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Exploring by Tram Puerto Rico’s Magical Caves

<i> Carroll is a Sunland free-lance writer. </i>

From the air the startling chasm resembles a giant all-seeing eye staring intently skyward. Dark and chilling and fringed with thick greenery, like exotic beckoning lashes, the thrills of the unknown and the unexpected are at hand.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer could be in the bowels of the great sinkhole searching for Capt. Kidd’s treasure, while on the rim, Injun Joe springs from the lush countryside swinging on a long tree vine along the steep face.

Eons of years old, spectacular 268-acre Rio Camuy Cave Park in the northwest corner of Puerto Rico showed its beauty to the public for the first time on Dec. 16, 1986.

Mossy Sinkhole Opening

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A 28-passenger tram carries visitors and two guides to the mossy sinkhole opening. The one-mile ride descends 200 feet through a lush ravine alive with ferns, brilliantly hued wildflowers, and canopied with palms, stands of bamboo and showy flamboyant trees.

A gravel path leads to a narrow passage and the dramatically lit underground world of intricate canyons, caves and caverns.

Serene and magical, the rooms are more than 200 feet high and half a mile long, the opening vine-draped and misty in the early morning light.

Thirty-foot stalagmites rise in columns from the floor of the cavern to someday unite with the strange and twisted stalactites that are originating from the roof of the dome-like massive mushrooms.

Cueva Clara de Empalme rises 17 stories and is a surreal world of smooth, stony textures, rough limestone and small ponds. Far above, from the roof, patches of blue sky and leafy plants peek through the porous earth, enhancing the beauty.

Spiders, Bats in Caves

Sharing the caves with visitors are timid scorpions as large as small crabs, called guava by the Puerto Ricans, and 200,000 to 400,000 tenacious bats. They sleep during the day in a dark chamber and at dusk swoop out in a gray mass of fluttering wings to search the countryside for insects.

Somewhere crickets are chirping, their song mingling gently with the sound of small streams tumbling down the rock. Water splashing on limestone creates the soothing impression of light rainfall in a tropical rain forest. All this, after a storm, is magnified a hundred times over when new streams, ponds and waterfalls are formed.

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A few feet farther along, the flat path narrows between large boulders to where you can hear the mighty Camuy River, rushing underground furiously south to north.

This would be the place where elephants go to die or where a secret passage leads to a kingdom of prehistoric creatures.

Below is an eerie chasm on the cave floor, another 150-foot sinkhole where visitors catch a fleeting glimpse of the Camuy disappearing into the earth, inscrutable and obscure, to appear unexpectedly miles away on its course to the Atlantic.

Treacherous River

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The river has its origins in the central mountain range that is the spine of Puerto Rico. During heavy rains it becomes treacherous and unpredictable, and can rise up to 80 feet, sometimes breaking through rock, opening more caves and passages.

The Camuy, more than a million years ago, like a fine artist with a sorcerous wand, carved and shaped the great rooms of Rio Camuy Cave Park.

Nearby, the Arecibo Observatory, the largest radar-radio telescope in the world, operated by Cornell University, features a 20-acre dish installed in a sinkhole 1,300 feet wide and 300 feet deep.

Reportedly, there are more than 2,000 caves in Puerto Rico, many documented, and sinkholes galore. Puerto Rican kids with a dash of adventure hunt the caves and snoop the sinkholes as soon as they are old enough to climb through the rolling foothills.

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In 1956 Ted Lane, a U.S. Air Force pilot based at nearby Ramey Field, sighted from the air a large cave with a river flowing through it. Because he also was a spelunker and a member of the U.S. Speleological Society, he was intrigued.

Residents guided him to Empalme Cave, which he explored for 200 yards along the river’s edge. It was the first exploration by anyone not living in the area.

Then in 1958 Russell Gurnee, a noted spelunker, and others extensively explored the chain of connected caves and suggested that the government buy the land for a natural preserve.

Park’s Visitor Center

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Developed and operated by the Puerto Rico Land Administration, the park has a visitor center that includes a reception area, cafeteria and theater. An informative 15-minute film is shown before the 45-minute guided tour of the cave.

The nine-mile-long cavern system has been rated by some speleologists as among the most spectacular on earth. It contains evidence of occupation by Taino Indians, believed to be among Puerto Rico’s first inhabitants.

The park is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The last cave tour begins at 4 p.m. Group tours should be arranged by reservation. Telephone (809) 756-5555. Entrance fees: $4 adult, $2 child. Near Lares, the park can be reached via Highways 129 and 134. Proceed to Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy, G.P.O. Box 3767, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00936.

Almost everyone speaks English, and the U.S. dollar is the currency. For more information, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Development Co., 3575 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Suite 248, Los Angeles 90068, phone (213) 874-5991.

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