Last Updated: Feb 02, 2013
Visitors should not be surprised that Costa Rica, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, is also home to some of the best spelunking in the Americas. The country's wide range of adventures is not limited to the surface of the earth. Beneath are hidden caves where stalactites hang down, holding tightly to the ceiling. Stalagmites cling to the floor, pointing upward, some even reaching the roofs of these massive underground cathedrals.
Just a few miles from Arenal, the Venado Caverns are an excellent option for beginner spelunkers. First discovered by the indigenous Guatuso, the caves were only rediscovered by hunters in 1942. Venado’s cave walls are composed of calcium carbonate, a hard, rock-like substance. Stalactites, stalagmites and other cave formations are created by the gradual buildup of calcium carbonate; incredibly, it can take 100 years for just 1.5 inches of rock to form. Experts believe that the cavern walls began forming 15-20 million years ago during the Miocene period, but the caves as a whole are only five million years old.
Long ago, the Venado Caverns were below sea level, and flooded with water and ocean life. Today, though the caverns rest at 985 feet above sea level, remnants of their undersea days are omnipresent – small seashells are embedded in rock walls, fossilized sea life juts out at strange angles, and an enormous brain coral fossil takes center stage in the caverns' Altar Room.
There are four main bat species that dwell in the Venado Caves: the insectivorous sword-nosed and mustached bats, the nectar-loving Pallas’ long-tongued bat, and the little-studied greater naked-baked bat. The small mammals are prevalent in the approximately 50% of the caves that are open to the public. Spelunkers enjoy a two-hour walk through the cavern’s most popular rooms, often choosing between easy and more adventurous alternative routes. Be prepared to get wet: the entire cave walk traverses a small stream, and several sections feature falling water or low ceilings that require almost full-body submersion.
Some of the best caving in Costa Rica is found in Barra Honda National Park where the Santa Ana cave dips down to 790 feet below sea level. A two-hour hike through the forest, where spelunkers may glimpse interesting plant and animal life, leads to a dark hole in the rock. Here, professional guides carefully fasten you to a pulley system allowing safe entry into the abyss. At the bottom awaits raw nature. There are no handrails or man-made walking paths: only your group, your guide and a faint path trodden by the footsteps of previous visitors.
Unlike many cave parks throughout the world, Barra Honda has not been developed for wide-scale tourism. As a result, park guests are treated to a genuine caving experience: delicate stalactite and stalagmite formations, untouched terrain and exhilarating cave climbs. In fact, because of vertical entrance shafts, which require special spelunking equipment to enter, Barra Honda’s caves are exceptionally well preserved. This rugged nature makes sneakers or boots a requirement at Barra Honda.
There are a number of other caving locations in Costa Rica, namely the caves of Ballena National Marine Park on the south Pacific coast. The kayak journey to the marine caves of is almost as fun as exploring the caves themselves.