If Old San Juan and the El Yunque rain forest and the beaches have been drawing visitors for hundreds of years, that's certainly not true for this hidden attraction: a vast, and still-not-fully-explored system of caves, carved out by the world's third-largest underground river, the Rio Camuy.
Locals must have been aware of bits and pieces, and there's archeological evidence the ancient Taino people were there, but its discovery for what it is dates only to about 1958, and didn't become well-known and open to ordinary visitors until the 1970s. Even at that, you can't visit it all; some of the explored parts are only accessible to experience cavers and others are still unknown. So far, 10 miles of caverns with 220 caves and 17 entrances are mapped; the estimate is that there may be 800 more caves connected to the system.
We visited the caverns a couple of days after Christmas with out granddaughter; it was one of the top items on her where-to-go list, and on ours. It's a drive of a bit under two hours west of San Juan, mostly on expressway, but then on local highways, and finally (in our case) on small country roads we really shouldn't have been on.
That's because our GPS went looking for Camuy, a nearby small town that's actually on top of part of the caverns, and not to Rio Camuy Cavern Park. After about six different routes, we parted ways with technology and stopped at a small grocery for directions. My wife and granddaughter went in to ask, and came out with a young man who jumped into his car and motioned for us to follow him. Five minutes later, he waved us into the park and drove off.
Once in the park, you board a shuttle, just like you see in amusement parks, but pulled by a heavy-duty diesel tractor for the ride down to a valley bottom, and the entrance to the main open cavern, Cueva Clara (Clara Cave). As you can see, the area is heavily wooded and beautiful.
At the bottom, we passed through a rather forbidding and dank tunnel to get to the entrance, passing open-air stalactites and other formations on the way in.
As a child, and over the years since, I've been to various caverns; mostly I remember cool air, narrow passageways and occasional wide rooms. Clara surprised us. The impression, once your eyes adjust, is the huge height and breadth of the cave..and the number of places at beginning and end where you can see openings to the light.
We were led through the cave by a knowledgeable young guide. We had opted for an English-speaking group, and his English and his good humor were faultless, as he explained how caverns like this come to be and the different materials to be seen.
Nearly all the walk was easy grade...no steep slopes and few stairs. Of course, that wouldn't apply to the more adventurous options open to those with experience and the desire to go far deeper, to the edge of a cavern where the river is visible and visitors can't enter. But that wasn't us...
After walking through the relatively dark cavern, we came to another open area, once perhaps part of the cave, but now unroofed and brightly lit. There are many sinkholes in the system. There are also species of insects and bats known nowhere else, but we encountered non of them. Probably happier for them and for us.
The colors of the cave walls and floor are hard to describe, in part because the changing levels of light, natural and artificial in the cave, give false impressions. More so, it's hard to make pictures tell the tale; objects that appear richly colored to the eye wash out the minute flash comes into play.
As numbers of our fellow visitors found, that's especially true for certain phone camera brands, whose flash is heavy in the blue range of the color spectrum. You can see some of the variations in the pictures below, some taken with a small Nikon, and some with a Samsung S5.
And then it was back to the surface world, to the wooded roadway back to the entrance and flowers—and then off to lunch, ice cream and the Arecibo Observatory.