (pictured above) and turned off our lights for two minutes to let our eyes adjust to the dark. When we turned the lights back on, we could see more of the detail and appreciate how incredible nature is. We were half way through the cavern.
There were two guides, one behind and one ahead of the group of twelve. After our stop in the main room, the first guide jumped into a pool and went in over his head. The water levels change so much, he is jumping in blind each time, even though he does this at least once per day. He bobbed above the water and said “profundo” (deep) and motioned us to come along. The rest of the journey involved more deep pools, swimming between narrow passages, and rushing water all around. He told us to keep our eyes closed as well. Guano. I don’t know if I was more disgusted by the idea of shit in my eye, or the image of Jim Carrey that was now in my head.
The journey ended with a rope ladder descending out of the Mouth of the Marble Cavern, and a swim back across the river (assisted by a rope). This photo is taken from far away, it is at least a 15 feet drop to the river below.
Going into the experience, I was a bit nervous that I would be disappointed after years of dreaming about caves, but no way. I am just as obsessed as before and now I have a story to tell. I’m glad the website undersold it, and glad I did something I would have otherwise been afraid to do.
I hate birds, I hate swimming, and I hate having shit in my eyes. But I fucking love caves.