View of Lake Bayano from Pueblo Nuevo

The first sounds when we got off the boat are the howler monkeys, which seem to be in every part of the jungle at once. I scan the treeline, somehow thinking that I’ll see a line of howler monkeys clinging to the outermost branches and looking right at us. Instead I see… jungle, which makes the sensation a bit more eery, but the situation entirely more exciting. We’re going into that jungle. Not only that, we’re going in to a cave in that jungle. Will there be some kind of howler monkey Initiation Ceremony before we’re granted cave access? Involving sharpened sticks and tribal war paint? I’m ready.

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 We meet up with Chelsea, the volunteer who will later introduce us to the area’s complimentary activities and to the members of her town and eco-tourism group. Not knowing really what to expect from the caves, we (Adam and Kyle and I – the keteka founders) are not fully prepared. Chelsea remedies this with extra flashlights and clothing. (I pull on her shirt and it’s too big for me; I’m 5’9 and she’s like 5’2 – did I really lose that much weight during my Peace Corps service? Did I get shorter?) Thus prepared, we walk five minutes to the cave’s entrance and receive a briefing from our guide:

Don’t touch the walls.”

The shiny walls we can’t touch

It wasn’t quite that brief, but that’s the most important part; plus I spent most of the briefing peeing on a tree and looking around for howler monkeys to wrestle. But seriously, don’t touch the walls – you’ll stop the crystallization process and the walls will become dull black, instead of pink and shiny.

 We enter, and after only a few minutes in the caves, it is so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Our presence also awakens lots, and lots and lots of bats. Headlamp-looking up, the sparkling pink walls become a black, undulating ceiling of flapping wings and short dives. I feel like Batman in Batman Begins, where he holds his arms out, Creed style, and lets the bats pour over him. I didn’t do that, but I like to compare myself to Batman as often as possible.

 Although, even if I did that, the bats wouldn’t pour over me, because they want less to do with you than you want to do with them. They maintain their distance, flapping an out-of-time background beat and creating a slight wind with their collective movement.

 My attention quickly turns to discerning the difference between stalagmites and stalagtites, which according to many top scientists is impossible to remember.

Stalagmites are the ones on the ground” says Adam.

 Adam must be some kind of genius.

The jungle dropping in from above

My favorite part was when the ceiling opened and we could look 150 feet straight up between sheer cave walls at the thick jungle above. It bent over the crevasse, like tourists leaning over the edge of the Grand Canyon, peering in at us and commenting to each other how small we look down there.

 After about an hour of wading, swimming, rock jumping and not touching the walls, we emerge from the caves, confronted with a series of small waterfalls upriver. We scramble the waterfalls and fallen logs and consider climbing the sheer cliff face before being called back by the tourist group we had tagged along with. Alas, no time to continue upriver for us, but Chelsea says that a local guide could bring groups on a loop through the jungle – where there are sloths and birds and such – and back to the community. Another day.

The entire trip, I kept thinking about these tourist trap caves that I visited in Idaho once. Like all tourist traps, they were over-hyped, unremarkable and sent you out through a tacky gift shop. I kept thinking about how the Bayano caves were the exact opposite. No signs, no clear evidence of human contact with the caves, and only one rule (the walls). In short, an authentic experience and some of the best nature I’ve seen in years (and remember that I’ve spent the past two years living on the edge of the jungle).

 This is one of the few nature-y day trips you can do from Panama City and it’s definitely worth it. To create your own experience, check out our Bayano Caves post.