The Exploration of Cueva Porton and Cueva Lenin, Chiriqui, Panama
James S. Cobbett
The first group to make any structured investigations of caves in Panama was a team of cavers from the USA , who had been told of a cave near the village of Porton, close to Pasoa Canoas, the main road crossing from Panama to Costa Rica.
In July 2001, well into the “wet season” in Panama, this group, led by Keith Christenson, found the entrance to this cave, with a stream emerging, 200 metres East of a limestone quarry. They followed a large passage, in places with limited air-space between the roof and water, until they were turned back by a sump, with the passage completely filled with water, some seven hundred metres from the entrance. This made it one of the, then, longest caves in Panama, though my group subsequently pushed Niibida Cave, in Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, to over two kilometers. Keith’s first love is bats, not caves, and he was happy to encounter plenty of them in Cueva Porton. His group also surveyed the cave, as below.
In 2005, I started hosting groups of cavers from the UK, and later also from Ireland, almost annually, to look for and explore caves in Panama, which I had considered to be a cave-free zone, before coming to live here in 2002. My principle interest was to extend caves which we already known about, mainly from Keith, and to find and explore caves in areas that had previously not been checked out for caves at all. As Cueva Porton had already been explored up to the, apparently, terminal sump and did not offer any obvious options for extension, we concentrated on other areas, and by 2018 had had great success in finding, exploring and recording caves in many areas of Panama, as shown below, almost none of the areas shown being known twenty years earlier to contain caves. Cueva Porton is in “Western Panama”.
In early February 2019, in the “dry season”, en route for a three day trip up Rio Teribe as guests of the Naso-Teribe Indians, we went back to Cueva Porton, as we were running out of leads to “new” caves and “new” caving areas. The “Usual Suspects”, Pat Cronin (from Ireland), Dig Hastilow and Roger Day (from England) and me (English, now resident in Panama) found the cave entrance with no problem. I was then suffering from a ruptured tendon in my left foot, so stayed in a hammock by the entrance, while Pat, Dig and Roger explored the cave, being much drier than during Keith’s exploration in 2001, as shown below.
Cueva Porton Main Passage, 2019
The cave was so dry that the “terminal sump” that marked Keiths’s limit of exploration, had dried up, the cave now ending in a deep and enticing sump pool, twenty metres further on, with the water level several metres below that needed to over-flow into the main stream passage.
Though we could find no by-pass to this sump, and we had no diving equipment to hand, this sump looked as though it would provide a long and interesting dive, and was prioritized for the 2020 expedition.
Cueva Porton Terminal Sump, 2019
In March 2020, in the “dry season, the same “Usual Suspects” gathered in Panama, with high hopes of what we might find at the end of Cueva Porton. Though all four of us have considerable experience of both diving and caving, only Dig still dives in caves regularly, so he was to be given the honour of being the first to explore this flooded tunnel. We found the cave dry again, with no significant water flow, and the water level in the final sump being somewhat higher than in 2019, but still much lower than required to over-flow into the main stream passage. Having arrived at the sump, we took care to avoid muddying the water, while Dig kitted up. Having rigged up a ladder to enable him to get into, and out of, the water, Dig carefully donned, and checked, all his kit before setting off. However, after such a big build-up, he found all under-water exits from the sump pool to be too small to pass, and paid out only some twenty feet of guide-line, to a maximum depth of nine feet, before returning.
Dig Hastilow, about to dive the Cueva Porton Terminal Sump, 2020
The next day, we decided to see if we could find another cave, higher up, in the limestone ridge behind Cueva Porton, which could be the source of the water for Cueva Porton. First, by invitation, we visited the owner of the quarry, and of Cueva Porton, and of the field we had to pass to reach the entrance. Though initially somewhat unhappy that we had trespassed in his field and in his cave without asking first, once he was convinced that we were not looking to make any money out of this, he offered cake and coffee and was very supportive – even offering somewhere for us to over-night next time, should we return to the area. He then showed us his limestone quarry, and confirmed that, though he owned the land above Cueva Porton, he had no reports of caves there, but wished us luck if we wanted to look.
Cuevas Porton & Lenin Location Map
As illustrated above, the map showed a route back, via Porton village, leading to a track along the ridge above Cueva Porton. After getting lost a few times, we followed a farm track headed toward the top of the escarpment, until we eventually ran out of road, maybe two hundred metres back from the escarpment itself. Here we met Senor Lenin, the farmer, who was very busy maintaining his fencing. The best way to find caves in Panama is to ask the locals, and when I asked “Are there any caves around here”, he gestured towards a deep blind valley, running out at the bottom of the limestone cliff which was the northern expression of the limestone outcrop which runs East - West along the ridge above Cueva Porton.
Down the valley, with Cueva Lenin entrance in the background
We changed into our caving kit, and scrambled down the steep side of the valley, to find a, barely active, stream sinking into the bottom of the cliff, some 60 metres below the top of the outcropping limestone ridge behind and above the cave entrance. There were several obvious openings, all blocked with tree remnants.
Whilst Dig and Pat pulled tree branches out of the most promising entrance, Roger and I checked out other possible entrances, one of which had a two metre long, scary, black snake outside. However, I was able to reassure Roger that this was a Mussurana, which though harmless to humans, seeks out, kills and eats other snakes, some of which are far from harmless to humans, especially the venomous Fer De Lance, which kills a significant number of people in Panama each year. In some countries in Latin America, governments have deliberately introduced Mussuranas to help control the snake population. I did not like to mention that if there was a Mussuarana by the cave entrance, most likely he was there to be staying near to his next meal – not us, but a Fer De Lance! Still if you can’t take a joke, then you shouldn’t go caving!
Mussurana snake by entrance to Cueva Lenin
The combined efforts of Dig and Pat eventually enabled Dig to enter what we had decided to call Cueva Lenin, and we were in.
Slithering past the jammed tree branches led into the start of a passage, which, like Cueva Porton, was mainly bedding plane, enlarged below the water level (with phreatic solution pockets in the roof), with limited vadose development, except where the roof had fallen in locally to form a couple of small chambers, some crawling and some walking. The “Main Chamber” featured two ways in from the surface, and on the left a small passage going off. When Dig first saw this, he found an “exotic bright-eyed rodent” scampering off to a nest of flood debris, effectively blocking the passage a couple of metres in. Though it might have been possible to squeeze past this point, the passage looked to be closing down, and mammalian rabies, transmitted by bats, is a common source of illness for cattle and humans and, who knows, for “exotic bright-eyed rodents” too, in Panama, so Dig wisely declined to confront this furry critter.
At the far, right-hand, end of the Main Chamber, we dropped one metre back into the, barely active, stream, which had by-passed the chamber. It then, almost immediately, changed into a low, and tight, bedding plane feature, a “duck”, which, after a few metres more, sumped, some 150 metres from the entrance.
Though Pat and I both went in as far as we could, feeling around for diveable passage with our feet, we could locate nothing under-water , or above-water, big enough for a caver to pass. Just before this duck/sump, there is flood debris in the roof, some three metres above the water level when we visited. This does not give much hope of finding an easy route on. Pat and Dig surveyed out, whilst Roger made some photos, and I acted as his model!
James in Cueva Lenin Main Chamber
Later Dig and I went for a short walk and found an open doline, in the middle of a grassy field, maybe one hundred metres from any outcropping limestone. This feature was clearly formed by solution, followed by collapse from below, with no stream entering. The, circa 10 metres x 5 metres shaft, with vertical limestone walls, and not climeable without a rope or ladder, was blocked at a depth of circa 10 metres with bags of farm rubbish. The location was circa 200 metres West of, and twenty metres above, the entrance to Cueva Lenin, near the end of the track, and gives hope of finding more caves nearby.
GPS shows the entrances of Cueva Porton and Cueva Lenin to be circa 1,143 metres apart, with our surveys showing the ends of the two caves, which are headed towards each other as shown in the map above, to be only 667 metres apart. Within the error of the measurements, the sumps at the ends of both caves appear to be at the same level. The similarity of the passages in both caves, and their proximity, makes it likely that these two caves are the ends of the same cave system, with Cueva Lenin being the “sink”, and Cueva Porton the “resurgence”. Senor Lenin confirmed that the locals believe this to be the case. With the two terminal sumps being on the same level, and both their water levels clearly rising significantly in the “wet season”, it seems unlikely that there is significant, dry or flooded, cave to be found between them. However, the limestone exposure above Cueva Lenin is very weathered, to a maximum of maybe sixty metres above the entrance to Cueva Lenin, and with many obvious holes in it, so it would be worthwhile to return with a rope or ladder to see if there might be a way in beyond the sump that we reached.
Though Cuevas Porton and Lenin offer little hope for extension, it would certainly be worthwhile to check out the limestone exposure above Cueva Lenin, extending to East and West, to seek analogs to Cueva Lenin, and to explore the base of the limestone escarpment between Cuevas Porton and Lenin, to seek analogs to Cueva Porton.
It would also be interesting to visit on a wet day in the “wet season” to check out the water levels in Cueva Lenin (maybe flooded out?) and Cueva Porton (maybe too wet to get in far?).
The next day, after walking for one hour along the Sendero Los Quetzals in Chiriqui, without passing a living soul, we were turned back, at two and half thousand metres above sea-level, by a Park Ranger, “Because of Corona Virus” – and that was the end of our 2020 caving in Panama.
The Team, Dig, Pat, Roger and James, after being turned away from Sendero Los Quetzales
James S. Cobbett, Panama City, Panama – 1st June 2020