Caverns of Alto Ribeira

There are over 300 caverns in a region of Brazil covered with Tropical Atlantic forests.  We camped in a small campground near some of the most impressive caverns.  The first day, we toured the most well-known and impressively ornamented cavern called the Santana which extends about 4 miles.  The ornamentation of the caverns is in the form of Stalagmites and Stalactites which are created by the dripping of water with calcite.  As the water drips from the ceiling, traces of calcite remain and begin to build a formation both on the ceiling and on the floor.  If the water drips quickly, the stalagmite will grow faster, if the water drips slowly, a stalactite will form faster.  Many of the stalactites were up to 40 feet long and a few feet in diameter.  It takes 10 years for one cubic centimeter to form, so many of these formations were millions of years old.

After the Santana, we explored the Morro Preto (Black Mountain Cavern).  It was like a massive labyrinth inside.  We were constantly climbing up and down to different levels, so at some points you would completely lose your orientation and think you were on the base of the cavern, only to find a drop of 100 feet a few steps later.  After an hour of exploring, we descended about 80 ft down to a river with a nice little beach.  Some lost explorers heard us and came from a distant dark tunnel.  They had been lost for a few hours.  Apparently, they had explored the cavern numerous times, but this was the first time they had gone with out a guide and they had lost their orientation.

Agua Sujia and Cafezal are shown in photos.  Agua Sujia was drippy damp cold fun.  It was narrow and basically like walking down the center of a river.  The highlight of Agua Sujia is the waterfall room at the back of the cavern.  We tossed our things aside, stripped to our bathing suits and waded up to our necks in water until the ceiling dropped down and we had to dive underwater to arrive at the room with a roaring waterfall.  It was so loud in there that we had to shout to talk.  We all took showers and played in the waterfall until we couldn't bear the shivering cold of being stripped down to our bathing suits.

 Unfortunately, in the most complicated and incredible cavern, The Casa de Pedra, my camera couldn't capture the magnificent entrance and then later broke when I fell in the river.  Casa de Pedra's entrance is over 200 meters high...that is over 650 feet- the height of an average skyscraper.  Upon entering the cavern, we had to descend a series of waterfalls using ropes and after crossing paths with a cobra, we spent the first half-hour in the cave with our flashlights pointed at our feet to avoid stepping on another.  Only one of our guides had ever done this cavern, so it was a learning experience for all of us.  Most of the time we followed along a river, but at one point, the river got to be about 30 feet deep and the followed through a corridor around a bend.  We had to jump in and swim (shorts, shirt, shoes and all) through almost complete darkness since we had put our flashlights and packs in plastic trash bags to be floated alongside us.  Really creepy, but exhilirating.  When we finally felt the ground again beneath our feet we had arrived at a pebbly river bank.  After hours wandering through this dark world, we finally made another series of waterfall descents to reach the light at the end.  It was good that we had practiced in daylight upon entering the cavern, because in the blackness, it is really a daunting thing to do.  You can't see much, but the sound of the water pounding down on rocks many meters below you is enough to make you hold on as tight as you can.

It's hard to capture much with a camera since caverns are really dark.  Here are a few that came out.

Morro Preto Cavern.  Beautiful white stalactites.

Agua Sujia (one of the few dry parts of the cavern)

Crossing the Bethary river en route to the Agua Sujia cavern
which was about 3 km from our campsite.

Agua Sujia means "dirty water".  This cavern was wet.  Most of the
time we were walking with water up to our waist.  After walking into the
depths of this cavern for about an hour, we tossed our backpacks aside
and stripped down to our bathing suits.  The water got deep, and the ceiling
dropped down and we had to dive under the black murky water
to get to a hidden room with a roaring waterfall.
This is one of my co-expeditioners as she enters the room.
Ditinho, our guide, is on the right with a big smile.

Ditinho and Mauro
standing in front of the waterfall in the cavern.

Coming back out of the waterfall room with my
ears ringing.  The sound of a waterfall in a rock enclosed
room is LOUD.