In late February and early March of 2005 a group of three cavers from Britain and one British caver based in Panama spent approximately two weeks exploring the caves on the Bocas del Toro islands on the Caribbean coast in the north west of the Republic of Panama.
Although there is a lot of limestone in Panama much of which is cave-bearing there is very little recorded cave exploration.
Panama City, Panama
Priddy, Somerset, UK
Wells, Somerset, UK
Wells, Somerset, UK
Wessex Cave Club / Pegasus
Bristol Exploration Club
Bristol Exploration Club
Geology & Geography
As none of the party would admit to either geological or geographical training a subjective description only is given.
On both Bastimentos and Colon the centres of the islands rise to about 50-70m of elevation and are surrounded by wide areas of level ground only a few metres above sea-level. The central portions are mainly covered with rainforest and much of the low-lying area is marsh and mangrove swamp. Around areas of habitation the land is cleared for farming and there is considerable evidence of increasing development for the tourist industry.
All of the caves explored were developed in horizontally bedded bands of "caliza" a coralline limestone that is present over large areas and used by the locals to make cement and possibly as aggregate. This is a very friable stone and seems to be interspersed with layers of petrified mud/clay which is extremely slippery: both of these rocks are very fragile.
There is a high annual rainfall in the area and cave development is very common; most of the cave passages are only a few metres below ground level. At higher elevations there is evidence of massive older collapsed systems with short lengths of very large dry passages often choked with mud or stalagmite formations. The caves at a lower level are usually horizontal active streamways with frequent collapses from the surface. The presence of numerous cenotes and large inactive, at least at the time of our visit in the dry season, resurgence pools would suggest the presence of extensive sub-water table development.
Cave Exploration & Description
A. La Gruta and associated caves
1. La Gruta - this is a-well known "show" cave on the island and the upstream, and probably downstream sections are well known to local cavers.
Access - A short taxi ride from Bocas to a sign for "La Gruta" and then a 300m walk along a paved track to a stream marked by religious icons, a lectern and a series of banked pews. Upstream from here the water resurges from a large cave entrance and following the stream downriver over a small dam leads to a further large entrance after approximately 100m.
Upstream - This has been adequately described previously by Keith Christenson ..."The cave consists of a horizontal active stream passage, divided up into four separate parts. The main entrance is large and of walking height, and opens into the largest known passage in Bocas. However, this passage is only 94m long, coming out into a karst window. The next cave section is just 7m long, and then the final section is 204m of mostly walking height stream cave with occassional pools. "
Downstream - the cave consists of walking and wading in the streamway through three cave sections to emerge in a small valley. The stream from the cave is a tributary to the stream flowing down this valley, (see below). The first of the downstream sections was surveyed by Maurice Thomas and Jorge Pino in 2002.
2. Cenotes, "Mac & Cobbett's " Cave, "Rob & Helen's " Cave
Once out of downstream La Gruta the valley can be followed upwards to multiple sites - as the locals seemed unaware of these egos were given full rein when naming the entrances.
Access - the valley can be accessed by following the road beyond the sign to La Gruta for approximately 500m to a series of culverts carrying a stream under the road and then river-walking upstream for about 500m but by far the easiest access is to go through downstream La Gruta.
Cenotes - Just upstream of the lower entrance of La Gruta the valley divides and several cenotes, (open water-filled pits), up to 5m diameter and short low sections of crawling cave, (up to 15m in active streamways with upstream and downstream sumps), can be found. These are almost certainly part of the same system and there may be a large sub-water table cave.
"Mac & Cobbett's" Cave - In the right fork of the valley 60m from the downstream entrance of La Gruta on a bearing of 022.5 deg, (UTM: 17P 0360148 1038857). 80m of straight passage just under the surface with several skylights ending in rising passage with a "rabbit -sized"exit hole to the surface.
"Rob & Helen's " Cave - The resurgence for the stream in the right fork of the valley. Located by following the stream to a large patch of dense undergrowth, (UTM: 17P 0360215 1039057).
From the entrance above the active resurgence a short section of muddy walking rift passage leads to 100m of alternating flood overflow and active streamway with an area of roof collapse at about the halfway point. The passage varies from hands-and-knees crawling to walking passage and ends at a junction. To the left 20m of crawling in water in the active streamway leads to a lowish, (lm high 2m wide) passage not pushed to a conclusion and to the right leads to a similar sized flood overflow passage ending at a stal blockage beyond which the passage could be seen to continue.
Tree Cave - 50m from the lower entrance of La Gruta on a bearing of approximately 028.0deg is an obvious large tree on the slope just below the crest of the ridge. A small entrance between the roots leads into a muddy chamber with a steep mud slope below. This was not pushed to a conclusion but probably links with the top end of "Mac & Cobbett's Cave"
Purgatory Cave - Downstream from the bottom end of La Gruta the valley can be followed to the main road. Approximately 500m downstream of the road the stream sinks and just beyond this a small cave, (position not fixed), on the left bank was pushed as a flat out crawl in water, sharp rocks and flood debris for at least 15m by an heroic individual egged on by the cries of his companion at the entrance. The passage continued beyond in a similar fashion.
3. Other sites -
Cenotes - By following the road beyond the La Gruta turn-off for about 1km another dry valley enters on the right hand side. In the floor of this are a number of cenotes l-2m in diameter. (UTM: 17P 0357966 1039752).
Un-named Cave - On the opposite side of road from the track to the other cenotes is a small cave. (UTM: 17P 0357857 1039698).
B. Wysiwyg and associated caves
A series of caves which were probably once part of a very large system.
Access - From the roadside sign for La Gruta a poorly defined track, the old military road, can be followed almost due north through cleared fields with occasional patches of deep mud for approximately 3km of hard walking to the edge of the jungle. A local guide and/or a GPS locator would be advisable.
1. Wysiwyg, ("What you see is what you get"), Cave
An impressive entrance chamber in the wall of a small doline is sand and mud-floored with a deep blind pit in the floor. Contouring around the edge of the pit allows access to a low slot to leading to a ledge on the wall of a second large and well-decorated steeply sloping chamber with no ways on.
2. Doline Caves
a. Doline 1 - approximately 80m due west of Wysiwyg Cave is a large doline with four cave entrances.
East Wall - small rift leads after a few metres to a short narrow canal sumped at both ends.
North West wall - low entrance leads to a muddy slope down to a static sump.
West Wall - low crawl leads to a junction after approximately 2m. To the left low passages soon become too tight and to the right the passage enlarges to a large deep pool. Swimming across the pool and under an arch allows access to a chamber completely floored with deep water at the far side of which the passage continues underwater and almost certainly connects with the sump in the North West wall cave.
South West Wall - about 60m of large mud-floored walking passage with two avens to daylight leads to Doline 2
b. Doline 2 - approximately 60m south west of Doline 1 is a second doline with 2 entrances.
East Wall - other end of the South West Wall cave in Doline 1.
West Wall - From the large entrance, approximately 5x3m, a large muddy passage slopes steeply down to the left to end at after about 15m. 5m before the end of the chamber on the left side a 4m crawl in thick mud leads to another large chamber with several blind pits in floor which contain bad air. Straight ahead at the entrance a steep climb for 3 to 4m over a large boulder leads to a third doline.
3. Cayman Caves
a. Upper Cayman Cave
From the west side of the third doline a large entrance leads to a boulder floored steep slope down to a large, (30 x 8 x 6m), flat sand and mud-floored chamber with archaeological artifacts. Along the north wall of the chamber is a narrow trench containing an active stream. Upstream leads via walking and stooping passage to two sumps after approximately 60m. At the west end of the entrance chamber is a steep slope up to an entrance in a fourth doline and downstream from here a high rift passage with a clean rock and gravel floor leads to a lower entrance after about 150m. A small passage in the left wall at a widening of the passage quickly becomes too tight. A small cayman, ( 2m long), was seen in one of the pools in this cave.
b. Lower Cayman Cave
From the lower entrance of Upper Cayman Cave the stream follows a ravine for about 100m and then enters a short section of large clean washed rift passage. After 20m another entrance is reached and the stream joins the Rio Mimitimbi which is the main river draining the interior of Isla Colon and runs due North from its resurgence,(see below), to the sea.
D. Rio Mimitimbi Caves + Resurgence and Flood Overflow.
Access - although the river could be accessed via the Cayman Caves it is easier to follow the main road beyond the La Gruta turnoff towards Drago for about 5km to where a track is seen on the right opposite a small farm. From here 45 minutes of walking reaches the river at a small ford, (UTM: 17P 0359497 1042534). A local guide is advisable.
Upstream an hour of walking, wading and swimming is needed to reach the bottom entrance of Lower Cayman Cave.
1. Mimitimbi Beach Caves
A short walk downstream from the ford leads to the beach where two short caves were noted.
2. River Caves
Downstream of the ford and at several points on the upstream walk the river passes through short sections of very large, 10x10m, cave passage up to 30m in length.
At about the halfway point between the ford and the entrance to Lower Cayman Cave there is a large tributary entering on the true right hand side of the stream. At the time of this trip this was a dry streambed leading after 10m to a large, 8x8m, static sump pool from which a large passage could be seen continuing underwater.
4. Flood Inlet Cave
Approximately 90m upstream of the entrance to Lower Cayman Cave is an 80m section of cave passage leading to a classic karst pavement floored valley which obviously takes a lot of water in times of flood.
5. Main Resurgence
A further 110m above the Flood Inlet Cave the Rio Mimitimbi resurges through boulders at one point via a 5m diameter pool. A brief reconnaissance failed to reveal any negotiable cave passage.
A. Nibida and associated caves.
Previous exploration of the area around the head of a small creek at the top of the Bahia Honda by Keith Christenson and Matt Lachniet aided by local cavers in 2002 had revealed three reasonably sizeable active cave systems - Nibida, Cueva Domingo and 01' Bank Underworld of which Nibida and OBU had not been pushed to a conclusion.
Access: The caves are located in a National Park and it is possible that a permit may be required to visit although nothing seemed to be required during this visit. From Bastimentos town a boat trip of about half-an-hour across the Bahia Honda and then up a narrow tidal creek through the mangrove swamps reaches a very small jetty. Because of the confusing nature and, to an untrained eye, the identical nature of all the small creeks a local guide is advisable. Once at the jetty 150m of walking along an obvious track leads to a clearing with the house of the "warden" one Domingo Villagra, (pronounced Viagra and therefore the source of much amusement!). Leaving the clearing, 100 to 150m of easy walking along a muddy track gains a footbridge over a small stream, the stream from Nibida, following this upstream for 40m leads to the large resurgence entrance of Nibida at the base of a small cliff.
UTM 17P 374660 1028661- Datum NAD87 Christenson 2002
The cave was originally explored in 2002 and was well described by Keith Christenson...
"The cave consists of a horizontal active stream passage. The upstream ends at a divable sump which should provide a way on to connect with OT Bank Underworld. The downstream end is a resurgence, and the main entrance.
The only major side lead is an infeeder, which enters the cave after coming down a series of waterfalls and pools (swimming required). The cave continues upstream unexplored beyond an unclimbable waterfall a mere 2m high (but you must start the climb while swimming in a 4m deep pool). "
The 2005 trip was able to extend the cave...
a. Upstream end - the diveable sump mentioned above was found to be a low airspace section approximately 2m in length into a high rift carrying the stream passage varying between 2 and 6m in width and up to 8m in height, which could be followed for about 750m passing at least one skylight en route. At the upstream end the cave emerged into daylight at a section of collapsed passage/doline at the far side of which it could be followed through several other sections of collapse as a slightly smaller passage to end at a large doline with multiple cave entrances none of which were pushed to a conclusion.
b. "Wham Bamboo Inlet" - the terminal waterfall of the infeeder passage mentioned above was climbed using artificial aids, a bamboo pole and ladder across the pool after attempts to climb it had failed miserably and aqueously, to gain 130m of small rifts and short climbs to an upper entrance. Another short through cave was found by following the water upstream.
Subsequent calculations have shown that this is currently the longest surveyed cave in Panama.
2. Cueva Domingo
UTM 17P 374635 1028643 - Datum NAD87 - Christenson 2002
Named after Domingo Villagra this cave is situated the base of the cliff approximately 50m to the South West of Nibida. The 2002 party examined the bulk of this system ...
"The cave consists of a horizontal active stream passage. The upstream ends at a divable sump which should provide a way on to considerable passage. The downstream end is a resurgence, and the main entrance. "
The 2005 trip passed an intimidating duck at the upstream end only to be stopped by a true sump just beyond.
3. Ol' Bank Underworld
UTM 17P 375098 1028335 - Datum NAD87 - Christenson 2002
By climbing the cliff above Nibida and walking approximately 500-600m to the south-east a rift entrance is found in the jungle - a local guide is strongly advised. The 2002 description of the cave is...
"The cave consists of a winding, active stream passage with mostly solid, scoured limestone walls, ceiling and floor. Downstream ends at a divable sump, which should connect to the upstream sump in Nibidd after some 200m of expected walking passage between the sumps. The upstream end of the cave exploration ends with streams coming in from several directions, none of which were followed to an end, and all are open and going. The general character in the upstream area is lower and muddier.
From the main passage, two large side passages take off. Both are roughly 3m higher than the floor of the main passage. The passage further upstream is an infeeder during high-water events, and goes several hundred meters to a sinkhole entrance. This sinkhole can be passed and the cave continues as a muddy belly crawl which was not explored to an end. The further downstream passage pirates water during high-water events, and goes a couple hundred meters to a groundwater sump/pool. This pool is divable, and could possibly provide a way to connect to Domingo's Cave. The water appears to have no flow, and zero visibility could be a problem for diving here."
During a brief visit the 2005 party found no further extensions but it is obvious from the finds in Nibida that the downstream sump in OBU does not connect with this cave but may instead connect to the upstream sump in Domingo's.
Note: "Ol' Bank" is the name given by the locals to Isla Bastimentos.
4. Un-named shaft
A short shaft entrance was noted by two members of the party, SM & JC, near Cueva Domingo with passage leading off from the bottom but was not entered owing to lack of time and tackle.
B. Cedar Creek etc
Some time was spent investigating the area around Cedar Creek, (UTM 17P 0377311 1027000), on the southern coast of Isla Bastimentos but only very short sections of passage between collapses were found.
Intriguingly the marine charts for this island and the local inhabitants mention a coal mine, which would suggest the possibility of limestone as well, but no caves appear to be known to the locals and nothing was found on a short reconnaissance trip by James Cobbett.
Two members of the party, JC and SM, spent about half a day exploring this area on the south east border of the Bocas area. However no limestone could be found and none of the locals knew of any caves in the area.
1. Grade 3 sections: all measurements were taken using a 30m fibron tape read to the nearest centimetre, a Suunto Compass read to approximately one degree and a Suunto clinometer read to the nearest percent. The resulting data was recorded immediately.
2. Grade 1 sections: distances and angles were estimated whilst in the cave and sketches recorded immediately after exiting the cave.
3. The raw data was processed on a computer using "COMPASS" software to produce a centre-line and a computer generated passage outline. This was then imported into CorelDraw and the final survey drawn.
4. GPS readings were taken with a handheld Garmin E-trex Vista GPS receiver and, unless otherwise stated, the local datum NAD27 (Canal Zone) was used. Unfortunately neither the exact time of the readings or the degree of confidence were recorded in every case.
All of the members of the party had considerable experience of tropical caving and the problems involved and made their individual choices accordingly. Clothing consisted of either T-shirt and light tracksuit trousers, (Ron Hill Tracksters), or underwear covered with a light oversuit. Owing to the nature of the rock and the vicissitudes of jungle-walking heavy gloves were deemed essential.
Petzl helmets of varying vintages were worn underground and illumination provided by a variety of Petzl LED/halogen combinations of which the "Duo" seemed to prove the most reliable.
Group equipment consisted of a 10m electron ladder, two sets of SRT equipment and a 30m static rope and some slings.
The ladder and slings were used in conjunction with an ad-hoc bamboo maypole to scale a 2m cascade and the rope was used once for security on a longish swim and to descend a steep-sided doline.
Travel & Accomodation
UK to Panama
The UK based members of the team flew to Panama on Delta Airlines via a short stopover in Atlanta. The total journey time was about 16 hours and the cost approximately £565:00 pp.
After an overnight stay in JC's house in Panama City the party traveled onto Bocas del Toro.
Although the roads in Panama are relatively good by the standards of the region they are also few in number. Furthermore driving to Bocas del Toro, which takes about 10 hours of driving, involves a ferry crossing the logistics of which might have entailed an overnight stop. Therefore the party flew from Panama City to Bocas del Toro. The flights go approximately three times daily and take about an hour. The flight cost was US$ 61.00pp but carrying caving gear incurred an excess baggage charge of US$ 0.50/lb, (note the baggage allowance on these flights is only 20 pounds NOT kilos).
Bocas to Caves
Accomodation in Bocas was on a yacht moored in the marina; there are many cheap water taxis for travel to the individual islands and then standard four-wheel drive taxis were hired to get around on land.
For journeys to the caves on Bastimentos and reconnaissance trips around the island a fast boat and driver were hired for the day. The cost varying between US$30.00 and US$90.00 depending on the distance, the number of drivers/guides and the amount of beer carried/consumed.
A small medical kit was taken to cope with minor incidents. Since none of the caves were remote and Panama has a reasonable health service it was not felt necessary to take extensive medical supplies.
Those members of the party already on medication were expected to provide for themselves.
Small wounds - the sharp and slippery nature of the rock in the caves meant that several members of the party had abrasions and cuts from minor falls which were treated with local hygiene and on one occasion topical antibacterial ointment, (Fucidin).
Strains/sprains - muscular and joint pains were managed with oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, (diclofenac and ibuprofen).
Diffenbachia - the Diffenbachia plant grows extensively in the forest and direct contact with naked skin causes a marked irritation. A peculiar hazard for cavers is mud that contains high levels of remnants of these plants at a microscopic or near-microscopic level and impregnation of clothing with this mud can lead to a severe burning sensation. Fortunately this is not a long-term phenomenon and can be alleviated by stripping off and washing both clothing and body in clean water.
Insect bites/stings - all of the party suffered from these although none necessitated specific treatment.
Sea sickness - one member of the party, (HH), suffered from sea sickness which was quickly ameliorated with oral Dramamine.
Most of Panama is considered to be free of malaria however there is a risk in the Bocas del Toro and those members of the party from UK elected to use doxycline, (lOOmg./person/day), as a prophylactic measure.
James & Marilyn Cobbett - for their hospitality and Marilyn in particular for her tremendous forbearance and good humour when we turned her home and the beautiful yacht into makeshift caving huts.
Keith Christenson - for his unselfish generosity in sharing his data with us.
Oscar and Alvaro Powell - for help with guiding and arranging transport on Isla Bastimentos.
Gordon and Loreen MacMillan - on Isla Colon for help with guiding plus permission to tramp all over their land.
This trip explored and surveyed over a mile of cave with little difficulty. The cave passages themselves were spectacular being large, aquatic and well-decorated if, unfortunately, not of any great length. Although it is unlikely that a "world ranking" cave will be found in the area there is potential for more similar systems to be found either by river-walking or jungle-bashing ideally with local guidance.
The horizontal nature of all these caves allied to their proximity to the water-table and termination in large sumps might suggest the existence of extensive flooded sytems and there are anecdotal reports of "blue holes" off the coast of Isla Colon and a further expedition involving cave-divers is planned in early 2006.
Appendix 1 - Cave lengths
"Mac & Cobbett's" Cave
"Rob & Helen's" Cave
Doline 1 (i)
Doline 1 (ii)
Doline 1 (iii)
Doline 1 (iv)
Doline 2 (ii)
Flood Inlet Cave
01' Bank Underworld
ADDED LENGTH 2005