A Panamanian-British-Irish caving expedition
Surveying in the main passage Cueva la Taverna Almirante, Bocas Del Toro. Photo Roger Day
Normally expedition’s thanks are directed to those who generously support a team’s project in various ways from outside the actual team involved. This does not however address the fundamentals that make the expedition actually happen. I would therefore emphasize that it is without any doubt whatsoever that James Cobbett has been the principle driving force in the exploration of Panamanian caves for many years now. So I would alter tradition and offer my personal thanks first of all to James Cobbett; thank you James for the fun we’ve had and that yet to come. My thanks are also directed to the caving teams I have been so very fortunate to be a part of over these almost fifty years; not just exploring the Republic of Panama over the last decade, but the numerous other caving expeditions that have taken me far around the world; each in turn presenting difficulties, tragedy, discoveries and a terrific amount fun.
To return to tradition; without the support of the following organisations and individuals this trip would have experienced greater difficulties than it actually had to endure. Therefore my sincere thanks are offered to the following for their contributions most importantly Marilyn Cobbett for her unceasing good humour, excellent company and her overwhelming selfless hospitality; Roger Day for his terrible jokes, good humour and persistent determination to photographically record events; the warm and welcoming peoples of the Republic of Panama; the Expedition fund of the Speleological Union of Ireland for their assistance toward the financial burden; the owner of the Bocas Ridge Hotel in Almirante for his kind permission to explore his land, and his genuine interest in our curious endeavours, to the Teribe Indians for their very warm and kind reception on our visit, and last but never least to Pauline Cronin, my wife, for her unceasing commitment and unwavering support for my exploration of the underground realm.
Pat Cronin, Doolin 2015
Figure 1 Location map of Republic of Panama
Figure 2 Location map of areas visited
Road journey & Ferry
Location reference recording
Cave of the Killer Ants, photograph and survey
Bluff Beach Hollow; Bluff Beach Resurgence and Ol’ Bank Underworld
Pozo Lazaro, photograph and survey
Cueva la Taverna, photograph and survey
Flood Sink and Cueva del Drago, photograph and survey
Rio Teribe report
Isla Bastimentos aerial imagery of cave entrances
This is the fifth report covering the cave exploration to Panama in search of caves. The previous visits being 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011. Prior to James Cobbett’s arrival in the Republic there had been discoveries throughout the country, soundly refuting a cavalier comment that caves were absent from this enthralling environment. From his home in Panama City James has painstakingly assembled a database of cave exploration in Panama. Whilst the exploration of Panamanian caves has resulted in modest depths and lengths each adds to the speleological, hydrological, and archaeological knowledge. The fact that the sites are scattered across the country illustrates the size of task facing those who wish to pursue this project. Even as this trip began two further areas came to our attention, Bocas del Drago on Isla Colon and Ojo del Agua, Almirante; both areas resulting from conversing with locals.
Team members :- James Cobbett, Marilyn Cobbett, Roger Day, Stewart Redwood and Pat Cronin.
A very rare image of our photographer Roger Day; on the right! Photo James Cobbett
Reflecting on the disappointments of the 2011 trip the visit for 2015 trip proposed several firmer objectives, whilst remaining flexible enough to respond to the unexpected; past experience had shown this approach to be the most practical and essential methodology. The team’s ongoing search for caves in Panama discovered the majority, and extended the present longest, within the Bocas Del Toro archipelago; near the Costa Rican border. The nationally promulgated success of the 2009 trip resulted in an overwhelming volume of reported cave entrances throughout Panama from numerous parties. Preparations for the 2011 trip collated these sites into appropriate zones to be explored in turn. Unfortunately, and surprizingly, virtually all of the sincerely reported cave entrances proved otherwise; hours of toil beneath the broiling sun resulting in enormous disappointment.
Therefore three proposals were agreed for the 2015 trip; phase one, to explore the possibility of extending ‘Ol Bank Underworld by pushing the outstanding leads from the 2005 trip, (Harper, Harper, MacManus & Cobbett 2005), and to investigate the surrounding area for other cave systems; to climb the vertical mud wall in Cave of the Killer Ants and investigate the high level passage. Phase two, to return to the Azuero peninsula to push the constricted flooded passage, a possible sump bypass, leading off the canal near the sump in Cuevas la Muertitos, and explore the adjacent elevated limestone landscape to the south. Phase three was to have been a return to Aligandi River Cave in the Darien jungle, first explored, but not surveyed, by James Cobbett and Roger Day, to complete its survey and explore some potential entrances noted in the adjacent limestone cliffs.
During the journey to Bocas Del Toro an overnight stop in the Bocas Ridge Hotel, Almirante, presented a chance encounter with the welcoming hotel owner, Caesar Luis Romero, who proffered information of unrecorded caves on Isla Colon, not only that, the proprietor believed there to be a cave on the mountain side immediately below the hotel environs; at an altitude of between one and three hundred metres and several kilometres from the coast, this suggestion was received open mouthed, with enormous interest and some incredulity: reflecting upon the 2011 trip. As the immediate visit to Bocas Del Toro involved arrangements that could not be cancelled we agreed to return as soon as practicable to investigate this hitherto unknown area of limestone; Caesar also gave the team permission to access his land on Isla Colon to check the possibility of caves with the assistance of his accommodating guide Lazaro: rather stunned at its good luck the team pressed Caesar further as to the validity of rumoured cave entrances along the upper reaches of the Rio Teribe. An immediate phone call arranged an appointment with a local guide who had extensive knowledge of the geography of the Rio Teribe. The genial meeting confirmed that caves were indeed present but to access them required entering the land of the Teribe Indians; permission that could only be obtained from their King. Arrangements were swiftly completed for the long passage by canoe up river to the Teribe village. The team’s arrival received a cordial welcome and the meeting with the King’s representative was welcoming, constructive and informative; arrangements were proposed to return the following year.
The team’s policy of flexibility proved a wise one; the confirmation of previously rumoured cave sites, and the wholly unexpected limestone occurrences of Almirante and Punta del Drago on Isla Colon caused the team to prioritize exploration of these locations, then, and only then, should time allow, make the long journey to the Azuero peninsula.
The team assembled in Panama City on the 18th February 2015, flying independently from the UK and Ireland. Once the equipment had been sorted and packed the team adjourned to La Rana Dorada for refreshments; the micro brewery’s products are rather superb; the entire team highly recommend this brewery as the ideal place to start and finalize an expeditions arrangements. The outstanding points of the expedition were eventually addressed and recent information carefully assessed. Very early, too early, the following morning the team loaded the vehicle and departed for Almirante commencing phase one of the expedition.
Fig 1. Republic of Panama showing the Costa Rican and Colombian borders.
Fig 2. Bocas del Toro province; locations of Isla’s Colon, Bastimentos and the Rio Teribe.
Road Journey & Ferry
The journey by road from Panama City to Almirante, located close to the eastern Costa Rican border, took nine hours. Route finding presented minor problems. The Bocas Ridge Hotel was located just outside the town. Almirante is the main banana export port for Panama from where a regular vehicle ferry service to Bocas del Toro operates on a strictly first come first served basis; after assessing the volume of traffic and the ferry’s carrying capacity the team chose to utilize a large panga, which managed to accommodate the team and all its equipment, leaving the car in a secure car park near the water taxi terminal. The final part of the journey to the rented house in Colon was on foot carrying all the heavy equipment; no taxis being available. The following morning the expedition began in earnest.
Location Reference Recording
GPSR referencing was carried out using hand held Garmin Oregon 300; allowed to stabilize before any readings taken. GPS locations were recorded in the GPSR device and as hard copy in Cronin’s field diary. UTM NAD 27 (Canal Zone) was the position format used.
Muscular injury was managed with oral anti-inflammatory drugs; diclofenac and ibuprofen.
Diffenbachia; is a common plant throughout the jungle environment, upon contact with bare skin it produces an acid like irritation, contact with the eyes is definitely not recommended. Cave mud contains a solution of these plants at microscopic level, this accumulates in clothing and can lead to a severe burning sensation. Symptoms can be alleviated by washing clothing and skin in clean running water.
Various stings and bites: none of which required any specific treatment.
Small wounds were treated with topical antibacterial ointment.
Jungle conditions, Punta del Drago; Pat Cronin. Photo James Cobbett
Cave of the Killer Ants
UTM 17P 0364189 x 1037433
Length 160 metres
Depth 14 metres
Elevation 16 metres
The entrance is located adjacent to the barb wire fence, just inside the forest; when approached through the timber gates of the main road up the grassy track. The aim of this trip was to scale the climb and push the passage which may well connect to the nearby cave "Toad in the Hole". The previous exploration in 2006 was thwarted owing to the friable nature of the vertical mud wall, a too short bamboo pole and breakable plant roots; the falling climber caught by a colleague below.
To solve this problem the team had brought along a four section builders ladder. On arrival the base of the climb was noticed to have collapsed into an active streamway; the vertical mud climb now somewhat higher than before; even with the ladder the climber still only able to ascend to a point some frustrating two metres below the top. The ladder was relocated but no further height achieved; with SR standing on it to secure it: PC tied a knot in the end of a short rope and threw it up over the climb where it jammed on the first attempt; suspicious, though trusting to luck the climb was scaled.
Within two metres of the climb a pitch of six metres dropped immediately into the side of a much larger passage. During the wait for JC to ascend PC realised he was standing in the nursery of the large ant colony, on the receiving end of a lot of very upset families and their relatives, unable to flee he suffered myriad bites while loudly encouraging JC to hurry up. The ladder pitch bottomed into a muddy hollow in the side of the main passage; a wide elongated chamber/passage was followed first up to the left, then around the slope to level out around to the right, crossing a floor of ankle deep guano, the base of a skylight was eventually reached; the opening some twelve metres above. JC and PC then returned to the main entrance de-rigging and surveying as they retreated. Meanwhile RD pushed the recently opened small, meandering, streamway at the base of the climb along a muddy tube for over ten metres before the air space became too small for him to use.
Scaling the climb in Cave of the Killer Ants; encouraged by Stewart Redwood and James Cobbett. Photo Roger Day
Bluff Beach Hollow
UTM 17P 0364230 x 1037376
Depth 4 metres
Elevation 18 metres
Access the track using the same route to Killer Ants; a conical depression, some three metres deep and eight metres in diameter, is located close to the summit of the grass track next to the large tree. This heavily vegetated site was thoroughly investigated no opening was present.
Bluff Beach Resurgence
UTM 17P 0364288 x 1037430
Length 20 metres (open surface stream channel)
Depth 3 metres
Elevation 6 metres
The proximity of Cave of the Killer Ants to this site strongly suggests that that same stream now emerges in a collapsed area adjacent the road and sea. Roadside vegetation had recently been cut down allowing road users an unimpeded view of an open area shaded by the mature tree canopy. There are three collapses, almost three metres deep, all connected by an active stream. The stream emerges from compacted earth; forcing an entry would be unwise as, like in Cave of the Killer Ants, no solid rock is discernable as adequate support for the passage integrity. The passage connecting the three collapses is presently flooded (February 2015). The sea is less than forty metres away; no evidence of the stream, or a surface overflow channel was visible. Enquiries strongly suggest more sites close to an adjacent “blue” house.
Ol’ Bank Underworld
UTM 17P 0375178 x 1028083
Length 1146 metres
Depth unrecorded (2015).
Elevation 23 metres
The aim of this trip was to push the cave and assess the terminal sump for dive potential. Each and every avenue was investigated to extend the cave; the sump was investigated; entry into the sump pool drops to a depth of at least two metres, the approach passage has silt deposits present, an adjacent high level passage has significant deposits of very fine silt. There are no further prospects in the cave other than the sump, which from the volume of silt suggests it may be quite a constricted underwater passage with zero visibility. There were many adjacent holes and collapses each requires a great deal of time and effort to remove the foliage; each location was recorded.
Punta del Drago
UTM 17P 0356034 x 1041919
Length 49 metres
Depth 8 metres
Elevation 31 metres
This cave is almost impossible to locate without the assistance of a guide; it lay among dense jungle. The cave has one shaft and two other entrances. The cave is entered from the base of a small cliff; controlled by the jointing. The middle entrance is a small rift that descends a gentle slope to a junction; turning right a short section of passage emerges in the face of the small cliff. At the junction the right hand opening gradually increases from a crawl to a lofty passage which opens into the shaft chamber. The six metre entrance shaft descends below the chamber floor but soon becomes blocked by fallen debris.
James descending into Pozo Lazaro lifelined by Pat. Photo Roger Day
Cueva La Taverna
Ojo de Agua
Bocas del Toro
UTM 17P 0340657 x 1028022
Length 87 metres
Depth 3 metres (shaft)
Altitude 100 metres
This was the site indicated by Cesar, the owner of the Bocas Ridge Hotel. It is located in the large natural depression, on the left, as you ascend the road from the coast road towards the Bocas Ridge Hotel, which originally housed the work force for the Changuinola-1 hydroelectric project. Situated in the side of the depression; a small collapsed entrance, likely formed by flooding, descends vertically three metres into a large horizontal cave passage. Some eight metres lower than the entrance, in the very bottom of the depression, there is evidence of a surface sink; this site requires excavating to investigate further cave potential, particularly with regard to this elevation. From the entrance after some ten metres the area widens, to the left the stream sinks. Beyond the first bend the passage assumes a loftier and narrower cross section, which meanders until the low terminal chamber is met. Along its route two high level openings can be seen in the apex of the entrance passage, requiring a maypole to access. Around the terminal chamber evidence of regular deposition of silt abounds; just before the chamber a small deep pool is the source of the stream; it is very likely that a dig in the chamber would lead to an extension.
James negotiating the passage above the resurgence pool, Cueva La Taverna. Photo Roger Day
Punta del Drago
UTM 17P 0356019 x 1041868
Length 0 metres
Depth 0 metres
Elevation 24 metres
In the valley, close to the access road, a small stream may be followed to a sink; evidence suggests the stream significantly increases in the rainy season. This sink is presently choked with the remains of trees and other flora. Excavation of the debris may prove worthwhile considering the elevation.
Cueva Del Drago
Punta del Drago
UTM 17P 0355984 x 1041935
Depth 12 metres
Length 140 metres
Elevation 32 metres
This entrance demonstrates evidence of truncation by the later development of the valley. A large entrance rapidly reduces to become a squeeze along a narrow tube. This emerges into a wide and high passage, the main route is straight on across a guano covered horizontal floor; there are a significant number of bats present. The main passage and a smaller side passage were not pushed to a conclusion owing to several sizable exotic rodents encountered therein. Returning to the entrance area, a climb through a decorated section accesses a six metre shaft to the surface; this area has a number of circuitous routes among the stalagmites. Back at the entrance area a side passage is followed over a small mound reducing in size to where it becomes too small to progress; a wriggle on the right, down a gentle slope can be followed along a low passage terminating in a narrow well decorated rift. The cave floor surface has a significant depth of guano throughout.
Entrance chamber; Cueva del Drago. Photo Roger Day
The (circa 3,000) Teribe Indians are the indigenous people who inhabit the mountainous region of the upper reaches of the Rio Teribe. There are no vehicular roads, (2015). The route to the Teribe village of Sieyic, where the King’s palace is located, involved travelling by dirt track to the river side community of Bonji. This small group of timber huts is up river from the confluence of the Rios Changuinola and Teribe, some ten kilometres up river from the single track El Selencio Bridge. It is from Bonji where a canoe and guide were eventually negotiated. Though February is in the dry season the river maintains a strong swift current,which cuts deep channels around the bends; though for the most part the river flows over protracted shallow sections; evidence of flood water conditions is obvious from the debris strewn high among the branches of river side trees.
Bonji on the Rio Teribe. Photo Roger Day
Marilyn Cobbett arranging transport upstream into the Teribe Indian lands.
A significant amount of dense foliage conceals the geological structure of the river banks; after several kilometres the geology becomes sufficiently exposed to identify what appears to be a form of limestone, (UTM 17P 0320809 x 1036007), with cavities formed at, or near, the present water level. One enterable cave entrance was recorded close to the water level, (UTM 17P 0320809 x 1036007). Above this point the river widens and the geology becomes obscured once more. Over the remaining distance to Sieyic the valley widens and the river becomes increasingly sinuous and shallow; beyond the mountains rise precipitously. Our meeting with the Kings representative was at his house, among his wife and family, it was both welcoming and cordial; our curious request to visit and explore caves met with polite interest and a little confusion. To explain our desire examples of our recent cave surveys and photographs were displayed demonstrating our honourable intentions pictorially far more than simple conversation. The Kings representative, and his assistant, explained that there are indeed many caves throughout their realm the most however being over a week’s walk away. Further details included that very often the caves were used by big cats; particularly Jaguar. The meeting eventually concluded with a request for permissions to be granted for our return in 2016; both to be presented to the King for his kind deliberation.
Low water conditions on the Rio Teribe three kilometres up river from Bonji. Photo Roger Day
Isla Bastimentos aerial imagery of cave entrances
Aerial representation taken from Google of relative positions of sites of interest on Isla Bastimentos using a hand held Garmin Oregon 300; allowed to settle for ten minutes before recording location beneath jungle canopy.
Isla Colon and Almirante
The unexpected reports of caves at Punta del Drago, Isla Colon and Almirante were quite a surprize to the team members; nonetheless the areas were visited and positive results obtained. Further investigative work may well be repaid though the density of the jungle is an issue. The locals were made aware of our interest and were asked for any information on “holes in the ground” to be forwarded to James or Caesar at the Bocas Ridge Hotel. Cueva del Drago illustrates a fine example of a later valley truncating a subterranean water course. The two open passages were not pushed to a conclusion owing to the number of sizable agitated rodents taking up position to defend their territory. These two passages require revisiting though prepared for another encounter; surveying in the confines could turn out problematic. Once again the dense foliage is a problem therefore Lazaro was asked to seek for other holes during his work in the area.
Our research has shown that the use of a modern GPS has provided reasonable relative positioning for the sites discovered; see Google aerial imagery above, even beneath the jungle canopy. The smaller openings located were very much by chance among the dense foliage, however what these finds suggest is the increased possibility of descending these, and others, into the stream route between Ol’ Bank Underworld and Cueva Domingo without recourse to the logistical issues of bringing cave diving kit, and the zero visibility.
Ailigandi River Cave, Darien
Though we set sail in Flying Scud, a 44 ft Beneteau sloop, for Ailigandi, we never got there. Having anchored near Rio Azucar to take on fresh water, the starter motor for the auxiliary diesel engine failed. By the time we had returned to Panama City, ordered, and taken delivery of a replacement from the USA, and returned to Rio Azucar and installed the new starter motor, we were out of time – so a return to the Ailigandi River cave and the Darien jungle, will have to wait for another time.
The meeting with the Teribe Indians has at the very least confirmed the presence of limestone and caves within the surrounding mountains; the logistics for venturing into this area will require careful planning.
Report prepared by