Want to do something a little different?
Quick, name the first few things that come to mind when you think of Costa Rica. Beaches, rain forests, jungles, zip lines, diving and snorkeling probably top
most people’s lists. And it’s true – it’s an incredibly beautiful, bio diverse country and these kinds of activities are definitely a must. However, for those who like to color outside the lines and are seeking some adventure off the beaten path, a tour of the Venado caves is an excellent avenue for experiencing something few people have.
I don’t mean just tourists haven’t seen it. There are not many people in the entire world, and even locals, who have seen the inside of this cavernous world. These aren’t man-made caves, but a true tectonic wonder that was under sea level for 15 – 20 million years, and just in the past couple of years has been accessible to adrenaline seekers. News about good real estate spreads fast, so already the pitch black tunnels are teeming with some of the country’s lesser known, nocturnal wildlife.
The entrance is about 45 minutes away from downtown La Fortuna and the drive there offers some
fantastic views of Arenal Volcano and the quiet farm life of the surrounding area. A lot of people may
have the notion that caves are a cool (literally) place, but in this particular case it’s hot and humid – a
not so subtle nod to the tropical environment – so dress accordingly in shorts and short-sleeved tops. It’s traveler’s choice whether they prefer their own sturdy shoes or to use the complimentary rubber
boots, but head’s up – your feet will be getting wet no matter what you decide. Remember, until very
recently these caves were underwater and the majority of it still harbors a stream that can be up to a
couple of feet deep.
It’s just a short hike downhill from where everyone boots up, past some rolling hills where young cattle
graze on grass and check out the latest visitors. Some of the hike is quite steep, and the wet rocks
throughout the cave coupled with a few tight squeezes should be kept in mind when considering who
will be on the tour. The groups are small – usually no more than four people unless it’s a larger family –
which means there is ample opportunity to enjoy the solitude of the dwelling. Guests are equipped with
helmets, flashlights, and water before getting prepped to enter the mouth of the caves.
This incredible underworld was discovered by the Guatuzo Indians, an indigenous local tribe. Something
that may seem ob
That means, besides the flashlights, it is absolute blackness with bats overhead, spiders, and more
than its fair share of cramped places. Anyone who is nervous about the dark or has any amount of
claustrophobia may have to turn around – which is fine, but unless the whole group is going back,
people will be returning on their own. To keep groups small, there is only one bilingual guide that must
stay with the group.
Speaking of creatures, Venado caves is an absolute hub of activity. Long-nosed and vampire bats
abound, whizzing overhead in search of the next great hangout or an insect to snack on. There’s never
any shortage of bat snacks – there is an abundance of unique and strange insects and spiders. We
were lucky to find a few “scorpion spiders” which are indeed poisonous but very adverse to light and
people. Our guide, Victor, picked one up easily to be examined. This enormous and flat out creepy, alien
specimen looked like a child’s re-imagining of a grand daddy long leg. Another common inhabitant are
tarantulas, though I’m happy to report there were no sightings on my venture and I don’t think anyone
else in the group was too disappointed either.
While navigating the tunnels, remember this is home to hundreds, or even thousands, of bats. The
water may look crystal clear, but it is full of guano and the walls are slick with the end results of the bat’s
digestive process. It’s best to try and not touch the water or cavern walls, especially children, in case
hands aimlessly wander to the face.
The trail naturally separates into a series of rooms interconnected by narrow passageways, some of
which require deftness and dexterity. A couple of the rooms are off limits, simply because they are
so popular with the bats it is just too unsanitary. The trail this tour takes is the Papaya Path cleverly
named because, you guessed it, the highlight of the trip is climbing to a natural occurring papaya-shaped
Your flashlight is your only source of sight, so be sure to use it. The walls are teeming with marine
fossils, like the teeth of large sea life. Keep an eye out both at your feet and at the ceiling to take in the
enormity of the experience. Only a handful of people have ever seen what you’re seeing. At one point,
guides ask everyone to turn off their flashlights in an open area and simply enjoy the magnificence of
complete darkness. Listen to the sounds of the bats flying above you and the rushing water at your feet.
Drips of water (and let’s face it, sometimes bat guano), come sporadically from overhead. For all the
creatures that call this home – bats, spiders, frogs, fish, and crickets – this is their life every day. Well,
except for the few times the light-bearing humans make a trek.
After about an hour and a half of spelunking, you’ll get a new perspective on “the light at the end of the
tunnel.” Back at the entrance, travelers take a moment to let their eyes readjust before rejoining the
above-ground world of sunshine. Feet will be wet, but the promises of a hose to wash off makes the
hike back up go quickly.
Seeing Venado caves is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and an experience anyone with a taste for
discovery will enjoy. So when family and friends asked what you did in paradise, make sure you pepper
the “usual” responses with “Oh, and spelunking in a millions-year old cave that was just discovered.”
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