OverviewWhen my wife said her company was sending her and a guest to an all-expense paid resort in Playa Conchal, Costa Rica, at first I did not want to go. I simply did not want to take more time off work but of course, very quickly, I came to my senses and decided to go. Like any self-respecting Summitpost member, I did not want to go on a “sit by the pool” vacation. I needed to hike/climb something. The obvious choice was to hike to the summit of the 1895 m (6217 ft) Rincon de la Vieja Volcano a 90 minute drive away. It turned out that due to volcanic activity, the trail to the summit of Rincon had been closed for the past many years. I contacted a couple of guides about Orosi and Miravalles Volcanoes but they did not seem to know much about them. One of the guides suggested a visit to Barra Honda National Park where you could go down a very long ladder to the bottom of a cave 70 meters (230 ft) deep. When I googled Barra Honda, I found that for safety, park officials rope you down the ladder and you should expect to get very muddy. Google Maps showed a nearby 550 m high Barra Honda Peak but I found no information about climbing it. You could however, apparently hike to a viewpoint to get good views of the Gulf of Nicoya.
Trip ReportThe guide company had said they would send someone to pick me up at 7 a.m. I went to the hotel lobby which was a beautiful open area with glimpses of the ocean.
At 7 a.m., a van came with a male driver and a female guide. We were soon out of the resort. I was happy to see the countryside. The park was a 1.5 hour drive away. The driver did not speak English so I did not get to communicate with him and unfortunately I forgot his name. My guide Lucile was a nice young lady of French origin who had lived and worked in many countries and had moved to Costa Rica less than a year ago. I got a little concerned when she said she had never been to Barra Honda but she otherwise kept me busy with good conversation.
After an hour, they said let’s stop at a roadside café for breakfast. I did not want to stay there too long but I thought it would be another good opportunity to see the country. Lucile ordered a rice and beans dish with eggs for me. Got to pet the restaurant’s skinny little kitty too.
It was 9 a.m. when we got back on the road. I noted a sign that said we should turn left for Barra Honda Park but we kept going straight. They said they were going through another entrance but they did not seem to be able to find it. Navigator (with Spanish instructions which I did not understand) was apparently not helpful either. In the end they came back to the same sign and the path seemed to be well signed after that on the road which eventually became unpaved as we entered the jungle.
We then reached the park entrance around 10 a.m. Lucile said she would go to get our permits. The driver and I stayed in the nicely air conditioned van. There was a bus there with what looked like local tourists. There was another car with 3 men which I later found were French Tourists. After 10 minutes, I could see that Lucile was still standing there at the office. I got out of the car. The hot humid air immediately fogged up my glasses. I figured that all the people in the bus needed equipment and that was why it was taking so long. I just stood around the van trying to take pictures after I cleared the fog on my camera’s lens.
After 35 minutes or so, the bus and the French tourists left. Lucile along with 2 park officials who seemed like older men came to our van with climbing equipment and we continued up the dirt road in the jungle. We then reached a spot where the road became rougher. The bus and the French Tourists had parked there. The 3 French men came to our van and we drove a short distance to the end of the road.
The driver remained in the van but the rest of us began to follow a trail in the jungle. It was hot and humid. One of the park officials pointed to various plants or animals saying something unique about each (with Lucile translating for me). There were many caves there but apparently only a few were open to the public.
After 20 minutes or so, we went up some metal steps and reached a hole in the ground with a ladder going into it. The two park officials began to prepare the climbing equipment tying ropes to metal posts around the hole. This was a time consuming process. Although I was not able to communicate with the officials due to the language barrier, I came to like them. One of them seemed funny. From where I was standing, I could not see into the hole. The officials said once many people get on the ladder and look down into the hole, they get scared and refuse to go.
They then put a harness on each of us and gave us a helmet with headlamps. One of the officials went down the ladder to the bottom of the hole. It was then Lucile’s turn. She went down a short distance, got scared and came right back up.
I was roped next. I got close to the edge of the hole where I could look down into it. My boots had been all muddied in the jungle. I had tried to clear the mud while we were waiting there but could obviously not get all of the mud off. I was afraid I was going to slip off the ladder.
Got on the ladder and began to go down. It was very hot and humid. The ladder was wet with mud all over it. As I went a few steps down, I reached a spot where the ladder was right against the wall. This meant that my toes hit the wall and I only had a 2 inch toe-hold on the wet slippery step. For a moment I said to myself what are you getting yourself into in the middle of the jungle in a foreign country? But I reassured myself that I was well protected. Only 2-3 steps were against the wall. As I went lower, the wall receded from the ladder and I was able to get good footing. It was hard to estimate heights. I do not think the descent was anywhere near 70 meters (the end of the cave was probably 70 m down). It still looked like a good 7-10 floors down. By the time I reached the bottom, my hands were beginning to hurt.
The official at the bottom removed the harness and seemed to tell me to go lower down the rocks into the cave and wait until the 3 French guys came down too. The bottom of the cave was covered by boulders that were wet. I did not want to slip and break a bone there so I was very careful. A few bats could be seen flying around.
Once everyone was down, we turned on the headlights and began to walk further down the cave. The French guys apparently understood some Spanish and tried to translate what the official said in Spanish using their own broken English. I was getting enough information to understand most of what was being said. He showed us corrals on the wall of the cave.
Going down a second short ladder into the next chamber, we were completely cut off from the outside light. At the end of the cave he told us to sit down, turn off our lights and not make any noise to experience total darkness and silence (minus my annoying tinnitus). I thought we would sit in the dark for just 30 seconds but moments kept going on and on. We probably sat there for 6-7 minutes until I moved making a noise and one of the French guys turned on his light. The official said something about moving out of the cave into the light like moving through the birth canal and being born.
As we approached the big ladder, we saw the people in that bus had started to descend into the cave. We waited some until I was roped up and came out of the cave. My hands were blackened with mud. Lucile was waiting there. It had begun to rain. Lucille said we could go to the viewpoint but the official said we would probably see nothing in the rain so I said lets go back to the van. She and I then began to walk back in the rain. She told me about the howl of the Howler Monkeys which sounds scary until you see it coming from a little monkey. Just a few minutes after that, I heard what sounded like a monster in the jungle. Good thing she told me about that. We then got to the van and stopped at the park office where there was a water faucet with a brush which I used to clean my hands. Was back at the resort by 3:30 p.m.