Las Cuevas de los Tayos – An incredible cave expedition
Last weekend I embarked on an adventure of a life time. Diego and I were investigating options for possible tours on the way from Tena to Loja in eastern Ecuador. During our search we found a tour which offers a three day caving expedition in the so called “Cuevas de los Tayos” some two hours outside of Limón Indanza, a small town in south-eastern Ecuador about a four hours ride of the Peruvian border. After reading the tour itinerary it quickly became clear that somebody has to try this out and since I am always eager for an adventure it was me.
Our journey started on Thursday morning. We left Quito at around 8.30 a.m. to reach our first destination on the way, Baños de Agua Santa. After approximately three hours we reached the little town on the slopes of Tungurahua. It was raining, so that was not much to do besides having a good “almuerzo” and continuing our journey towards Macas which was the closest town serving the way to Limón Indanza.
At around 18.00 h we arrived in Macas where I split up with Diego and continued the journey to Limón Indanza. My bus would not leave until 19.00 h so I got some delicious local food and waited for my bus to depart from rainy Macas. I was by far the only foreigner at the bus terminal which made up for some nice conversations, in broken Spanish, about where I am going and what I am doing in the area since the city is not considered a major tourist destination.
Another three hours later I arrived in Limón Indanza in pouring rain, trying to figure out the closest way to the office of Tayos Expeditions where I would receive my equipment and spend a night in the hostel. I asked some locals for the direction and just a little later I arrived at the Tayos Expeditions, received the equipment and headed for my hostel where I spent the night. I was excited and a little nervous since I did not really know what to expect.
The next day started at 7 o’clock where we met at the office to meet all the other participants, guides and pack our stuff to begin the adventure. After packing up we went for a good breakfast in town and left Limón Indanza afterwards.
It was a two hour ride to the river of which we took a canoe about 30 minutes down the stream. The ride was incredible, through beautiful canyons and passing a number of breathtaking waterfalls until we arrived at the “drop off-point”, a little peninsula in the middle of two large rivers which, at that spot, flowed into one. We jumped of the canoe, shouldered our backpacks and started hiking.
The way started off rather intense and the fact that it was around 30 degrees did not make it easier. We were in the middle of the dense primary forest of the Amazon which made passing some parts quite challenging. Besides that we hiked up really steep hills. The weather changed rapidly, after starting off with nice sunshine it started raining really hard after just a couple of minutes into the hike which transformed the ground into a mix of water and mud in which we would sink sometimes even knee deep. It took around two and a half hours until we reached the top of the hill were we had lunch at the local Shuar community. After resting for a while we continued our path downhill to a river we had to cross in order to reach our shelter for the night. During the walk it started raining again and our guides already suggested that we might not be able to cross the river if the current is that strong, indicating that we would just sleep in the middle of the jungle.
Once at the river, the current was really strong indeed which made it almost impossible to bring across the rope, needed for us to cross on the handmade wooden raft that was anchored at the rivers shore. However, we strapped a rope around one of the guides who was also wearing a life west and eventually made it across only by swimming. After that, he tight up the rope and one by one, we crossed the river on the raft. It was a little sketchy since I had my camera in my backpack and really did not want to see it drown in the river, however, after a long effort we all made it across. By the time all of us reached the other side it was around 19.30 and dark but we still had about 2 hours of uphill hiking ahead of us. At around 21.30 we reached the other Shuar community where we had dinner and spent the night in their shelter.
The next morning started off rather easy going. We got up around 8.30, had breakfast and the possibility of purchasing self-made necklace or bracelets before we made our way to the cave (La Cuevas de los Tayos).
It was after about an hour of walking that we reached the entrance of the cave. The scene was breathtaking, in the middle of the jungle, there was a little river stream which transformed into a waterfall falling down into the entrance of the cave. The entrance is a 55 meter hole which leads down into the dark cave.
Once there, our guides started preparing for the descend by screwing hooks into the stone wall while we were putting on our harnesses. After a while preparations were finished and, again one by one, we started descending into the black chamber. Standing on the edge, I felt nervousness and excitement creeping in but there was no other way, we had to go down there.
It took around an hour for the whole group to get down into that cave and the second I arrived I could feel the humidity, also my clothes were still wet from the day before which did not make things more comfortable. The second I took out my camera it steamed up which made taking pictures rather challenging. However, I managed to take a view. Besides the humidity, there was an unidentifiable noise which, later I figured, was from the Tayo birds which the cave owned their name to. Tayos are nocturnal birds which are only to be found in caves in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador and are the only birds “seeing” with the help of ultra sound. Their scream was intense and did not stop for the whole time we were down in the cave but I will come back to that later.
We started walking towards the so called “Altar” which is a huge hall about 30 minutes into the cave and served as our sleeping quarters for the night. We stashed our backpacks, had lunch and started exploring the cave. It was incredible, I was not aware of the magnitude of the cave which consists of seven kilometers of explored territory, till now. However, there are believed to be many other hidden chambers which have not been explored yet. The first chamber we explored was full of stalagmites and stalactites which are believed to be thousands of years old. From there we slipped through a tiny and narrow tunnel, towards the other parts. In that chamber there was a beautiful river which flowed into a waterfall on perfectly shaped rocks from thousands of years of water falling onto them. The waterfall flowed into a little pond and since nobody had taken a shower in two days we took the opportunity and went for a refreshing and cleaning swim. Afterwards, we made our way back to the altar were we prepared dinner and listened to one of the local guides telling about the many legends surrounding Las Cuevas de los Tayos. Despite the extremely loud screams of the birds which became even louder due to their nocturnal activities I passed out from the exhaustion during one of “Don Jose’s” stories.
The next day started at 5 a.m. because we did not know about the weather conditions above ground and did not want to risk being stuck at the river for too long again. After a light breakfast we packed up all our things and left for the cave’s exit. Again putting on wet clothes since the humidity and drops from the cave did not support the drying process. Once at the exit, we had to climb up the 55 meters again. We had gear to support the ascent but essentially everybody had to pull themselves up the rope to the light on the top.
The ascent was probably one of the most exhausting parts of the journey since it took around 30 minutes of constant climbing per person. By the time we reached the top, members of the Shuar community were waiting with a traditional lunch wrapped and cooked in leaves. We rested for a while until we took off to the last part of the expedition.
Again our way passed the river which, at this time, wasn’t that hard to cross since the rain had stopped and we were able to paddle across on the raft. Once at the other side, we walked along the stream of the river. However, the water was still quite high due to the prior rainfalls which meant we had to walk through water which was as high as my chest and even had to swim some parts. Furthermore, the forest we had to pass through in order to reach the drop-off-point was so dense that we had to climb along the cliffs on the side of the river. A couple of people, including me, fell into the river since the cliffs were very slippery and covered in moss. However, the refreshment was appreciated at that point due to the high temperatures. After approximately 2.5 hours we reached the point at which the canoe was waiting for us and I have to say, I was relieved. We took the canoe back to our starting-point at which we changed into our remaining dry clothes and had a well deserved and cold beer at the nearest “tienda”.
Looking back at the tour, I have to say that it was an adventure of a lifetime. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into but I don’t regret taking part in it at all. Even though some parts were painful, the feeling of achievement and the formation of the team during the trip was incredible.
A special thanks to Tayos Expeditions for the great organization and guidance and to the team which made this a truly memorable experience.