by Emma Fiala, Sami Kinnunen, and Garrett Burnham
We had a free day in Rincón and had scheduled a scuba diving trip to Desecheo Island. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the dive shop, the owner told us that the trip was canceled due to poor weather conditions and dangerous waters. Initially, we were doubtful that the waves were really that big, but upon approaching the marina, we saw three foot swells in an area that typically has none. We also saw dolphins swimming in tandem, their dorsal fins emerging cyclically despite the choppy water. We walked back to the dive shop to re-plan our day. Eduardo, another staff member mentioned that he was taking a group to go cave spelunking in the Tanama river in Utuado and invited us to join. We did not have transportation to Utuado, but thankfully Eduardo graciously offered to drive us. As we had some time before our adventure, we decided to quickly visit the decommissioned nuclear plant and the lighthouse nearby.
A passerby told us that the nuclear plant has been re-purposed as a “museum” and has all its waste buried deep in concrete. However, while the site is called a museum, no locals have ever been inside. On a related note, epidemiological studies have shown that Rincón has a higher than normal prevalence of cancer. After checking the nuclear plant out, from afar, we walked to the lighthouse overlook and saw surfers riding the 10 foot swells precariously close to coral covered rocks. We watched for a while before heading back to the dive shop.
Eduardo picked us up and we started talking right away. He is an interesting person—he started his career as a software specialist at Microsoft. After working there for several years and feeling miserable, he decided to leave Microsoft, take his severance package, build his own home, and be with his family. He spoke to us about how much he loves the caves, rivers, and terrain of his home and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. While it may sound irresponsible to leave a stable job to open his own cave/river tour, we were able to see how much life it brought him and couldn’t help but feel a sense of respect. We spoke about perceptions that people from the mainland US and Puerto Ricans have about work and happiness, with the US culture more focused on money and possessions, while Puerto Ricans are more family and community oriented. We also spoke in depth about other aspects of Puerto Rican life and culture. He shared with us his feelings about the US and Puerto Rican relationship, his dreams for Puerto Rico and his perceptions of us as mainland citizens. At the end of our discussions, he told us that he felt very honored to have met us and believed that we can be good allies in helping bridge the cultural gap.
We drove through the rolling mountain roads to get to the entrance of our adventure. We loaded our wetsuits and helmets and started our trudge through the humid rain forest. Along the road, we saw a Ceiba tree, used by the indigenous Taino people to craft ocean-navigating canoes. We climbed down the muddy slope to the point at which the river met the cave mouth, descending via a weathered rope. When we reached the bottom, Eduardo told us to put on our wetsuits and life jackets. As hardened Minnesotans, we initially scoffed at the idea of using wetsuits, but a few minutes later while floating down the river we greatly appreciated his advice.
The first cave we went through was a dark limestone cavern with ceilings 15 feet high and the water level fluctuating between a few inches to a few feet. The only hint of an exit was a sliver of light on the other side that disappeared depending on what angle you looked. Inside the cave, we were surprised to see whole trees, stripped bare of their bark, wedged into the ceiling. Eduardo told us that during the summer rainy season the water level fills the entire cavern, pressurizing the exit so that the water comes out as a jet on the downstream side. We were lucky we came when we did to experience this natural geologic playground.
Once we finished drifting through the cave we climbed out of the water and up a slippery rock face, right up to the precipice of an overhanging cliff. We jumped down into the water, avoiding the rocks to either side and continued our journey down the river. The journey consisted of alternatively floating down the river and walking over rock beds and finally ending up at a stunning natural spring waterfall. Eduardo told us that the water was safe to drink and that we should fill up our water bottles while we had the chance. Throughout the day we learned to trust our guide and greedily lapped up some water and stored more for the rest of our journey. Our trip ended inside a well-lit cave strewn with cairns from the river beds to the high shelves on either side. Looking up, the cave was over 75 feet high with gigantic stalactites hanging down across the entire roof. Without us realizing, the sun was already starting to dip below the horizon and we started making our way back to the car.
The drive home was smooth as we were all exhausted from the day’s activities. We shared music back and forth with Eduardo and wished him good tidings when he dropped us off at one of his favorite eateries in Rincón. This was an amazing journey to immerse ourselves in both the natural beauty of the central mountain range and learn about the culture of the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. In particular, the importance of the central geography of the island was highlighted again and again. From the hidden valley said to be the refuge of Taino tribes running from Spanish invaders to the river that provided vital water to the outlying municipalities, this land is clearly invaluable to the culture and history of Puerto Rico. It is no wonder that the people who call it home do not wish to leave. All in all, it was a breathtaking experience that I would recommend to everyone who doesn't mind getting a little wet.