“Watch out for that giant truck…!!!” screamed my son from the back seat as I jammed on the brakes of the brand new rental car, at a sharp angle to the narrow sloping mountain road, inches from the edge of the road on the right, and almost grazing the truck on my left that seemed to have appeared from nowhere around the corner. It was a double hair pin turn on a narrow mountain road. Cold sweat poured down my chin. I had almost crossed that thin line. I coughed nervously and assured my dear passengers that everything was ok. We profusely profusely thanked our lucky stars. I cautiously started to drive up the mountain again.
We were going to visit the ancient window caves (Cueva Ventana) on a bright sunny day, on the last day of the year, driving up the PR-123 in Puerto Rico. Initially the road we took was PR-10 which was new and wide but later it turned into an old and narrow PR-123 that followed the contours of the mountains for about 20 miles. Little did I know that this narrow scenic road was built by the Spanish government, before Puerto Rico became part of the US, to carry coffee from the mountain farms to the port city of Ponce. It was a one lane road with two-way traffic and Google Maps in its infinite wisdom was taking us through the “shortest” route.
It was a short hike to the mouth of the caves. Cueva Ventana was the cave on the left, with the steps going down into it. It was situated on top of a limestone cliff, overlooking the Rio Grande de Arecibo valley. Large and beautiful stalagmites and stalactites adorn this cave, and they are still forming as we speak. Inside it there are numerous small caves and tunnels.
At the beginning of the tour we were asked to wear colorful helmets (which immediately led to group photo opportunities!). At the entrance to the cave, our tour guide who was actually a practicing scientist, showed us a 4 million year old shark tooth that was dug up in that cave (evidence that the Puerto Rico island was a volcanic eruption from under the ocean, millions of years ago), then gave us our flashlights, and instructed us not to shine them on the ceiling of the cave. Hmmm…why is that, one wondered - well this was to make sure we did not scare the hundreds of sleeping bats!
The cave was very dark and damp in the center. The tour guide had a special light with which he showed us the bats clinging to the ceiling at the center of the cave. He knew exactly where they were, even though they changed position often. We had been warned – so everyone gasped but no one screamed!
Oh wait; we hadn’t seen the spiders and the snakes yet.
Meanwhile one of the flash lights illuminated a large colorful butterfly on the floor. Now what was this beautiful creature doing in this pitch darkness?! The tour guide gently picked up the struggling beauty and remarked that this was a strange behavior he did not understand. “This butterfly was most certainly going to die”, he said. There was no chance for a butterfly to survive in that darkness. Why would it leave the bright sunlight and drag itself so far into the darkness.
It had almost crossed that thin line.
“But we shall give it a second chance”, he said, as he gently carried it for the rest of the tour.
We walked slowly to the other end of the cave, knowing that there was light at the end. Then we reached the huge window overlooking the valley which has a magnificent view of the green fields and the river below. One can go towards the edge as far as one feels comfortable, but one must be very careful, as it has a sudden steep drop down into the valley. One could sit here for hours. Except that, there was this weird but strong smell of fish in the air. Ignoring that strange smell, we stayed near the edge for long and took dozens of pictures. It was the smell of fresh bat poop, and the bats had eaten fish that day.
While we were busy taking pictures, the tour guide silently climbed down the edge as far as he could, and released the butterfly into the bright sunny day. A strong gusty wind blew it away. It was now in the arms of Flora, the Goddess of Flowers. It now had another chance.