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Are There Caves in the Darien Gap?

The Pan-American Highway is a network of roads, circa 30,000 kms long, stretching from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, down to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. However, the Pan-American Highway is interrupted by the Darien Gap, a 100 kms stretch of inhospitable marshland, swamps, rivers and jungle, extending from Yaviza in Panama to Turbo in Colombia. In 1971, an expedition, supported by the British Army and Messrs Land-Rover, and led by John Blashford-Snell, drove a Range Rover through from Panama to Colombia, through the Darien Gap. This took one hundred days, with the vehicle that arrived in Colombia, a bit like Trigger’s broom, incorporating many replacements which had been installed since arriving in Panama. Since then, no wheeled vehicles have passed the Darien Gap. Though the Colombians, the UN, and others have promoted building a road from Panama to Columbia, to complete the Pan-American Highway, the Panamanians regard the Darien Gap as a natural barrier, put there by God, to keep undesirable foreigners out – a bit like the Brits’ traditional view of the English Channel! Such a road is currently off the agenda, certainly here in Panama. The Darien Gap is now infested by venomous snakes, people traffickers and “Xtreme” adventure trekkers. There are also reports of human “mule trains”, with up to sixty “mules”, each carrying a seventy pound back-back of drugs, destined for Panama en route for the USA, traversing the Darien Gap. Such groups take no prisoners, which likely accounts for the foreign adventurers, and locals, who disappear here each year.

Though I have organized several expeditions to seek caves in Guna Yala, including finding, exploring and surveying the Ailigandi River Cave (See map, below), Guna Yala is an Amerindian “comarca”, which, though contiguous with the Darien jungles, does not, strictly speaking, form part of the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap proper extends south from the end of the Pan-American Highway at Yaviza, or south from the end of the roads accessible from La Palma, the capital of Darien, which itself can only be reached by (passenger only) boat from the mainland.

Following a recce to Yaviza in 2017, where we found karstified limestone on the river bank, and some nebulous reports of caves in Darien, a return to Darien was planned for early 2018, to answer the question “Are There Caves in the Darien Gap?”.

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For this desperate venture, the “Usual Suspects” met in Panama City in early January 2018, each with extensive and specific experience of caving in Panama; Pat Cronin (who crapped on the crocodile in 2006), Roger Day (who was with me when we first found and explored Ailigandi River Cave in 2013), and Dig Hastilow (who has never come clean as to what happened to the “Guna Viagra, three days!”, that he was given by the Witch Doctor in 2011).

In advance, I had contacted the bank manager at La Palma, who claimed to be able to provide a guide/panga driver who knew where to find at least one cave accessible from La Palma. Following a cultural day’s visit to the Casco Viejo and the Fish Market, so the team could sample the excellent, and ever increasing, range of local artisanal beers, including the best draft chocolate stout ever, the next morning we joined the Pan-American Highway, just outside Panama City, and headed for Darien. On the way, we stopped several times at checkpoints manned by Senafront, the Panamanian border defence force, whose main line of business is keeping out naughty people coming from Colombia. Senafront could not have been more friendly and helpful, and were concerned to “book us in” to Darien, and would later “book us out”. Their fortified checkpoints featured a photo, and other details, of a 26 year old US citizen, who had been “booked in” to Darien, but never “booked out”, or ever seen again, so we were happy to cooperate.

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After a circa five hour drive, hard top all the way, including a stop for lunch, we reached Puerto Quimba, the end of the road on the Pacific side (See map above), from where we would take a panga across the Rio Tuira, to La Palma. Senafront “booked us in” once again, shortly after which our panga and panga driver arrived. Forty-five minutes, through a down-pour, got us to La Palma, with the bank manager’s house on one side of our landing point, and our “hotel” on the other. (If one Googles for “hotels” in this area, the nearest reported options are in Colombia – which tells you something about both how near this is to the Colombian border, and also about the quality of accommodation available in La Palma!) Though the panga driver denied all knowledge of “cuevas”, we hoped that the bank manager might be more forthcoming.

Having checked into Hotel Biaquira Bagara, air conditioning but no meals and no bar, we waited for our next-door-neighbour, the bank manager, to come home, but when he did, he knew nothing about any caves either – so much for me being his boss’s brother-in-law! Roger and I then went out to find rum, Cocoa-Cola, lemons and ice, to lubricate our thoughts on how best to find caves to explore. While David, who runs a modest restaurant, was showing us where to get ice, we mentioned that we were seeking caves, and within a couple of hours he had introduced us to Jose Garrido, a farmer who claimed to have a cave on his land, and fixed us up with a 4 x 4 Toyota Hilux and driver to take us there first thing the next day, plus the promise of another cave, if we survived the first one. Having drunk the rum, we then ate at David’s restaurant, and went to bed early in preparation for the morrow.

After breakfast at a Chinese restaurant, we met Jose Garrido and the driver at eight o’clock and headed south, initially on hard top, from La Palma. After about forty minutes, the hard top ran out, and we continued on graded tracks. The tracks then deteriorated to a point where, circa two hours from La Palma, the driver thought it prudent to leave the Hilux and start walking, so that is what we did. Though still within a couple of miles of the limit of that part of Darien that had been cleared for cattle ranching, the track was not good; steep, rutted, undulating and in places above the ankles in mud/cowsh, with the occasional stampede of Brahman cattle coming the other way to provide additional interest. After a little over one hour, we turned right across a cattle-infested field, and thence into the jungle, so far with no sight of limestone. A further forty minutes were then spent floundering about in thick jungle, looking for limestone, up and down little gulleys, until Jose remembered where the cave was located, and there it was, in the Darien jungle, some twenty miles from the Colombian border.

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Dig Hastilow and Pat Cronin, Looking for Limestone.     Photo, Roger Day

Cueva Jose Garrido (UTM 17P, 0826414 x 0898798, total surveyed length 257 metres) has a large entrance, which quickly leads into a dry upper series, with a number of large stals, columns and curtains. From here there is a sky-light leading out to the surface, beyond which the dry passage drops again into a small chamber with no way on. Twenty metres inside the entrance, on the right, one can follow a short crawl to drop down into an active lower streamway, with a passable active sink in from the jungle twenty metres to the left, and, to the right, a further circa forty metres of streamway leading to the downstream sump. Though the sump felt to be roomy underwater, and Pat was tempted to try a free dive, most likely this continues down the dip, so this was left for another day, as was another steep active inlet passage, joining just above the sump, but which was not immediately climbable – Darien is not, after all, covered by the MRO!

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Dig Hastilow in Entrance to Cueva Jose Garrido
Photo, Roger Day

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James Cobbett with Column in Cueva Jose Garrido
Photo, Roger Day

The next day being a Sunday, and still knackered from being twelve hours out and about in the tropical sun, at 32° C. and 100% humidity, on the Saturday, we took it easy. In the afternoon we took a short panga ride to visit a Spanish fort on a small island near La Palma.

Fort San Lorenzo was one of a number of small forts built in the area in the 18th century, to support a Spanish campaign to annihilate the Guna Indians, who were then allied with the British who wanted to control Darien, with its gold mines and its easy access to the route taken by treasure-laden fleets from Callao in Peru to Panama City.

On the Monday morning, we met our driver at eight o’clock and set off in the Hilux again, headed South, on the same roads as before. After only about one hour, we parked the Hilux and walked half an hour across Pili’s farm, to find him, and his campesinos, ranching cattle. After coffee at his farmhouse, Pili and his two sons led us down into the jungle, via a stream in a small gorge, to reach the entrance to Pili’s Tunnel after about twenty minutes.

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Pat Cronin by Main Entrance to Pili's Tunnel - Photo, Roger Day

Pili’s Tunnel (UTM 17P, 0825828 x 0900708, total surveyed length 411 metres), just 2 kms from Cueva Jose Garrido as the bat flies, is a complex, albeit small, master-cave, with three active sinks, one resurgence, one easy dry upper entrance, and two ladderable pitches from surface, all passable, plus at least one additional inlet stream which was too difficult to follow. It is also a real “fun” cave, with lots of swimming, and more than enough bats to satisfy the most rabid batophile. Though Pili’s family had explored much of this before, we were certainly the first group of “real cavers”, and likely the first group to explore the complete cave.

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Pili's Tunnel Main Chamber - Photo, Dig Hastilow

The main entrance, actually two entrances counted as one, lies at the base of a cliff, at the end of a valley, with the stream flowing into the cave. This leads into a lofty and wide main chamber, with a number of stal columns from ceiling to floor. The sky-light above allows light to filter in, permitting some plants and lichens to thrive, and illuminating the myriad swallows and bats flying around. Only about 120 metres from the main entrance, the stream resurges from the main passage, via an impressive arch.

Just inside the main entrance, an inlet tunnel comes in on the left, that may be followed up via a series of climbs to an active sink in the jungle after about eighty metres. We were later shown another dry entrance, above this inlet tunnel, from where a passage drops to join this stream .

Just inside the main chamber, a substantial stream enters from the right that may be followed, by swimming to a collapse, open to the sky, impassable without a ladder. Straight ahead from here, a small stream enters over a flowstone cascade, which was not climbed. To the right, one can swim on, with a dry, high and bat-infested oxbow from the collapse, joining after some twenty metres.

From here, the passage gets more difficult due to the large number of tree trunks and branches blocking it, and the increased desperation of the bats confronted with an unwanted, and unfamiliar, additional restriction to their flight paths, in the form of a large visiting caver. This eventually leads to another, just passable, inlet sink, from the jungle.

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James Cobbett & Pat Cronin in Pili's Tunnel Resurgence

Photo, Dig Hastilow

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James Cobbett in Inlet Tunnel
Photo, Dig Hastilow

Once we had completed the exploration, survey and photos, we went back to Jose’s farmhouse, where he, most kindly, plied us with cold beer and roast chicken. Having thanked Jose profusely, we walked back to the Hilux, then back to La Palma.

The next morning we took a panga back to Puerto Quimba, and “checked out” with Senafront. One and a half hour’s driving got us to Yaviza (see map, above), where the Pan-American Highway runs out in the Darien Gap. Beyond here one can go South only by boat on the many rivers, or on foot. We visited the Commandante of the Darien Senafront Brigade in his headquarters, and told him what we had been up to, and asked if he knew of any more caves in Darien. He was very friendly, but unable to point us at any “hot leads”, cave-wise. We also met a French, professional “Darien Guide”, who was waiting for one of a group of commercially-sponsored motor-cyclists who had decided to turn back one day into the Darien jungle, leaving his colleagues to carry on without him. We bought the Frenchman lunch, and left him wondering if his biker was, “late”, “missing”, or “worse”. We never saw anything on CNN, so likely he turned up eventually. The Frenchman could not point us at any caves either!

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Choked Inlet Sink

Photo, Roger Day

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Roger Day with Flowstone Cascade
Photo, Dig Hastilow

We spent the Tuesday night in a hotel one hour up the Pan-American Highway from Yaviza, and drove back to Panama the next morning, “checking out” with Senafront a couple of times en route. We arrived home in time for The Explorers’s Bar, swimming pool, lunch and well-earned siestas in hammocks.

Yes, There are caves in the Darien Gap.

James S. Cobbett, Panama City, Panama – 8th July 2018

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