Rio Camuy Cave Park of Puerto Rico
A Top Ten Attraction on the Isle of Paradise
I’ve made plenty of reference to my list of ‘must-see’ places I did not get to on my first visit and yes, the Camuy Caves were one of them. This is another ‘mega-post’ featuring lots of shots and a YouTube vid as well. I do have a few quibbles, but I loved it and plan to come back again.
The Cave Park is actually closer to Lares than Camuy on the coast. On my map, it sits on the border of what I call Isla North and Mountain Central regions. But after its namesake, Camuy, I placed the Park in the Isla North category.
The weather finally broke on Friday so we made a mad dash over the mountains to visit this most wonderful site. I will not go into great detail about our convoluted road trip via Ponce, Adjuntas and Lares, but to say..
if they ever finish Highway 10, it will be a breeze.
This area of the island is referred to as ‘Karst Country’.
The landscape is covered in soft limestone hills blanketed by dense vegetation. Located on the North and West end of the island, the Karst plateau covers about a quarter of the entire island. You can occasionally see the dark yellow to dirty-orange limestone where ever there is a gravel pit or quarry. The abundance of limestone makes for cheap concrete as it is a key ingredient.
Due to the soft nature of limestone, over time, water seeps into it and eventually cuts paths through it. These paths develop into underground rivers and eventually form caves. This takes tens of millions of years to happen.
The Camuy Cave Park covers 268 acres with 220 identified caves and 17 entrances. Only a fraction of this is open to the general public. What’s more, experts speculate there may be as many as 800 more undiscovered caves in the Karst Region.
A Spelunker’s dream come true.
By far, the most spectacular site is the Empalme Sinkhole and Clara Cave. The sinkhole is so big, they run an open trolley to the bottom where folks get off, followed by a guided tour of the absolutely huge Clara Cave. Unfortunately, this was the only part of the Park we got to see. More about that later.
We hit the Park about noon and were greeted by an older gentleman in a little security shack who spoke perfect English. He explained what we needed to do and handed us a pair of paper tickets we were to present to the cashier at the main building. We made a point of avoiding the weekend traffic and I’m glad we did. The Park is very popular with the locals. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
We were numbers 298 and 299. We proceeded to the main building where we paid for our parking ($3) and tickets for the trolley ride into the park ($12 per adult and $7.50 for seniors over 60). There were 60 to 70 folks ahead of us, but since they send them out in groups of about 35, we only had to wait 40 minutes before it was our turn.
That gave me time to check out the grounds.
Besides the rest area, ticket booth and restrooms, there was a small gift shop and snack bar. The snack bar serves hamburgers, fries and pizza by the slice at very fair prices. They also have popsicles and frozen treats too. A long row of covered picnic tables sat opposite the snack bar. A separate building held a more formal restaurant, but I did not check it out. There is also a dedicated picnic area and a collection of trails to explore on your own.
Down by the main parking lot is a remnant of an old sugarcane train. Kind of hard to make out what it used to be.
The entire facility was covered by a dense canopy of very tall trees. It was a very serene and relaxed place even with all the activity. Several of these trees were in flower and bearing fruit. I thought they might be Malay Apple so I asked my pal, Sadhu of Govardhan Gardens about them. He confirmed they were indeed Malay Apple (Syzygium malaccense). I managed to score 2 seeds off the ground before we left so I’ll see if I can get them to sprout.
The Camuy Cave Park is part of the PR Park System. It has its own Website, but it is entirely in Spanish and bogged down while trying to load a Flash driven slide show. Very typical of Puerto Rican Websites and definitely NOT user friendly. They should skip the music and sound as well. It only adds to the time it takes to load the site to a browser. I finally gave up waiting and moved onto other, less obnoxious sites on the subject.
A Few Words About the Tour..
I need to qualify the fact that I did my homework before heading out and knew what I could expect in the way of a guided trolley tour.
All three of my PR travel guides (Insider’s Guide- Off the Beaten Path PR 5th ed., Fodor’s Puerto Rico 5th ed. and Let’s Go Puerto Rico on a Budget 2008) mention riding down to the Empalme Sinkhole and Clara Cave followed by a trolley run over to the Tres Pueblos Sinkhole with a view to the Rio Camuy. A tour that is supposed to take most of 2 hours. This was confirmed by what I had read on the Net as well. Most reviews also reference a 20 minute movie that is shown before you head out on the trolley ride.
I did not see the 20 minute intro movie. I only visited the Empalme Sinkhole with a tour through the Clara Cave and a view at the back of the Spiral Cave and sinkhole. We were not permitted beyond this point and had to turn around to head back through Clara Cave. Nor were we taken to any other venue within the Park. The whole trip lasted about 45 minutes. It seems to me that if you don’t get the whole show, the ticket price should be discounted accordingly. We paid full price for half a show.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a great experience! One I want to repeat, if only to take in what I missed this trip out.
The Clara Cave is simply astonishing!
It is very difficult to imply just how huge this cave is from a static photo. The panoramic image of the cave interior shows a few folks contrasted against the guardrail. They are very tiny. Please note that the images are much ‘lighter’ than the actual experience. Once your eyes become accustomed to the dim light, it is most magnificent.
The path itself is very easy to walk and well lit.
Special attention was made to steep areas or places where there might be standing water. This is a cave so standing water is impossible to avoid. Safety issues were well addressed. I would still suggest wearing sensible shoes since the walkway is textured concrete. It was also very humid inside the cave.
We were issued head phones and a little digital device with a pre-recorded tour in English (or Spanish) before we boarded the trolley.
These were coordinated with small numbered signs within the cave. Because my focus was on trying to get good shots of the cave interior, I gave up on listening to it. Keeping up with a camera on a tripod and setting off my flash kept me pretty busy. I am glad I brought my tripod. Otherwise I would not have got the shots I did. Exposures at ISO 400 were in the 20 to 30 second range. The caves are strategically lit, but hidden from the main view. The lighting was very well thought out.
I trailed behind the tour group for most of the walk.
Caves like this are home to many creatures…
spiders, scorpions and bats to name a few.
There was one spider the guide pointed out, but it retreated into it’s den as soon as we started hovering around it. Bats only come out at night so we did not see any of them either. Back in the ‘old days’, they used to collect the Bat guano for export. It contains high concentrations of Potassium Nitrate used to make Black Powder and fertilizer. Not so much anymore. Back at the main staging area, I did see a Coqui frog, but it disappeared before I could switch to my macro lens. They are very small.
The Empalme Sinkhole is a beautifully maintained spot, as is the entire grounds of the Camuy Cave Park. A lot of planning went into the development of this site.
If you have already seen the blue cobble stone streets of Old San Juan and El Morro, then by all means, come check out the Caves. Ask at the front desk of your hotel or check out the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, just off the docks. They will help you find a tour guide going that way. If you prefer to book your tour in advance, book your tour here.
Had my $12 got me the 20 minute movie and other places within the Park (mentioned elsewhere), I would have given it 5 Skulls, otherwise the experience only rates 4. $12 plus $3 for parking is a little high for what we got. That said, I will be back for more images.
The Rio Camuy Cave Park IS a must see.
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