By Denise Mattia
The day began at the crack of dawn with a journey from Old San Juan into the center of Puerto Rico, to the Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis. As we took our seats in the Aventuras Tierra Adentro bus, I was skeptical about the forthcoming escapade when Rosario and Hannibal began their comedy routine, replete with sound effects and the Raider’s of the Lost Arkbackground music.
The ride was broken up by a pit stop and breakfast at a roadside bodega. Waivers were passed around for us to sign. Rosario warned that we had to move quickly through the forest before the afternoon rains came. I’m fit, know how to pace myself and was prepared for the imminent zip line traversing, rappelling and caving activities, so I wasn’t worried.
Upon arrival, we walked to a clearing where we were fitted with hard hats, speed harnesses, leather wristlets and cable pulleys, and shown how to use the “quick lok carbiner,” an important tool when maneuvering from cable line to cable line. Next, we were shown how to rappel down a mountain. For all the kitsch and kidding, Rosario and Hannibal are serious climbers. The drill was thorough and I felt more confident about the operation as we began our ascent up the mountain.
Days of heavy rain had caused the trail to become a mudslide. I grabbed slim branches while navigating over slippery rocks and across rivulets. In addition to the heavy gear, my backpack containing camera, strobe, lunch and water weighed me down. I and a few others lagged behind.
As we climbed, we were told to secure our carbiners on lines to prevent us from falling off the narrow path, one hookfacing the rock, one away from it, until we reached a platform at the edge of a precipice. Ahead lay a deep gorge and the first zip line. Screams of fear and delight echoed as each zipped across the chasm.
We climbed and “zipped twice more, and on the last – the one before we were to rappel into a cave – Rosario urged me to go before my colleague, Terry, had reached the other side. Half way across I saw she’d stopped on the line and was having difficulty hauling herself to the ledge. I braked. Even though the momentum was lost, I was having fun hanging suspended in mid air. She eventually got across. I pulled myself to the platform and hooked onto lines until we reached the summit. It was time to begin the 168’rappel.
I retrieved my camera and snapped a few shots. Not long ago I’d rappelled straight down 250’ into a sinkhole in Brazil. This repel was different. It called for easing backwards off the cliff, and then swinging out by using your legs to push off the rock face and drop down. I held onto the rope, fighting the instinct to cling both to it and the foliage. I eased off the edge and released my vice-like grip, dropped, swung close to the rock, pushed off and dropped down.
Fast – too fast. I took a deep breath, pushed off, cleared the rocks and slid down, hearing cheers of encouragement all the way. Before me was the gaping mouth of a gigantic cave.
Torrential rains had caused flash floods. A muddy-looking pool lay before us and we could hear water roaring from somewhere inside the cave. I’d heard that two people who ventured into the
extensive network here were still missing. I left my camera on a ledge – without a waterproof housing, it was useless – and entered the cave.
After the steamy heat of the forest, the icy water felt good. I waded in waist deep and climbed an embankment. The porous karst limestone eroded by rainwater millennia ago had formed haystack hills, narrow ledges and a labyrinth of tunnels. Deep craters overflowed from recent rains. A river surged below us. To reach the other side we had to dive upstream to prevent from being swept away by the current. Runoff had brought with it muddy sediment. Shoes and clothes filled up with grit as we dived in and swam as fast as we could and then dragged ourselves up the bank.
Over the next couple of hours we climbed slippery slopes, stumbled on rocks made slick by the force of water, slid into bottomless pools and groped the walls of the cave to stay afloat. The trek didn’t seem to end. More zip lines, wading, splashing, climbing and clinging followed. I took one zipline thinking, “Am I having fun yet?”
After another dunk and climb, I learned Terry had slipped and lay flat on her back in the mud. Despite her ankle hurting, nothing appeared to be broken. Since neither guide was close by to administer aid, we helped her stand. A woman of amazing determination, she hobbled on.
The next zipline across the river was shorter. Rosario appeared to make sure everyone got across. I hooked my carbiner to the line and prepared to slip off the precipice. Rosario gave me a little push – probably to hurry me along – and caught me off balance. Instead of zipping to the other side, I twisted and smacked back into the rock. My knees took the brunt of the impact. When I reached the other side Rosario asked if I was OK. The cold water had numbed me. I couldn’t feel anything.
We stopped for lunch at the highest point in the tunnel and ate in silence.
Respite over, it was time to return. I couldn’t wait to see daylight and feel the warmth of the sun. But once out of the cave, it was a long, brutal climb up the mountain. It hadn’t rained; the heat and humidity were enervating, and my knee throbbed. I made it to the van. Terry and a couple of other “adventurers” brought up the rear.
With all, I’d do this adventure again. It’s for the young, and young of heart, especially if fit. But the next time I’m on an adventure I’ll warn guides to leave me alone, unless I ask for help.
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Addendum: Although the meniscus is torn, it will not require surgery.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.