Report of the 2017 Anglo-Irish expedition
James Cobbett climbing out the top entrance of Cueva Del Búho, “Owl Cave”: Photo Dig Hastilow.
Panama 2017; overview
Caves and Potholes near Pueblo Nuevo village
Cueva Del Búho
Cueva Del Corazón
Bat survey Cueva Pueblo Nuevo and area
Phase Two; Lago Bayano to Yaviza, in search of Limestone
Interlude; Pozo Azul & Boca du Tulu
Phase Three, Cueva Del Rio Aligandi and area
Examples of speleothem natural deterioration
Fauna record within Cueva Del Rio AligandiCueva Del Puente Natural
Archaeology of the Pueblo Nuevo area
Notes on Survey Data, Map Datums and Position Formats
Cave data recorded area Pueblo Nuevo, Lago Bayano
Base camp, 05:45. Pueblo Nuevo, Lago Bayano. Photo Roger Day.
The passion to explore the underworld remains as powerful today as it did a half century ago when most of the Anglo-Irish Team first ventured into the Realms of Darkness. What then was considered no more than an obscure, idiotic pastime, indeed a regular target for public derision, is now widely reproduced through various social media for worldwide narcissistic entertainment at large; perhaps a good thing, perhaps not. The world of caves is however recognized for the science it produces having impacts on origins of life forms both Human and other. Those cavers who led exploration have through their determination and discoveries provided valuable advances for those of us who follow effectively bequeathing knowledge and achievements often obtained with limited resources and, by today’s standards, basic equipment. As the Teams project has progressed other interests have broadened the scope of these trips. Once sponsorship was a common support to so many expeditions of the 1960s and 1970s, today such enthusiastic assistance has regrettably ebbed. It’s understandable; these modest expeditions to search for cave throughout Panama don’t attract headlines. Support for Panamanian trips has therefore been scant, funded almost entirely by the members. The Speleological Union of Ireland has regularly supported the Irish contingent but over five visits this financial assistance too has dwindled; likely the direct result of the severe financial difficulties present throughout the whole of Ireland. The information within this report was assembled from effort expended by the Team members with the full intention of it benefiting all who have an interest in pursuing exploration in Panama. Permission and due accreditation is required if wishing to republish its contents.
On behalf of the Team I would like to sincerely thank the following, James and Marilyn Cobbett yet again for their overwhelming hospitality and friendship, James for his enthusiasm and Marilyn for her boundless patience having us as guests, talking endlessly of caving, to Keith Christenson for his kind permission to reproduce his survey of Cueva Piladores, for identifying the Fauna of Cueva Del Rio Aligandi and providing valuable guidance to my editing, To each member of the Team for their extensive good humour and constructive outlook in the face of difficulties; of particular note Hastilow and Day who both made significant effort to accurately record the trip in photographs without which this report would be a lot of text, and for proof reading this compilation, the Speleological Union of Ireland, the Saila, (Elders), of Ailigandi Comarca for their permissions to explore the region, Nelson Smith, Guide, for his good nature and professionalism, also to guides Divaldo and Christopher for their support and good humour, the Pegasus Club Nottingham for hosting the freely available Panamanian Cave Database on the website, and last but never least Pauline Cronin for her continued unwavering support.
© Pat Cronin
Caving in Panama 2017
This is the sixth report of cave exploration throughout the Republic of Panama commencing in 2005; compiled from input provided by its members. There remain extensive tracts of Panama that have no accurate geological information, the absence of limestone data forms part of the Panamanian cave research program. Hence the focus has been to pursue rumoured caves in the hope both limestone and caves are encountered. The terrain and conditions demand significant physical exertion; the age group of the Team is between the mid 50s and upper 60s. Each appreciates that whilst they possess a consuming passion to pursue cave exploration their bodies repeatedly acknowledge the aging process informing the member with occasional aches and pains. New blood is sought to continue this project, exploring the pristine jungle environment of Panama recording its caves, geology and archaeology. To this end, new blood, Austin Garrido has adopted the task, support and research data accumulated by the Team over their twelve years of nationwide activity. For the 2017 trip, among other areas, the team had specifically planned to revisit Cueva Del Rio Aligandi searching for limestone further inland. To then investigate a rumoured cave, Pozo Azul, near Penonome. Survey the geology east from Lago Bayano Bridge to the border town of Yaviza, Darien, and, if time allowed, investigate the mountainous region of the Rio Teribe west of Almirante, Bocas Del Toro. Close to departure the team were informed that thirteen scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, based in Panama, and two Peace Corps volunteers had expressed an interest to Austin to study the Pueblo Nuevo area on the southern shore of Lago Bayano, further to his discovery of some pits. Plans were adjusted to allow this group to join us at Pueblo Nuevo to share our prior knowledge of this area, and to recruit some young blood to the cause. It is, however, regrettable though individuals from seven different countries went to Pueblo Nuevo this did not include any Panamanians.
The above image illustrates the three principle areas of interest.
The Republic of Panama is an isthmus connecting Colombia, to Costa Rica. Though relatively young in geological terms its formation by tectonic activity effectively closed the gap between the North and South American continents causing the extant ocean currents to alter course thereby forming the present structure of the Gulf Stream whose warm waters circulate northward providing Northern Europe with its temperate climate. Accessing the interior of Panama can be problematic, the Pan-American highway allows for swift movement along the spine of the country but once off this route the minor hard top roads swiftly deteriorate to dirt tracks, which become difficult to traverse when wet, particularly during the rainy season between April and December. The dry season though enjoying less rainfall does remain quite wet. Therefore an off road vehicle or boat, is required for protracted exploration of the interior to get to where the walking begins.
The Anglo-Irish Team, left to right, Pat Cronin, James Cobbett, Roger Day and Dig Hastilow.
(Totalled accumulated years of active cave exploration =194).
The original plan was altered to accommodate the Lago Bayano study group; therefore the Team adjusted the research design of the five week expedition into three phases.
Phase One. To amalgamate with the invited international group at Pueblo Nuevo, Lago Bayano to investigate a reported sixty foot pot.
Phase Two. To investigate the geology from Lago Bayano Bridge south-east to Yaviza, Darien Province.
Phase Three. To return to Aligandi River Cave to complete the survey of the cave and investigate the adjacent geology.
Phase One. Lago Bayano.
The Anglo-Irish Team with international Smithsonian Students, friends and locals.
On a previous reconnaissance trip Austin had reported encountering a number of twenty metre deep pots near the village of Pueblo Nuevo, using a plumb-line to confirm depth. The discovery of these deep pots was the catalyst to rearrange the Anglo-Irish Team’s itinerary. The international personnel covered several scientific disciplines including Lepidoptera and of particular interest, Bats. During the time spent at Lago Bayano the group swelled to eighteen members coalescing into their various areas of interest. Nationalities represented were Bulgarian, Costa Rican, British, American, Polish, Irish and French.
Southern shoreline of Lago Bayano. Photo Dig Hastilow.
Caves and Potholes near Pueblo Nuevo
Members of the Bulgarian - Costa Rican Teams made the first descent of the reported 20 metre pot, finding years of domestic refuse at its base. Pushing beyond this pile of debris three passages were followed until becoming too tight or choked, this was surveyed on a later trip by the explorers. Its elevated location and silt deposits demonstrate that whilst this remains an active water course it is subject to regular flooding. The pollution potential of dumping domestic refuse in caves, into a possible source of drinking water, was respectfully conveyed to the community. Other adjacent sites were investigated by the Bulgarians and Costa Ricans; we await their contributions to the expedition report.
The Anglo-Irish contingent explored and surveyed several minor sites near Cueva Pueblo Nuevo and two relative major sites further inland from Pueblo Nuevo village, (Appendix 5). One particular site barely fifty metres from base camp was not descended immediately as the team opted to firstly pursue the discoveries furthest from base camp. At the bottom of the well decorated four metre deep hole passages are visible heading off both north and southward. The significant finds being Cueva del Búho, (Owl Cave), at 103 metres and Cueva del Corazon, (Heart Cave), at 285 metres the longest finds in the area for 2017. Of particular importance was the discovery by Austin Garrido of a second burial cave around a kilometre from Base Camp which contained the skeletal remains of several individuals. Site data was not recorded; the remaining time did not allow a further visit.
Hole 1, fifty metres from base camp, remains unexplored, (Feb 2107). Photo Dig Hastilow.
Cueva Del Búho
UTM 17p 0742884 x 1003281
Length 103 metres
Depth 19 metres
Cliff entrance of Cueva Del Búho, “Owl Cave”, actual resurgence down on right of image. Photo Dig Hastilow.
The small stream which issues from this resurgence cave meanders through scrub to where its narrow channel crosses the path leading to Cueva Del Corazón, and beyond. Once through the smaller opening a large chamber is entered illuminated from a large elongated opening the result of cliff face collapse. This skylight offers resident Owls ease of access. The chamber changes swiftly into a well decorated sinuous twenty metre plus high rift which continues steeply uphill to the large sink entrance. (See cover of report)
Cueva Del Búho Survey.
Cueva Del Corazón
UTM 17P 0743113 x 1003369
Length 285 metres
Depth 9 metres
Cueva Del Corazón, “Heart Cave”, main streamway. Photo Dig Hastilow.
This is another resurgence cave which once supplied water to nearby farming settlements. The single vadose stream passage may be followed for fifty metres to where a high level solutional passage has developed parallel with the main streamway. Beyond, the passage height gradually reduces to a low wide chamber where a large bat roost is present. To the right a low flooded passage may be followed to where it becomes constricted with small air space. To the left of the chamber the passage continues low to where it becomes choked by fallen blocks, the squeeze was forced by a Bulgarian without success. The broken nature of the surrounding rock hereabouts suggests close proximity to the surface. Small pieces of green glass with blunted edges were found in the streamway indicating the adjacent sinkhole, or entrance use as a refuse dump.
The floor of the streamway shows several types of rock, (a proper geologist required), among the streamway the rocks are water rolled. On surrounding speleothem ledges are accumulations of similar rocks though more angular in shape, many calcited within the stalagmitic formations. In some roof cavities rocks are suspended within a sand/clay type matrix. It would appear that the cave has passed through at least three phases of evolution.
1). The original formation of the cave.
2). A significant event causing a substantial quantity of debris to be washed into the cave virtually filling the stream passage. A period of time then allowed many stones to be accreted within the growth of speleothems.
3). A further event allowed water to erode the debris fill to create the present passage cross section leaving accreted stones above the extant stream level.
Examples of water rolled stones accreted some two metres above present stream level. Photo Dig Hastilow.
Cueva Del Corazón Survey.
UTM 17P 072054x1003563 (Resurgence) (2017, NAD27/Canal Zone)
Length 132 metres
Depth 9 metres
Cueva Piladores, “Piledrivers cave”, Roger Day in main Passage. Photo Dig Hastilow.
NB. Though this cave was originally discovered and recorded by James Cobbett, well over a decade ago, neither the survey or description conducted by Keith Christenson, in 2002, have as yet been published, hence its inclusion. Its name was attributed as the locals who kindly guided James to the cave were driving piles.
Its large resurgence entrance is at the end of a deep stream gulley, and quite obscured due to adjacent foliage. Using a GPS, a position within some 200 metres of the resurgence entrance may be attained, but you do need to keep your eyes open, (Appendix 2). Whilst the jungle canopy is quite inhibiting to GPSRs the choice of position format and its own ability to accurately relate has been shown to be uncertain.
From the large resurgence entrance the linear passage reduces in size to an average of some four metres high and three metres wide, this continues until the sink entrance is reached.
Cueva Piladores Survey.
Bat survey of Cueva Pueblo Nuevo
The Bulgarian contingent, including, Michelle Nowak, Nia Toshkova, and Borislav (Bobby) Paunovski conducted a survey of bat species present both in Cueva Pueblo Nuevo and along the adjacent gorge, likely the remains of a significant cave development, in which the cave entrance is located beneath a minor cliff on the eastern side. Several mist nets were set up in the gorge prior to dusk. The data below is taken from their field notes, with minor edits.
On entering the cave, within the first part, we first saw common vampire bats Desmodus rotundus. Throughout the cave there must have been 15+ discrete groups living within hollows in the cave ceiling. These groups seemed in fairly permanent locations because we could see the mounds or dark spots of digested blood below each group but not in other places in the cave. Also observed were many more insectivorous funnel-eared bats Natalus mexicanus roosting individually scattered about in the same passage as the vampires. There were large aggregations of moustached bats Pteronotus--a few P. parnelli and mostly either P. davyi or P. gymnonotus (the big or small naked-backed moustached bats). I also saw a few frugivorous Carollia perspicillata. We went to the end of the cave (the second entrance), then turned around and came back.
Species observed in Pueblo Nuevo cave:
Approximate populations are:
Natalus mexicanus - ~200 (too difficult to tell)
Desmodus rotundus - ~200
Carollia perspicillata - ~50
Pteronotus gymnonotus/P. parnelli - ~1000 mixed colony
Peropteryx kappleri - 2
Average temperature/relative air humidity inside the cave: 25.26°C/95.07%
Phase Two. Lago Bayano to Yaviza, Darien; in search of Limestone.
Once the augmented group left Lago Bayano the Anglo-Irish Team returned to Panama City for two days of rest and relaxation thence departing for Yaviza. The information obtained regarding the road, its condition and available overnight accommodation lead to this lesser section of the project being allotted four days. The rumoured severity of the road caused the Team concern as previous experience included a catastrophic suspension failure 2011, broken wheel and abandonment of vehicle on the road to Boca de la Encantada 2009 – repeated in 2017. Every opportunity was pursued to observe exposed geology en-route; made the easier by the previous systematic deforestation within a mile either side of the main road. Into these cleared areas farms and domestic accommodation have become established. The numerous cuttings of hillsides and river crossings provided ample observation of geology, sediments and stratigraphy. The road surface proved far superior to information received. A swift journey to Méteti, allowed the Team to set up at the Hotel Felicidad well before dark. As plenty of daylight remained a trip over the hard top mountain road to Porto Quimba was made to check for presence of limestone; alas none found. On returning to Méteti, looking for cool beer the encounters within the local bars verged on something from the Wild West. The next morning the trip continued reaching Yaviza in little over an hour; the road surface being hardtop for the majority of the journey.
Main Street, Yaviza. Photo Roger Day.
Yaviza is the southern end of the northern half of the Pan-American Highway which terminates some fifty kilometres from the border of Colombia. There is no obvious trail from here to Colombia, the route only having been negotiated once by vehicle. A Landrover took one hundred days requiring the combined support of both Messer’s Landrover and the British Army. A cluster of brightly painted small businesses and houses all appear well looked after. No road bridge crosses the river here where the busy quayside receives crops brought by panga and canoe. Just upstream from the quayside a pedestrian suspension bridge provides access to the southern shore which is limestone. Investigation found it extends from the riverbank into the town; houses directly built upon the exposed bedrock.
Pedestrian footbridge at Yaviza, note limestone forming opposite bank. Photo Roger Day.
Conversations with the friendly Border Guards were informative and helpful, beyond the southern shoreline, maybe a half hours walk, caves do exist. To reach this area requires the conveyance of equipment and supplies made by pack animal. The route to Yaviza, from Panama City, is amply provided with plenty of roadside cantinas supplying good food and drink, though few obvious places to stop overnight; Hotel Felicidad being the most obvious, though the rooms were at best basic, the breakfast however was indeed superb.
Pozo Azul and Boca de Tulu
As the trip to Yaviza had only taken two days the Team was unprepared and without forthcoming permissions for visiting the Rio Teribe. There were several days before the departure for Aligandi. So the plan to search for the rumoured Pozo Azul, near Penonome was resurrected. This plan also included investigating the rumoured new road bridge spanning the Rio Lura, at Boca de Lura, near its confluence with the Rio Toabre, and to confirm the accompanying comment that it was “now possible to drive to Boca du Tulu”. Where the Rio Tulu joins the Rio Toabre, Boca de Tulu is the village previous reached in 2009 on horseback, having abandoned the two 4 x 4 vehicles, en-route to Boca de la Encantada. Arriving in Penonome well before dark meant the Team seized the opportunity to check the status of the new bridge and actual road conditions to Boca de Tulu.
Rio Lura ford and footbridge. Photo Roger Day.
The Team did find a new bridge however it was purely for pedestrians; the ford remained the only vehicle crossing, just upstream from the confluence of the two rivers. Careful driving got the vehicle across and up the steep slope onto level ground. Some five kilometres on the sun baked ruts became too hard and deep for James’s car to negotiate. Upon returning down the slope to the river a blue haze of smoke erupted from the front of the car as James stopped to let out the passengers, this was the result of a river cobble secure in the compacted track surface punching an elongated hole through the aluminium sump. Fortunately a passing local managed to tow the car through the ford and up the slope to a farm, where it could be recovered by breakdown truck. Whereas in 2009 the vehicles employed were a Toyota Hilux and a Mitsubishi Montero, on this occasion it was only an Acura RDX, crucially lacking a sump guard!
Aluminium sump following impact. Photo Dig Hastilow.
The result of this bad luck was the immediate loss of transport, therefore no trip to investigate Pozo Azul; however the planned return to the limestone area surrounding Cueva Boca de la Encantada now has accurate logistical knowledge. The Team made its way back to Panama City by bus.
Phase Three, Cueva del Rio Aligandi and associated limestone occurrences
Aligandi River Cave is located in the Kuna Yala “Indian” Comarca, (aka San Blas), on the Atlantic coast of Panama toward Colombia. No forms of roads exist here only jungle trails, these sinuous routes regularly cross deep stream flood channels and rivers. To reach Aligandi, with the volume of equipment required to conduct cave exploration, requires a boat. Fortunately James has one. Light aircraft regularly use the small remote runways but severely penalize any form of baggage beyond hand luggage, so such a convenient form of travel is out. The plan was to sail to Aligandi from Carti which would take some three or four days, depending on weather. Permissions had been previously obtained from the Kuna Congresso to enter their territory to return to Cueva Del Rio Aligandi, (Aligandi River Cave), and conduct a survey and photographic record, and to explore the area further to locate any other limestone occurrences. The journey up river was by canoe piloted by Mr. Nelson Smith, head guide, but even with his knowledge route finding proved problematic in the dense undergrowth; visibility only ten metres. Previous information, particularly from the Rio Teribe area warned of big cats using caves regularly as dens. On the northern side of the pass through the limestone ridge near Cueva Del Rio Aligandi fresh Jaguar tracks, (1 hour old), were clear in the soft soil at the base of the climb.
Cueva del Río Aligandi
UTM 17P 0823097x1020540
UTM 17P 0823082x1020563 (taken after two hours)
Province San Blas, (Kuna Yala)
Length 128 metres
Depth 12 metres
Cueva Del Rio Aligandi, new chamber extension.
Its many small rift entrances are located some fifteen metres up in the cliff face, near but not directly facing the Aligandi River. What appears to be talus, rather than a water eroded landscape, steeply occupies the length of the visible cliff. Extensive colonies of ants are well established above flood level of the adjacent stream making any form of delay in ascending the talus painful. Evidence of big cats near the cave entrance was not observed within.
The cave is developed along the natural bedding which dips some fifteen degrees toward the southwest. Within each entrance the passages divide following the jointing. The mostly horizontal floor surface consists of silt and guano. Much of the cave passage appears solutional in development, comprising a series of interconnecting passages and low chambers. The larger rift entrance enters the lower level. Some ten metres ahead a lowering ceiling leads to a small chamber. A climb of two metres accesses the upper series. The adjacent smaller chamber accesses, via an exposed five metre climb, a large isolated chamber which is a roost to several thousand bats, evidenced by the accumulated guano. It was notable that the bat population appeared to be only some one fifth of what it had been when first entered and explored (at the same time of year and day) three years ago. There have been no other visits, as far as we can tell, so the reason for this reduction in number is not clear. Turning right, just inside the entrance, a short scramble encounters the near cylindrical five metre pitch. Traversing over this a narrow connection leads to another entrance in the cliff face that accesses the new extension, a fourteen metre elongated chamber, alas only four metres in height. Many of the walls and formations appear to be in stages of dissolving; several areas are exposed where rings of deposition are clearly visible. All photographs taken during the Aligandi trip were by Roger Day. Except the image of the Jaguar this is by Ashley Holland & Gordon Duncan.
Cueva del Río Aligandi survey.
Column “dissolving” in main passage.
Stalagmite and limestone formation.
Boss near end of main passage.
Three metre column near main entrance.
Fauna recorded within, and adjacent to, Cueva del Rio Aligandi
Adult Blabrus Giganteus – Central American Giant Cave Roach.
Immature Blabrus Giganteus – Central American Giant Cave Roach.
Tailless Whip Scorpion or Whip Spider.
Moth – Erebidae Calpinae
Greater Spear Nosed Bat - Phyllostomus Hastatus.
Area below bat roost.
Panthera Onca - Jaguar.
Photo Ashley Holland & Gordon Duncan.
Near Cueva del Rio Aligandi; Nelson at one of the limestone ridges that bisect the area.
Cueva Del Puente Natural
UTM 17P 0658858 x 1016406, downstream entrance
UTM 17P 0658898 x 1016312, upstream entrance
Length 57 metres
Depth >14 metres (shaft to present water level, 22nd January 2017)
Cueva Del Puente Natural, downstream entrance. Photo Roger Day.
A low ridge of limestone has been penetrated by the Rio Puente, (Bridge River) creating Cueva Del Puente Natural; so translation could be “the Natural Bridge over the Bridge River”. This river feeds into Lake Madden, which was formed by damming the Rio Chagres in the 1920s to control the flow of water into the Panama Canal. This prevented the annual flooding of large amounts of silt into the Canal in the wet season and acted to conserve Canal water supply in the dry season. The journey to the cave was completed in around an hour by panga, hired from Nuevo Vigia, situated on the west side of Lake Madden, Cueva Puente Natural being in the North-East area of said lake. The cave has formed along an obvious fault adopting a gentle curve. From the roof two shafts open to the surface above both some fourteen metres in height from the then water level. The largest shaft opening is adjacent to the significant historical trackway El Camino Real. There are a few decorations present likely the result of severe fluctuations of water levels submerging sections of the cave passage. The entire trip does not require a lamp; sunlight enters from all entrances.
Of archaeological interest is how the construction of El Camino Real in the 16th century was routed to utilize this natural bridge over the Rio Puente.
Cueva Del Puente Natural Survey.
El Camino Real
The image shows the rise to the summit over Cueva Del Puente Natural. Photo Dig Hastilow.
El Camino Real, the 16th century paved route across Panama, constructed by the Spanish using 4000 slaves in order to convey looted South American treasure to their Atlantic ports.
Archaeology of the Pueblo Nuevo area
The 2009 expedition to Lago Bayano discovered the burial cave Cueva Del Cementario. Within was a quantity of disarticulated bones deposited in a clay pot some 0.45 metres in diameter, within the bone assemblage differing sizes of lower jaw bone were visible the smallest suggesting a juvenile. Dr Richard Cooke, of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, reviewing the images, suggested it to be an ossuary, possibly pre-Colombian.
Photo Dig Hastilow.
The image above illustrates the reverential placement of an intact pot with contents set upon a large, slightly inclined, stone platform set slightly off centre from the large cave opening, (entrance 2). Entrance 2 is elevated some eight metres above the outside field surface, which has evidence of cultivation in recent times, likely the abandoned settlement some two hundred metres distant. Access to the cave via Entrance 2 would be problematic, though not impossible, without some apparatus to assist ascent up the vertical cliff face. Entrance 1, the 2009 point of entry, is located on the other side of the limestone ridge. It is a small opening, after crawling some four metres a larger passage is entered, a short climb over boulders enters the chamber of Entrance 2. This route is quite short, easily negotiable and would allow safe carriage of the extant pots into the cave. The disturbance of the ground surface near the clay pot assemblage illustrates the possible attention of treasure seekers, though the size of the digging suggests they themselves were disturbed in the act or became uncomfortable in the presence of the adjacent human remains. During a reconnaissance trip Austin Garrido encountered a second cave, (Cueva Del Los Muertos), within which a number of articulated burials were encountered; these caves appear less than two kilometres apart. Due to time constraints a survey of the cave was not carried out, this task will be passed on to the Smithsonian Institute field centre located in Panama.
Cueva Del Cementario, intact pot in place on “altar”.
Photo, 2009, Dig Hastilow.
Cueva Del Cementario Survey.
The mountainous region to the south of the lake rises steeply to over 200 metres, riven with narrow valleys and gorges. Present day subsistence farming takes place among this difficult terrain. Small fields have been cleared between the jagged limestone ridges; these need constant attention to keep the encroaching jungle at bay. Lago Bayano was formed in the mid 1970s by the construction of a hydro-electric dam. The subsequent reservoir flooded 350 km2 forcing the relocation of 1500 Kuna and 500 Emberá along with 2500 colonists originally from western Panama, (Finlay-Brook, Thomas 2010). These figures suggest some twelve individuals per square kilometre. A topographic survey of the area prior to flooding has so far been unobtainable, however from the shape and number of trees still protruding above the surface of the lake one is tempted to accept that the area was relatively flat, being at the base of the mountains it would have benefited from deposited silts and therefore, possibly fertile enough to sustain the established population. Kuna folklore relates they arrived in Panama some 14,000 years ago. This seeming isolated location should not be considered a significant obstacle. Example; to walk from Aligandi to the Lago Bayano Bridge takes fourteen hours, (per comms Nelson Smith).
The proximity of the two burial caves raises questions regarding the society they represent. Quite apart from the fact there may be more, it is possible that the two types of burial represented, both excarnation and inhumation, are contemporaneous. Alternately, they may demonstrate differing periods or a divergence in burial practice. From the remains visible within the intact clay pot in Cueva Del Cemeterio a range of age groups appear represented. It may be that over time both these burial sites serviced a well established sedentary society located on the plain to the north. The size of the settlement that adopted the caves as burial sites is impossible to guess; the evicted population figures quoted, (Finlay-Brook, Thomas 2010), may offer an idea of the number of individuals the cultivated area could support.
Topographic image showing the range of hills along the southern shore of Lago Bayano.
Prior to the creation of the lake the area would be watered by rivers descending from the uplands and likely very fertile, indeed a much sought after area where fruit, cereal crop and game were available. The mountainous region to the south would present an imposing boundary in contrast to the occupied flatter fertile area of the north. Burials located among this elevated terrain would seek to confer respect and deference upon their antecedents. Unlike burial mounds set clearly upon a summit, for all to note the presence of a sedentary society, the beliefs of this society may have needed such interments to be at the very roots of the mountain. Such an interment method, perhaps seeking indulgence from the underworld where all antecedents reside reinforcing their association with the surrounding land. The number of caves utilized as burial sites perhaps indicative of the society’s desire to maintain possession the land.
However, it must be considered that these cave burials would remain obscure, visitors approaching the area, for whatever reason, would be completely unaware of the burials existence unless clearly displayed indicators informed the visitor – interloper as to the revered antecedents presence and adjacent descendants. Further research required.
Notes on Data, Map Datums and Position Formats
The area around the Panama Canal, including most of the Republic of Panama, were surveyed in detail by US government agencies during the twentieth century, most of the field work being before 1984, when WGS84 (“World Geodetic System 1984”) was established. The resulting maps, and the only currently available “paper” maps were based on the NAD27 (“North American Datum 1927”) spheroid, and drawn to the “Canal Zone” UTM Grid, created especially for Panama. Since 1927, we have put a man in orbit around the Earth, and now have a much better idea of the actual size and shape of the spheroid that we call “Home”. For this reason, most modern, new or updated maps, including marine charts showing the waters of Panama, and the topographical maps required for the new $7 billion Cobre Panama copper mine development, use the WGS84 spheroid, typically combined with lat/long for marine charts and USNG, (“United States National Grid”, which, in spite of its name, is a “global”, rather than purely “domestic” system), UTM coordinates for topographical, terrestrial, maps.
However, little, if any, recent effort has been made to update the topographical maps of Panama, now curated by the “Instituto Nacional Geografico Tommy Guardia” in Panama City. Many of these paper maps are no longer available for purchase, as Tommy Guardia does not routinely print additional copies to replace those they have sold. Though likely that NAD 27/Canal Zone and WGS84/USNG use the same UTM grid origin, differences in the spheroid result in WGS84/USNG co-ordinates plotting on the NAD27/Canal Zone maps some 217 metres approximately north (3 degrees east of grid north) from the “correct” location, from observations made in Panama City, likely similar elsewhere in Panama. As in the jungle visibility can be less than 10 metres, it is necessary to standardise on one of the two systems, unless we are again going to spend full days stumbling around in the jungle trying to find known cave entrances, relying on GPS co-ordinates previously recorded on the “other” units system. This happened in 2017, when we failed to relocate Pile Drivers’ Cave, originally found, and located on WGS84/USNG (???), in 2002, and eventually had to be led to the site by a local guide.
Past caving expeditions to Panama by our extended group, starting in 2005, have used NAD 27 Canal Zone UTM coordinates, which option is available under “Setup” on commonly used GPS receivers, such as Garmin. Though perhaps attractive to “modernise” and “up-grade” to WGS84/USNG co-ordinates, there are no maps available to us on which these co-ordinates can be plotted. Though Google Earth is a possible option for WGS84/USNG, we have no easy way to print out maps bigger than, say, A4. Also, as illustrated below for the Tulu area which we passed en route for Boca de Tulu, Google Earth lacks contours and other details that go beyond “nice to have”, but which are on the Tommy Guardia maps. This report therefore sticks to NAD27/Canal Zone coordinates, and likely future cavers will continue with this system until UTM84/USNG maps become readily available for Panama. The images below illustrate differences between Google Earth and Tommy Guardia maps, One based on traditional aerial stereo-pair photographs taken from, maybe, one mile up, backed up by surveyors on the ground, show rivers, tracks, roads contours, place names etc, whereas Google Earth, Satellite based, taken from some 100 miles up, have much less detail.
Tommy Guardia. 1:50,000
Health. (Anglo – Irish Team).
Previous experience meant that the Anglo-Irish team were well prepared for the numerous effects encountered when working in such an environment.
Leptospirosis. Doxicycline, one 200 mg tablet per week were taken by all team members, as a prophylactic against Leptospirosis, This regime was adopted following one member in 2009 contracting the life threatening Weils disease. Eight worrying nights of hospitalization involving dialysis means that James is still with us, hooray!
Malaria. Doxicycline is also a prophylactic against malaria, and was the only anti malarial taken by members of our Team.
Bites. These were common every day occurrences from ants, mosquitoes etc though at times becoming quite severe. A prolonged submersion in Cueva Quebrada Seca meant numerous bites from water borne creatures contained within the individuals Wellington boots.
Big cats. Though fresh Jaguar tracks were observed near to Aligandi River Cave none were otherwise encountered.
Hydration. Each member of the team carried water supplemented by “Gatorade”, however this was supplemented by carefully selected natural sources.
Diarrhoea. None of the Anglo-Irish team suffered from this debilitating experience, unfortunately many of the others did so.
Heat exhaustion. The excessive temperatures and the effort of carrying packs gradually took its toll among all team members. This was exacerbated by the sleeping conditions in hammocks and in the “base camp House” Reduction of exhaustion was accomplished by utilizing the available boats to transport members around the shoreline thereby avoiding long journeys to specific places by thrashing through the undergrowth unnecessarily.
Sprains and falls. Other than minor sprains and muscle injuries the collapse of the stream bank outside Cueva del búho caused a team member to fall into a gulley resulting in contusions to his nose. Cleaning the area exposed two minor cuts on the bridge of the nose. The awkward location meant these were dressed using an antiseptic cream, large plaster and surgical tape. The haematoma subsided over some four hours.
Blisters etc. These were minor with the exception of a heel blister, some 45mm wide and 16mm high, resulting from the walk to Cueva del Rio Aligandi and back. This was treated with antiseptic cream and large blister plasters. Keeping dry was impossible in these conditions hence the protracted period it took to heal.
Cuts and stings. Not all used gloves therefore several members suffered minor cuts and stings from the undergrowth, many plants defences being sharp thorns and rough bark. The limestone too caused cuts and abrasions from the weathered surfaces.
Sleep. The Team used hammocks which sufficed but did not provide adequate rest. Coupled with the local tree roosting chickens and howler monkeys becoming vocal from 02:00 onward, many of the entire assembly suffered from sleep deprivation after three days enduring the music of the night…………………….
Effects of water borne creatures.
Effects of air borne creatures.
Before attended nasal injury.
After attended nasal injury.
Some thoughts on the geology of Panama’s caving areas.
Though “El Instituto Geografico Nacional “Tommy Guardia” issued a two part “Mapa Geologico” of Panama in 1996, this is of limited use for our purposes. This does not appear to have been based on detailed surveys, as the areas where many of the caves lie, for example, the Bastimentos Caves (such as Nibida, Panama’s longest), and Cueva Tres Cascadas, near the mouth of the Chagres river, are shown as being in areas devoid of limestone (“Caliza”). Even when “Caliza” is mentioned, this is always one of a number of rock types assigned to a particular area, for example, around the Ailigandi River Cave, “Lutitas, areniscas, calizas y tobas” (Aranaceous rocks, limestone and volcanic tuff), with no indication of where within the large area each rock type might be found.
Likely much of the reason for this is that most of the limestones in which the caves which our group has visited are of very limited extent. Ailigandi River Cave (in Kuna Yala) and Piledrivers’ Cave (on the far side of Lago Bayano), for example, have developed in limestone inliers, with minimum widths of less than 100 metres, and maximum heights above the surrounding surface sediments (“soils”) of not more than fifty metres. Piledrivers’ Cave, for example, has a straight-line distance of maybe one hundred metres between the two entrances, sink to resurgence, then the resurgence stream flows maybe fifty metres across surface sediments, before flowing into another cave entrance, which we have yet to enter, as it is blocked by flood debris.
It is difficult to map, and return to, caves and other features of such limited extent. These limestone inliers appear to be biohermal (i.e. ‘coral’) reefs that were deposited when sea levels were significantly higher than now. Less robust sediments, such as sands and shales, were likely deposited around and between these reefs, but were eroded when the sea-levels dropped, to leave limestone “castles” sticking up above the generally flat surrounding surface sediments, “soils”, much of which are likely replaced annually during the rainy season.
Finding caves in such areas, and understanding their relative locations and hydrology, would be much facilitated by having available detailed geological maps, the preparation of which is likely beyond the capabilities of our group. However, maybe we can ensnare some geology students, in search of an exotic location for geology mapping course-work, to map these areas, with our guidance.
Appendix 5 (Unfortunately not available to view on a mobile device)
Cave data recorded around Pueblo Nuevo, Lago Bayano, Panama.
Hole C aka "Pit"
Hole B aka "Dumb"
Hole A aka "Stupid"
Cueva Pueblo Nuevo top entrance
Cueva Piladores downstream sink
Cueva Quebrada Seca
Cueva del Cementerio
Cueva del Buho
Cueva del Buho
Cueva del Corazón
Small opening near Pueblo Nuevo house, unentered.
Small opening near Pueblo Nuevo house, unentered.
Recorded on GPS by AG no associated notes.
Recorded on GPS by AG no associated notes.
Recorded on GPS by AG no associated notes.
Open chamber on north side of path 50m from Pueblo Nuevo toward Quebrada Seca, two small passage N and South visible. 4 metre deep.
Small uninspriing vertical solution rift adjacent to Hole 3, no GPS taken.
Rift opening, actually upper entrance of Cueva Pueblo Nuevo.
No notes of this GPS record.
On path to Cueva Piladores, open pot - 4m with bats issuing forth.
Undescended during Piladores trip.
GPS location taken 40 metres downstream from entrance, in open.
Recorded on GPS by AG no associated notes.
GPS location at downstream entrance.
GPS taken on path 15m uphill from "gate"/wall, at base of climb up to small entrance.
Pot dropped by Bulgarians - Awaiting survey data.
Resurgence entrance, lower opening.
Top entrance 19 metres higher measured by clinometre, GPS suspect beneath foliage. The 25m cliff face and dense foliage accounts for altitude discrepancy!!!!!!
GPS location taken close to entrance.
Panama 2017, Anglo-Irish Expedition
Leader, Cave Diving Instructor, Archaeologist
Treasurer, Archaeologist, Diver
Cave Diver, Helicopter pilot
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, Panama
Borislav (Bobby) Paunovski
Leader Smithsonian Contingent
Research assistant Ohio State University
Peace Corps volunteer
Peace Corps volunteer
Development Geneticist, Lepidopterologist
Grupo Espeleólgico Anthros
Cobbett J., Harper H., Harper R., MacManus S., Panama 2005
Cronin P., Cobbett J., Hastilow D., Panama 2006
Cronin P., Cobbett J., Hastilow D., Panama 2009
Cronin P., Cobbett J., Hastilow D., Day R., Panama 2011
Cronin P., Cobbett J., Hastilow D., Day R., Panama 2015
Cronin P., Cobbett J., Hastilow D., Day R., Panama 2017
Finley-Brook M., Thomas C., 2010. Vol 3, no 2. Treatment of Displaced Indigenous Populations in Two Large Hydro Projects in Panama.