La Cueva del Esplendor: A horseback ride on top of the Andes to reach a subterranean waterfall.
Some quick research on the sites-to-see in Jardin revealed a place called La Cueva Del Esplendor, a large cavern through which rushes a large waterfall from its subterranean ceiling. It is accessible exclusively by means of a three hour horseback ride across mountainous terrain followed by an hour hike through dense jungle foliage to the cave’s mouth. Naturally, this was high on our to-do list and we planned an early morning departure for the following day to get there.
We awoke Wednesday morning and left our hotel before most local residents were up. The air was cool and damp and the prior night had washed a misty cover of clouds over the sky. We approached the town square in search of a some locals who know how to get to La Cueva.
We quickly came across Miguel, sitting with friends and sucking down some tinto. Miguel had been our rickshaw driver the night before, whereupon he zipped us around on a Spanish-only rickshaw tour of the town. I said hello and we got into a familiar bout of marginally intelligible conversation where I tried to convey our desired destination. Eventually he caught my drift, but seemed somewhat hesitant to take us there himself–trying instead to find alternative transportation for us. Eventually, he gave up and drove us up himself.
As it turned out, the cave was 45 minutes away on very rough dirt roads that ascend some very high slopes. I didn’t catch this part of Miguel’s explanation in Spanish, and his seeming reluctance to take his three-wheeled source of livelihood up to the summit. Nonetheless he took us. Minutes later, we were bumping up the mountain slope, passing banana and coffee plantations as well as “lulo” orchards (also called naranjilla, a tomato-looking fruit from the nightshade family that tastes somewhat like a kiwi). After some time, we reached the summit of a certain emerald green mountain and found a stable which was to be our point of departure. Here we hired a guide for the 5-hour expedition (70,000 pesos, $35 USD).
We met our guide, Olme, who spoke no english and told us it would be difficult for us to ride as we would not be able to understand his directions. I told him not to worry ( in broken Spanish) as Sydney was an experienced rider. Sydney had a grey mare, named Campana. We never managed to learn what breed she was. Mine was a bay mare, named Chispas, although Sydney called her Cheesepuff. Our guide was riding a spirited stallion, impressively with no bit. The saddles were similar to a western saddle, but with a much higher horn, less paneling, and metal enclosed stirrups. They seemed to use stuffed coffee bean bags as the pads as well as make-shift breast-plates. But apart from being a little muddy the mares seemed well kept and easy going.
We hopped on our horses and followed Olme on a mud trail that went straight upwards, passing by breathtaking views of the Andean mountains, where one could make out a gray spot between emerald green peaks marking the town from which we had just left. Our horses were amazingly sure-footed and energetic. They didn’t require much steering and we gave them some slack, figuring they knew better how to traverse the muddy trails than we did. Apart from the occasional encouragement to speed up, the horses were a very pleasant ride.
The mountain ridges had an eery stillness allowing no noise apart from the occasional gust of wind blowing from otherwise weightless air. An hour passed as we rode through the grazing fields of some particularly colorful cattle who gazed at us with bored expressions. We eventually arrived at a mountaintop tienda where we tied up our horses and prepared to tackle the remainder of the journey on foot.
Olme led the way down down the mountain face on the winding path leading to the mouth of the cave. We had to chase after him as he nearly sprinted down precipitous declines, navigating the cliffside by clutching a tree branch with one hand and a cigarette with the other. I initially mistook Olme’s hurried descent as a signal that he wanted to be done with us as quickly as possible, but I soon realized Olme was just enthusiastic about his work. It had been raining for some time and the trail was thick with mud. Thankfully we had rented some rubber boots (2,000 pesos, $1USD) that kept us dry.
Several slides, stumbles, and falls later we reached the base of the valley, which was covered by a glassy brook serving as our path to the cave. We followed this meandering brook past increasingly large boulders covered with a thick carpet of green moss, and dusted by a glimmering mist that floated in hazy clouds from behind giant slabs of stone. We climbed through this rocky bulwark and began to hear the roar of the falls– finally coming face to face with the mouth of the cave. Giant mossy monoliths stretched upwards to form a fifty foot stone arch, providing a gateway into a dark cavern. From the ceiling hung thirty foot vines that reached down from a lofty crevice.
We entered through the arch and found the cavern became very wide, forming a deep pool of water at its basin. Directly above, from a ten foot hole in the ceiling of the cave, gushed an enormous stream of water that thundered down into the churning water below creating an enormous sound of crashing water and kicking up plumes of misty spray.
We sat and enjoyed the waterfall for some time, where we also made futile attempts to get a good picture. After a while, we returned up the steep cliffs that we had slid down earlier. Going up was much more challenging.
After a rigorous hike up the slippery slopes, we returned to the mountaintop tienda where we rested under the covered shelter and kept dry as it had begun to rain heavily. After twenty minutes or so, the sky gave us a brief reprieve, at which point we re-mounted and headed back — using a large palm frond as a makeshift umbrella to keep out of the rain.