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April 2, 2004
Practically everywhere you go in Puerto Rico, there is water washing over the land. That is the reality of life in an island; whether it is lapping against a sandy shore, flowing over smooth river rocks, or washing over the plains -- water is all around you.
It is impossible not to think about this when you are standing inside the Caves of Camuy, a 268-acre underground cave system carved over hundreds of years by the persistent flow of the Camuy River. The caves are one of the most impressive underground ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere. And as the still ongoing river flow proves, they very much a work in progress.
The town of Camuy is only about an hour and fifteen minutes from San Juan. To get there, take Highway 22 heading west, and continue to drive for about an hour, until you reach the exit to Road 129. Take Rd. 129 South, which heads straight into the Cordillera Central, a mountain range that runs east to west along the center part of the island. As soon as you take the road, signs guiding you to the caves will start to appear by the roadside.
The visitor traffic to the caves has had an effect on Road 29. What was once a narrow mountain road, is today a wide, smooth street peppered with roadside carts that sell everything from ceramics to food.
The food part is important. The tours to the caves run on a loose schedule. Sometimes, leaving ahead of schedule, if the number of people reach the park's capacity, and other times running late due to logistics, and natural factors beyond anyone's control, like rain. Because you could end up waiting a while after buying your ticket, it is handy to bring something to snack on to help you idle the time away.
In one of the carts, only minutes from the entrance to cave park, a roadside vendor sells (in addition to hammocks, ceramic souvenirs, dominoes and belts) chicharron and sweet bread.
Chicharron is nothing more than homemade pork rinds. Pig skin cleaned and fried, until it acquires a hard, crispy texture. Chicharron is an especially adequate food to snack on. It comes in a bag, is completely dry, and requires no heating. So, to the dismay of cardiologists and nutritionists everywhere, once again in Puerto Rico, the fried pork reigns supreme. Once you have secured some of the porky snack, it is time to continue to the caves.
The guided tour starts with a ride in a trolley that descends down a mountain full of lush, dense vegetation and into the mouth of the Clara Cave, the first stop in the tour.
By the time you get to the mouth of the cave, you will have felt the air cool all around you. Down here, everything is always cool and wet. Water in some form or another is everywhere -- moisture on the trolley's windshield, a slippery film over the road, of as simple droplets weighing down on the green leaves that hang, fold, and sway all around.
Nothing prepares you for what is inside the gate of the Clara Cave. The size of these caves is monumental. Picture an all-natural underground cathedral. The walls loom all around, perfectly curving above and seamleassly becoming one ceiling, and one floor.
As you stroll inside, you will get get a chance to appreciate the lighting job. The dim floor lights line the cave's passageways, giving the area a mysterious but inviting atmosphere, while at the same time protecting the privacy, and general environment of the thousands of bats that live in the cave.
Speaking of bats. While you brush up on your Die Fleidermaus arias, be sure to keep your hands off the black spots on the rocks, as they are our winged rodents' droppings.
Your tour guide will point out the stalactites and stalagmites that have formed inside the cave, drop, by drop, by drop over thousands of years. It is such an impressive sight, that your only reaction will be to demand to meet the architect of such a work. After all, those I.M. Pei pyramids are all right, but this is downright amazing.
Luckily, the tour's next stop takes you directly to the real star of the show, the Camuy River.
The tour will take you to the Tres Pueblos sinkhole, a 650-foot wide water filled hole in the earth, where the Camuy River flows from one cave to another. Visitors can stand on specially built platforms, 400-feet above the water and watch the river as it flows beneath their feet, and sends the sound of its flowing waters to fill the air all around you.
If you are traveling with a semi-literate crowd, this is a good time to think of a good quote about rivers.
This is a very cool thing to do, at this moment, as it feels very dramatic.
Let's just call it your Dead Poets Society moment.
You can use something cryptic and dramatic like "I am haunted by waters." The last line in Norman MacLean's "A River Runs Through It."
Or you can go esoteric, and throw some TS Eliot out there. "I don't know much about gods, but I think the river is a great brown god," is a good line to quote from Four Quartets.
And if none of that works, you can always kick out some of that chicharron in your backpack, and crunch away.
The Camuy Cave Park opens Wednesday through Sunday from 8 A.M. to 3:45 P.M.
For more information, call 787-898-3100.
J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: : email@example.com