Mexico Trip

Part 2: It's the Pits

Cave:
Location: Mexico
Date: June 22, 1968
By: Dennis Melko
Loyalhanna Troglodyte
Personnel:

Wednesday (Christmas Day)

"Buenos Dias! Feliz Navidad!" Paula is up and making breakfast out on the expansive balcony/terrace. The sky is slightly overcast with a peek-a-boo sun but it feels very nice with temps in the low 70ís. The sound of birds is wicked loud, coming from trees within and surrounding the main square. A large black bird snatches a praying mantis on the edge of the roof as I walk by. There are about ten or so rooms on three sides of the balcony area. The village is visible through the front railing as we sit and eat at a small folding table. A large gazebo rises centrally in the square and from the dominant steeple opposite a church bell rings for services. I can also see the high mountain that rises behind the hotel. Last night lights dotted the darkness of it.

Many people are out and all of the stores and vendors are open. After a shower we go and look around a bit, walking down a road of small shops and entrepreneurial activity. Most everything you could need is available in Aquismon, from toiletries, to foodstuffs, to tools. There are several doctors located in the village, even a dentist.

We get glances, but it seems that for the most part people are somewhat used to seeing foreign tourists, or at least weíre not uncommon. Some women, more traditionally dressed, have skirts and vibrantly colored red scarves woven into their hair. Sometimes they balance loads they carry on the tops of their heads. We see mostly cowboy style boots on farmers or sandals in general. No one wears shorts. Meats hang from hooks and all manner of food is displayed. Thin dogs are about searching for scraps. This is altogether not an unpleasant place but still strange and unique to me.

Tomorrow weíll visit the 300í+ pit named Sotano de las Quilas. Today we visit Los Posas, near Xilitla, an artsy jungle compound of some sort. Iím not sure what to expect, but it will be a very touristy day. Driving south along 85 we frequently see large patches among the steep mountainsides that binoculars confirm are fields. There are many habitated areas along our route with various types of homes, many of which seem in the process of being built. We come to an area of shops and vendors on both sides of the road where I spot a roast chicken stand. Lunch! I make Frank turn around.

Out comes the phrase book. Pollo (Poi-yo) is Spanish for chicken. I ask for the price. Fifty pesos for a whole roasted Pollo. Hmm. Thatís five dollars U.S. Iím not sure if itís too much but thatís about what I saw the woman in front of me pay. We also receive bread wraps for tortillas and spicy Salsa Verde. We notice a man roasting corn and approach him. He speaks English quite well. It turns out he spent some years living in the U.S. and recently moved back to Mexico with his family. Very friendly, but the corn is not done and we are unwilling to wait. Walking back to the vehicle Paula and Shruti are waylaid by the spirits of evil Mexican tourist trinkets and are held in some sort of trance-like state. Frank and I sit on a low curb-side wall, unaffected.

A beggar approaches me. Elderly, bare foot, and hesitant in his initial approach, his red-tinged watery eyes search imploringly as he speaks through broken teeth. I am unsure of how to properly respond, discerning no indication of local cultural norms from others nearby. I do not reward public displays of begging, choosing to instead give to what I hope are legitimate social assistance organizations. I refuse him, point blank, however the encounter disturbs me to a degree I do not feel back home.

Heading west and approaching Xilitla we are traveling high along a valley and can see a huge cave opening across from us near the outskirts of town. It is a commercial cave, Cueva De Salitre, that we do not visit this trip. Xilitla sits at about 3000 feet and has a cool and pleasant, if damp, climate this time of year. The surrounding mountains rise upwards of 9000 feet and are a good coffee growing area.

Arriving at Los Posas we park along the road and quickly share our meal. There is an 18-peso entry fee. Los Posas is quite an odd assortment of strange reinforced concrete structures, walkways and pools in the mountain jungle. Clearly, the builder, Scotsman Sir Edward James, experienced drugs. It is an absurdist fantasy playground and very fun to explore. One must be very trusting and nimble on some of the structures. Wildly winding staircases, labyrinth-like buildings, sculptures, towering constructions giving way to views from high up. Itsí beauty projects a surreal mood.

Sir James and his architect, Plutaro Gastelum, initiated the endeavor in 1949, had the height of work in about 1962 and it remains "incomplete" after Sir James died in 1984. The forest is slowly reclaiming its own, so it would be advisable to see it sooner than later. Famous visitors and friends of Sir James were Salvador Dali, Picasso and Aldos Huxley. John Lennon supposedly made his signature somewhere. The half we explore is owned and maintained by Gastelumís son and the other by an American who has closed his portion to the public. We see a small cave entrance containing artsy concrete pillars by the road as we leave but do not enter.

As we drive up the narrow road that leads from Las Posas to Xilitla proper we come across a man who waves us down by holding up a clear plastic bag of something that looks like coffee. Pained conversation takes place. It is coffee that heís trying to sell us and it is ground. But heís asking too much. We attempt to negotiate the price but he wonít budge from his initial offer. After some haggling Paula purchases the stuff that is gold to her and we continue on towards the town. It does have a very strong and wonderful aroma. Iím not sure if it will stay fresh until we get home, but if we only had a drip coffee makerÖ

After parking the truck in town we walk the square where apparently there has been a Christmas stage show. Hilitla is a very pleasant community and we shop and walk around a bit. After dark we find a very nice restaurant for dinner and then head for "home", obtaining gas at a station just outside of Hilitla.

Thursday

We get up a bit late today. I get into the shower and move the plastic bag aside. We place a water-filled plastic bag over the sewer drain. This keeps the sewer gases from escaping the drain and the room then smells pleasant. The hot water feels good. Iím glad there arenít many others staying here at the hotel now because just one hot water tank serves all of the rooms up here. Iím not sure about the rooms out back.

Shortly after a late brunch we are riding on the "road to Golindrinas", built in 1993. Prior to that visitors to the deep pit needed to hire donkeys and porters for a daylong trek along a trail that still can be found. It would take 5 to 8 hours hiking up and 4 or 5 hours returning. Now itís a relatively short drive along a narrow and sometimes rough road that would be difficult in places when raining. Early on we see all manner of thatched huts and various new construction. We also pass "mountain taxis", operated by industrious pickup truck owners much like jitneys back home. They have bars along the open truck beds for passengers to hold on. Along our way there is a cave visible on the inside of a wide bend where a small banana grove sits in a hollow. We note it for later.

Some time is spent locating the trailhead for Quilas, driving back and forth. Mike Walsh said it is about a 20 to 30 minute hike, uphill, so we decide to leave our rope and gear in the truck while we first locate the pit. We take several wrong turns but manage to make our way to the mountaintop cornfields and forest orange groves.

Now which way? As we wander the cornfields two loud dogs fast approach. Oh shit. I yell and raise my arms and this slows them a little. In the distance a woman with several children raises herself from picking corn and whistles at them. The dogs stop, but are still noisy. We back away as they follow us a bit and then we are in another direction searching through the forest of mandarin oranges. After some bushwhacking and then backtracking once more we eventually find the pit, opposite of our original direction. So the dogs were being helpful after all. The pit sits half surrounded by forest and half by cornfield. We walk a bit of the circumference and find a spot thatís reasonably clear. There looks to be some trees immediately below, but it will do.

Itís getting fairly late in the afternoon and we all decide itís too late to go get the gear and come back to rig. We set our goal of exploring this pit tomorrow and decide to go to Golindrinas to watch the birds at sunset. A gorgeous view towards the south and west awaits us as we walk across the high cornfields near a small lean-to hut. You can see several mountain villages across the wide shallow valley, as well as Union De Guadalupe, the village near where the deep one lies in wait.

Driving again we meet three children who offer to take us to Golindrinas after weíve taken a wrong turn at an intersection. They ride precariously on the back of the truck. Paula and I sit on the sill of the rear doors, trying to engage them in conversation and look out for them as we lurch uphill. The children direct us past the normal trailhead for the pit, at the small hamlet of Barrio Las Golindrinas, to an upper level parking area closer to Union De Guadalupe. There is a wonderful view of the mountains here. We hike down a long trail that comes out over the upper area for the pit.

There are about a dozen people at both the lower and higher rig points where level clearings exist. The mouth of the pit is pretty big. Oh my. I hold myself against a large tree at the upper drop and gaze down into a hole so incredible I am stunned. Oh my God. Some Mexican visitors present are obviously joking about falling into the pit. A woman mocks fear and screams while holding onto the tree. Oh good Lord. I cannot fathom dropping this pit. Itís 1,200 feet deep. It is unbelievable. In the midst of my awe the birds arrive.

There are only a few at first, these agile White Collared Swifts. They approach the entrance in tight groups, swooping by and in so fast they make a rushing, roaring sound that grows with force as the groups get larger and larger. It is a defensive ploy. They are the Golindrinas. Their fearsome enemies are the Conures, a carnivorous parrot that tear them apart and feed upon them. These hunters surround the pit, waiting, collecting in small groups that fly in to attack the diving Golindrinas. Noise. Movement. Color. The grace and beauty of the scene belies itsí terrible gravity. A life and death struggle is taking place before my eyes. I had better watch my footing before I become directly involved.

I go to the lower rig point where the others are with our "guides". The children are intent upon our phrasebook and dictionary. "Budding businessmen working out communicating a price for services" I joke. Possibly Iím not too far wrong. I take a picture. I take more photos of all of us at the pit edge. The birds taper off, itís becoming dark and weíre getting very hungry.

We head back to the truck. We offer the children 5 pesos for their assistance. They now act shy and uncomfortable but receive the coins. We give them a lift further down the road and then head towards Aquismon. Back in town we get dinner at a corner hot food stand, operated by Maryís restaurant, outside a bar along the square. Itís a "menís only" bar, one of at least two in Aquismon. I buy bottled beer from inside the bar but need to return the bottles there. I communicate that we are sitting just outside and will. We generally try and eat only cooked or fried food, not fresh vegetables unless we are certain of them being washed in purified water. Here they have tacos, tostados and flautas (my favorite). It is very good, filling and inexpensive. Satisfied, we head for bed.

Friday

Standing on the lip of Quilas I watch the bright green, yellow-underbellied Conures chirp and squawk around the upper pit area like a hunting pack of acrobatic biplanes. They are a delight to witness. My machete also sings, clearing the underbrush where we rig our rope along the higher edge of the pit. We rig my 900 footer, anchoring it to trees. Hauling it up here was quite a chore, but I need the exercise.

It feels so satisfying to have the practice and competence to go somewhere strange, on your own, dispatch a sound rope rig and get going with vertical procedures; to do it and be able to absorb the whole of the experience and your surroundings without undue nervousness. I harness up to connect to webbing rigged for edge safeties.

Lowering the weighted rope I need to be cautious as it reaches the trees near the bottom to get it properly through the largest of the branches. Some swinging effort is required. There are also vines near the lip to contend with. Ouch! Something bites me on my left arm as I brush against a tree. It will heal in a few days but I never find out what it is.

The rope set and padded, Paula is the first down. After a bit of struggle through the branches, she radios "Off rope!" "We need a machete," follows. Lacking a proper sheath Iím reticent to carry it down with me and do not. The circumference of the pit is huge, something on the order of 246 feet by 377 feet with a total depth of 387í. Itís quite bright all around as I drop. The tree branches near the bottom cause me consternation and I lock off to break and bend branches away. Fortunately, I placed the rope accurately through the largest branches and it otherwise is a straight drop.

Once below the treetops it gets darker away from the pit walls. Damn, I should have bought a sheath. Oh well, weíre off and exploring. Agreeing beforehand to drop only two at a time, we make our way to the center then to the far left and the deepest part of the pit. There is so much vegetation. We return along the wall as it is easier traveling and ascend after only an hour. It is a good warm-up pit for a group to come down and work out procedures prior to doing the bigger pits, especially if never vertical caving with each other before. Paula and I ascend separately. After wrestling with branches a bit, she steadily reduces to a singularity. My ropewalker seems adjusted properly and Iím also up in no time.

As Frank and Shruti descend I leave Paula and make my way towards the cornfields, hiking to the opposite side with my camera for some photos of the two on rope. I find one, possibly two, good rig points over the deepest parts of the pit, but the edge is also lower here. Possibly you could free climb, with great difficulty, out of one short section of the pit further along on this side. While Paula and I were descending some children had tried to come down that way and were calling out to us, playfully. They are not here now. As Frank and Shruti finish ascending I make my way back.

Weíve packed a meal and enjoy it to the music of the birds that ebbs and flows. Fresh, ripe mandarin oranges hang from nearby trees and lie on the ground. I try one. It is the best tasting orange Iíve ever had. Someone may be harvesting these, so we try to pick just the untouched ones on the ground. OK, sometimes I pick them off the tree. It is a beautiful day. I try to burn this moment into my memory, savoring it.

On the way back to Aquismon we stop at the cave at the large road bend. It looks as though someone camps out at the small cavelets here. Regarding private property, generally Iím told that you ask permission if houses and property look "like somebody really cares" about trespassing and itís readily obvious who owns the property, otherwise itís pretty much open. At first it is only myself, picking a direct and too difficult path that sees much of my machete but stops me with a rock cliff and vapid undergrowth. After spying a better route I backtrack and corral Paula and Frank. We make our way easily from the middle of the curve, through the banana trees and up into the cave. It proves to be only two small rooms in size but the second one has graffiti that reads, "The Pope is number one". We take a picture with Paula.

Arriving back in Aquismon we are pleasantly surprised to find that Mel Eady from Georgia, Gordon Birkhimer from Maryland and Mike (Tiny) Manke from Virginia and BATS grotto have arrived. We find them walking the town and after warm welcomes make plans for dinner at whatís becoming our favorite corner food stand. Many coronas are abused.

Saturday

We are now falling into a pattern of waking up late and late starts. Itís also Market Day. The square is packed with merchants and buyers. When the rain begins tarps are everywhere. Itís quite something to see, but we might not be leaving soon.

After spending some time partaking in a bit of shopping ourselves and getting lunch items, we discuss the daysí activities over breakfast at Maryís restaurant.

Frank doesnít feel well, the first of only two bouts of major sickness we haveÖ more on that later (foreshadowing). He doesnít want to do other pits today. Tiny and Gordon are ready to go to Cepillo (421í deep pit). Itís afternoon. Uncertainty and mild tension build and I then strongly suggest dropping Quilas again with the new arrivals. As I said, it is a very good warm-up pit. Good vertical practice with some cave at the bottom. I offer to carry the rope as an enticement. I need the exercise.

Gordon, Tiny, Mel, Paula and I arrive at the same rig spot. In short order everyone is down except me. I elect to watch the rope and enjoy the view, what there is of it. A fog waxes and wanes over the pit and surrounding area accompanied by a light rain. It is a bit cool but I am warm with a fleece jacket. Gordon has brought a sheathed machete. I hear the talk and excited whoops of the others. Occasionally I see them. Over the radio they say theyíve located a cave in one of the larger crevices of the pit walls and have set about exploring it.

Through the fog the green Conures appear and disappear again. I sit and have fresh mandarin oranges with my lunch of "pollo asada tortillas" and "salsa verde". In Aquismon I found two stands that sell whole roast chicken daily and it becomes my staple lunch entrťe. We have two whole chickens to share today, along with various tasty small breads from a local bakery. As I am sitting and eating I have one of what I come to call my "Mexican Moments": An intense recognition that I am really in Mexico; a momentary heightened sense of physical awareness; an acute feeling of joy. It is excellent to be here and I am glad. We are so, so fortunate.

In pairs (tandem) the others begin to ascend before it gets dark. They tell me theyíve found two caves and a small pit. Paula and Tiny found one about 30í long with a 45 degree upwards grade and small stalactites and flowstone. Tiny and Gordon were in another crevice that went too tight for Tiny (heís not) in shorts and T-shirt but Mike Walsh reports goes to big passage. Mike Walsh indicates that this pit and another across the road, Sotano De Puente, both need further exploring and mapping. We de-rig and trek through the cornfield and downhill in the dark with our headlamps.

Back in Aquismon we visit with Mike Walsh who has just arrived. He rents the first floor of a house along the main road just prior to the square. Presently he is having a multi-unit home built on the outskirts of town that he intends to be the new caver-friendly "Hotel Aquismon" beginning next year. It will be another possible place to stay.

Mike Walsh and Gordon go over topo maps with the major cave locations marked and Gordon gives a copy to me. There are several other persons present and we are introduced to Robin Barber and R. D. Milhollin. Both are from Fort Worth, Texas, and the Maverick grotto. They also had difficulties in planning a caving trip to Mexico, but forged ahead, hoping to meet others here in Aquismon. The two of them, abilities personally unknown to us, would fortuitously accompany us on our further caving ventures. Robin is newer to caving but R.D. has 20+ years of experience. Much later I would find out that R. D. is an experienced cave diver and one of those on Bill Stonesí next expedition, in which Paula and Frank would also participate.

Before we leave Mike makes a temporary gift by loaning a drip coffee maker to Paula. Fresh coffee in the morning. Itís the little things that make life sometimes grand. We also stop for ice cream cones at a storefront on the square. Maybe risky, but yumm.

Sunday

Driving along a road thatís becoming very familiar to us we briefly stop at the parking area for the small hamlet, Barrio Las Golindrinas, situated at the famous pit. We are looking for "Santos", who Mel and Gordon have hired previously as a guide and porter. He is 27 and married with three children. We now wish him to take us to Cepillo, outside the town of Tamapatz. Gordon gives candy away to some local children, bestowing gringo goodwill. Gordon is quite good-natured and can be very funny.

Santos is not here. He has gone off to Tamapatz for market day and should be back shortly. Thatís what we get for a late start and not connecting with our guide beforehand. We head towards Tamapatz hoping to find Santos there or else find our own way. En route Mel and Gordon recognize a passenger on an approaching mountain taxi as Santos and he also recognizes them. A bit of luck! Mel and Gordon drive Santos back to his home while we wait along the road. There is a magnificent view and we can see towards Quilas and Puente as well as some other interesting features. The others return with an additional porter, Mario, and weíre off again in our three vehicles.

As of this writing, when arranging for porters or guides, 50 to 70 pesos for a man for a full day is what is commonly paid. Try to divide the day and pay according to the hours, taking into consideration the difficulty of the work. Get only one guide, if possible. Burros, if needed for hauling gear on longer excursions, warrant 50 pesos per day.

We pull into the narrow and now blocked streets of the central square of Tamapatz on a market day. Making our way is confusing and difficult. We waste much time asking a vendor to move his truck to let us pass and in seeking out parking. Language barriers do not permit easy communication, although R.D. speaks a bit of Spanish. Troubling me is that our maneuvering is making quite a spectacle and Iím concerned about us being viewed as unwelcome interlopers. Some locals seem friendly while others not so much. Finally weíre all geared up and on our way. Tiny and Gordon hire two young boys, Jesus and Guillermo, to carry their packs. One must be careful not to insult the adult porters by paying children a commensurable amount for doing less work.

The hike to the pit is very scenic, dropping down a trail from a street off the square, then uphill for 2/3 of the way into a farmerís field on the mountainside. It is about a half hour walk. The entrance is enveloped in a small clump of trees and bushes with some poison ivy to avoid.

One of the ropes is entangled and others work with it while I begin to anchor and pad the other to rocks in a fenced field across the trail. We harness up and I set safeties. I notice that our porter/guides have not brought water and share mine with them. The younger boys are mesmerized by the tall, Amazonian women, both 5í9" Paula and the 6í3" red-haired Mel. In English they say "Paula, what a woman!" They make a "leaf man" figurine for the girls as a gift. Very charming. Theyíre learning.

Two ropes are rigged, one high on a tree and the other dropping over a ledge. One by one we all descend. Paula and I drop simultaneously on each rope and, spinning slowly, I am able to snap off a few good photos of her early on. Down, down, down into the darkness, rope gliding flat through my rack. I see the lights of Tiny and Gordon, barely, like firefly gnats far below. The bell-shaped free drop is 421í or 428í, depending on where you rig.

At bottom is a small lake off towards the lower end of the sloped floor. I explore the whole of the perimeter, finding one hole too small for me to further pursue. Paula joins me when I find a "cave within a cave" on the far side of a giant speleotherm. Itís a bit tricky to get to it. I take a picture of Paula sitting within it and the entrance hole above. Hopefully a great shot, but I wish I had a wider lens and strong, multiple flashes.

We finally ascend, Paula and I, when darkness is already falling outside. Near the top my left ascender begins to bother my leg, a rub spot Iíve not noticed before. At the lip the rope has slipped into a crevice. Iím tandeming beneath Paula and patiently wait while she struggles with the situation. Itís a very irksome feeling, hanging here above hundreds of feet of vast darkness with debris falling on my helmet. We ask for a pigtail and someone fixes one. With my weight transferred to this other short and bottom knotted line Paula easily makes her way up. I transfer back and complete my ascent. In the dark we de-rig once everyone is up and head towards town.

Along the trail we find a man sleeping off market day festivities in the brush. In town many are openly intoxicated and uncomfortably curious about us, causing me concern. There is loud music from a stage with musicians. One girl, speaking very good English, assists in getting a harmless but persistent drunk to back off. Gordon and Tiny try to get a late meal from a proprietor that has just closed and after this unsuccessful attempt I am encouraged to leave. People seem to be milling too close to our vehicles and a fight breaks out but quickly dissipates. Paula, Frank, Shruti and I leave for the hotel while the others stay on to get food from a stand and experience further festivities.

There seemed to be an uncomfortable tension between a number of the townsfolk and us. Iím not certain I have it right, but it is the only time we feel so on this trip. It may be due to our own misperception and insecurity in large part. Iím not sure. Nevertheless, we cook our very late supper out on the balcony before bed.

Monday

Iím getting used to awakening to the cacophony of birds in the morning, but what the hell is this bloody screaming? As I go to the rear window I begin to recognize it as pigs squealing. Yes, four men are attempting to lead two pigs towards the market, and the huge pink one wonít budge. I think it knows. Iíve heard of such a thing. New Yearís Eve is tomorrow and it will be feasted upon. Eventually the pig loses the struggle, as it must, and its objections fade off towards the market. After a moment of contemplation I sleep for a while longer. So tired. So tired.

Santos is not with us today as we travel south on 85 towards San Isidro, near Tampaxal, where the great bird pit Guaguas lies. A right turn onto a mountain road and after an hour of indescribably lush scenery we arrive at what appears to be the center of the hamlet. A newly built two story thatched roof "visitorís center" is nearby and we explore it while awaiting the local officials to find us, knowing that word of mouth will spread of our arrival. They do not soon come so we set about further exploration. Paula and Mel find a coffee bean shucking and roasting operation in a building. We all go see it. There is a humungous slope of coffee bean shells out back off a high porch and the thick aroma of coffee hangs delightfully heavy. The proprietor is very congenial towards us and proud of the operation. There is a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains from the porch.

The local officials finally find us and we all buy official passes for 10 pesos apiece (actual souvenir ticket receipt given) to visit and drop Gaugaus. Gordon pays an extra 10 pesos to have our vehicles "watched." With rope porters and permits allocated we commence our roughly 30 minute journey through the "coffee forest" trail to the pit. The trail winds downward then mostly up with minor route finding.

Paula and I stop to pick some ripe looking coffee beans. We eat them. Theyíre mildly sweet and we spit out the dual seeds, what is normally roasted for coffee. I tend to lag behind, enjoying the scenery. At one point as I near Tiny, Robin and Mel sitting at a hand-built sheltered rest stop for tourists I hear something behind me. Turning to look I am faced with no other than Juan Valdez himself, or perhaps a distant cousin, leading a pack mule up the trail. Sandals, worn broad-brimmed hat, mustache, coffee sacks; I feel Iím in a coffee commercial. Looking out through the trees from either side of the trail I notice workers far off picking beans into large sacks.

Reaching the pit area one can see the locals have put some significant amount of work into maintaining the trails. There is an enclosed and raised pit toilet and a sleeping platform for tents near the pit. I gather with the others to gaze at the awesome view into the pit provided from the lower rig-point area. Itís great-big-huge. Incredible. The oval-shaped hole, of which weíre on one end, is 164í across and opposite us 262í away is the upper rig point. It is vastly overhanging there and gives an amphitheatre character to the pit. Long beehives hang down from underneath. Killer bee nests. Killer bees?!! I see more hives on the sides and almost underneath us.

There are a number of bees floating around the top of the 12 million cubic meter pit. One takes a liking to me. Iím told to move away or ignore it, but DO NOT STRIKE IT lest it emits "danger" pheromones and an attack begins. We reason that our rappels shouldnít cause an alarm if weíre quiet and quick, but out ascending might cause disturbance as we near any hives. Thankfully weíve started out late once again and our ascents will be in the dark when all the bees should be in for the night. This is one pit where I recommend getting a very late start for. I go to check out the high rig-point then return for gear and rig the safties while Tiny and Gordon rig the rope. I then help out with the low rig-point, which can be made very easy to get on/off rope from.

Gordon, Tiny, Frank and I drop the 663í high side while R.D., Paula, Mel, and Shruti drop the 482í low side. Descending I note the huge bee hives and decide to allow more speed for the controlled descent, letting the rope really fly through the rack. It is easy to hold pressure on the bars with my left hand while allowing for manipulation with my right. I talk on the radio with ease in this manner. I even begin to sing. (Oops! Remember those killer bees!) My rack begins to smoke the rope. Whoa! It could just be moisture vaporizing. Better slow down a bit, no matter Tinyís encouragement to "let Ďer rip!" I continue to zip down the rope and then slow to a nice, smooth touchdown. Within seconds the rope is off the now very hot rack.

Wow. Big place. I look over at Tiny, who now really is, filming near the far wall of the cave beneath the high drop. To the right of him is a huge gaping maw that leads down into further darkness, another 521í. Itís a dangerous drop because of loose rock and we havenít the time so we have not considered exploring it. I might like to sometime in the future. The pit bottom slopes from the low drop towards the dark hole. The entrance hole looks like a small oval above, but enough light enters that knee-high plants flourish, particularly nearest the low-drop, upper-slope side. The deeper parts are bare.

We stay down for an hour or so and begin our ascents at the shorter drop as it gets dark, Paula and R.D. going first. I noticed rope rub at an unpadded spot on the high drop and talk Gordon and Tiny out of ascending up that rope. Parrots begin to squawk and circle the pit. It looks as though weíre on hand for a front row seat, especially Paula and R.D. The swifts loudly swoop into the cave and disappear before we can tell where they are, most likely heading into the further depths or along the lower wall areas.

Tiny and Gordon are next and Mel and I tandem after. I want her to look at my foot ascenders as I climb and help me adjust them to try and eliminate the surprise bruising I received ascending Cepillo. We bring extra pads for this purpose. She is able to set things just nicely within the first fifty feet or so. Thanks Mel.

Ascending, we pass the large hanging killer bee nests near the top. Weíre quiet and careful here, our lights out. Moonlight casts a shine on the rope and the two of us. I am conscious of my every breath and movement. Once on top Frank and Shruti begin their ascent. Shruti again impresses me with her frogging. Very strong and competent. Their lights are so tiny below us. Being last they have two radios in case one craps out.

Tiny is showing the video that heís filmed with his digital "helmet-cam" to the amusement of a few local girls present and sharing candy. I sit down to watch. Itís amazing the technology we have now, and Iím sure the locals feel the same. Gordon has left to return to the vehicles with Robin. She is having some kind of contact dermatitis, a strong allergic reaction, possibly from some plant. No one knows for sure. There is a plant here worse than poison ivy, called Mala Mujeres ("evil woman"). She took oral benadryl and spread topical benadryl ointment on herself, but it was still bad. Paula and I have four Epi pens at the truck and Gordon walked her back, just in case.

We de-rig as soon as Frank and Shruti are up. Tired and hungry, Frank, Paula and I de-rig the low side. Shruti packs the rope. Gordon and Tiny have already de-rigged the high side. Itís easy to be testy after a long stressful day and one needs to be aware of this and make generous allowances for one another. Arriving back at the vehicles we find the locals have washed all of them. They were quite dirty, but I think Frank had been proud of that dirt. I wander off towards the coffee building. The mountains in the distance are pitch black, with so many lights dotting them from homesteads. Itís as if the night sky continues into the mountains, one merging with the other, weaving a beautiful, starry tapestry. I think of the coffee workers here and what their lives might be like. How different might they be from me? How similar? What do they make of our activities?

Driving back to Aquismon we pass a large, partially thatch roofed bar/restaurant along 85 and turn around to see if we can get a late meal. We can. Itís a cool place, but I canít remember the name. R.D. assists us with translations and in ordering our food. Serving dinner for nine, theyíve run out of chicken meals, but a few of us happily accept beef instead. "Steaks" in Mexico are not the thick, juicy cuts weíre familiar with back home. Cold beer, accommodating service, good food, good friends. A great end to a fantastic day. Back in Aquismon we visit the coed "ladies" bar along the road approaching the square to have a few more drinks before bed. It is a very nice place.

Tuesday (New Years Eve)

Today we decide on a break and to experience Golindrinas on New Years Day instead. Intending a rest from the physical and mental challenges of negotiating deep pits, we make plans to go visit the Cascada De Tamul again, this time from the lower gorge approach. The only way to do this is by canoes and everyone paddles, up river and back.

A late start again, we further delay by checking out the construction of Mike Walshís new "caver hotel" being built a short walk south from our lodgings. We help Mike move some heavy wood boards and a metal ramp. The site has a foundation and walls are being built. It measures about 20í by 30í but was supposed to be a bit longer, something Mike will have to discuss with the intermittent builders. Expected to be ready sometime by Thanksgiving, 2003, it will be three stories high when complete. This is costing him only $8,000 from start to finish and will be his permanent residence, as well as have about 6 rooms for lodgers with common areas and shared kitchens and baths. Rooms will be $25.00 a night for two persons with $5.00 for each additional person, the same as is now for his present digs. Keep it in mind if you travel here.

Paula and I ride with Mel and Gordon, Tiny with Frank and Shruti, as we travel north out of town, passing the turnoff for the "road to Golidrinas". This long, winding and sometimes bumpy road eventually leads you to the turnoff for the lower cascades and the boats and boatmen waiting to take tourists on trips. On the way a man who asks if we are heading for the Cascada stops us. He is a river guide. We agree on a price that Gordon negotiates, he hops into our vehicle and weíre off. We pick up a second boatman, his friend, and gear along the way. Competition for customers must be fierce.

If camping, it is best to do so at the official area, Tambaque, about 10 miles away. We gather our vests, paddles, food cooler and other gear and launch from two wooden flat-bottomed canoes, or "pangas". Mel, Gordon, Paula and I travel with the initial guide and the rest are with the other.

Up and up the river we paddle. The waterway gradually narrows, the mountains rise and envelope us and the river turns bluer. There are caves and waterfalls on the way and fishing lines that are probably set by the boatmen. At two places we get out on the cobbled riverbank and portage around rapids, our guides pulling the boats through with ropes. The water begins to turn very blue. Weird, otherworldly designs are sculpted into the limestone rock along the upper portions of the gorge at river level. The channel is very narrow and must be so deep. We approach the waterfall and meet several whitewater kayakers who have been playing in the narrow rapids just below the falls.Our guides land the boats on the right bank and we scramble up short rock cliffs to trails leading towards the waterfall. It is stunning and immense. The falls are about 345í high and people have rappelled them. The Rio Gallinas falls into the Rio Santa Maria forming the turquoise colored Rio Tampaon that we have just paddled up. We indulge in photography. Heading back to the boats Gordon takes a plunge from a high cliff into a deep pool to the delight of arriving boats of tourists.

We travel back downriver to a sandy bank on our left, just up from a beautiful waterfall terrace. This water comes out of Aqua Cueva, where a small trail leads to. We go swimming in the cave. I take pictures of everyone swimming and of Gordon diving off a high ledge into the deep, deep waters. The only room is about 100í in diameter and apparently no divers have explored this sump yet, which must have huge passage beyond.

There is a perfect camping spot near the boats and indeed, as we go back to eat dinner, we meet a group of Mexican college students who are doing exactly that tonight. One of them, Migel Angel Trejo, is starting a guide service for the area, to be named "Nomadas." They have just arrived and are planning to stay until tomorrow when two boats will come to pick them up. We eat dinner and offer some to our guides. The one seems especially anxious to get back because itís getting cold and he has only a thin shirt.

Darkness falls as we return, the last ones back. Gordon makes the arranged payment with a small tip for staying so late with us. We drop our guides off at the end of the entry road. It is very late by the time we reach Aquismon and we debate sleeping out overnight at Golindrinas. Itís decided that we stay here tonight and leave early in the morning, as it seems too late to go through gear and set off for Golindrinas now.

I recommend earlier starts (except for Gaugaus) and also not staying in Aquismon on New Years Eve, or at least not near the square, if you actually intend to sleep. Some local youths decide to play DJ with their very loud truck stereos in front of and facing the hotel from the square, all night. ALL NIGHT. When I go out onto the balcony to look at them at 3:00am, they see me and begin to play gangsta rap music even louder. Very friendly, with such holiday spirit. No sleep. Iím anxious about tomorrow. I actually donít feel so well. The rumbling in my stomach seems not from butterflies, but Iím afraid something much, much worseÖ

Part 1: Going South (of the border)


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Modified: Wednesday, 12-Mar-2014 09:38:24 EDT