One of the most memorable of my Boy Scout adventures was when I, as an adult leader, along with others, took fifteen Scouts to explore an underground river deep in the heart of Mexico. We, in turn, were led by an experienced guide who was well acquainted with the terrain. He could warn us ahead of time of the dangers that might be lurking ahead.
The Grutas de Cacahuamilpa Caverns are located mostly in Guerrero State in the lofty Sierra Madre del Sur mountains southwest of Mexico City near the silversmithing town of Taxco. The caves have been occupied since prehistoric times mostly by Olmec people and the Chontal Tribe. Indigenous peoples used the caverns for ceremonial purposes and kept their existence hidden from the invading Spaniards. Credit for the “discovery” of the caves was given to Manuel de la Pena Miranda, who used the caves in 1834 to hide from Spanish authorities. The caverns were originally called the “Salachi” Caves but were later renamed “Cacahuamilpa” from a location near the cave entrance meaning “peanut field.”
But my great adventure took place in one of two underground rivers that flow beneath the actual caverns. The Rio Chontalcoatlan is eight kilometers long. The San Jeronimo River is twelve kilometers long. The tunnels that have been formed by these two rivers are still completely active, as water continues to cut away little by little at the rocks. Both have areas of rocks and sandy beaches on each side and the darkness is complete in much of the tunnels’ lengths.
The San Jeronimo River has its origins in natural springs. The walls of the cavity in which it flows are up to 80 meters high. It takes approximately seven hours to traverse its underground length. The waters of the Chontalcoatlan originate from the great snow-capped volcano Nevado de Toluca. This was the one we chose to explore. Its descent underground has carved out an entrance 50 meters high accessible at the time only by a crude, scary cable ladder. We reached the entrance and the rickety ladder by traversing a rough, unpaved road and taking a short hike through the thick underbrush.
Upon reaching the river and before entering the cave, we each strapped a five-gallon can on our backs. Into the can went a light lunch, an extra flashlight and batteries, and some dry clothing. But mostly the can was used as a crude flotation device. Where the river was wide and shallow, we waded; where it was narrow and deep, we floated between the cavern walls. There was no other light except what we carried with us.
After several hours enjoying the gorgeous scenery with the boisterous, awestruck boys, we reached a spot called La Claraboya or La Ventana. After a difficult climb up a boulder-strewn slide, we exited through a natural window in the cave ceiling. My father accompanied us on the adventure to help with transportation. He was in his mid-sixties at the time and his knee went out, making it difficult for him to make the climb to the window. I think it was possibly the first time where he was obliged to lean on one of his sons for much-needed assistance in order to get through a tough situation. When he was in his nineties, that became customary, but up until that time he was one independent, self-sufficient man—or at least he was wont to think..
The Caverns themselves are composed of some ninety large “salons” separated by large natural rock walls and connected via a central gallery. In one of the salons is a gravesite. An Englishman got lost exploring the cave. He sent his dog to get aid but no one on the outside paid any attention to the barking animal, so it returned to the cave to die of starvation along with its master. When the remains were found, they were buried in one of the salons, the grave site marked with a rock and a simple cross.
Sometimes it is easy to ignore signs and vital information that are “barking” at us right in front of our faces. It is written, “Woe unto the deaf that will not hear; for they shall perish. Woe unto the blind that will not see; for they shall perish also.” (2 Ne. 31-32) Perhaps the worst of it is that we may cause others to perish because of our neglect. We will do well to heed the signs of the times and to pay attention to those who know, those who would warn us of the rapids hidden in the darkness ahead…