Cueva Catedral is a very large (but not very long) cave in western Puerto Rico, which has a couple of skylights in the roof. At certain times of the day, rays of light will come through these skylights giving this cave the appearance of a cathedral––hence its name. The cavern appears to have been connected to Sistema Rio Camuy at some point, due to its grandeur, but it is now entirely a ‘dry’ cave.
Ashlee and I decided to bring our little dog Chicken along. In past experiences we have found that Chicken does NOT share our enthusiasm for caving. She either dislikes the darkness, the strange cacophonous sounds, or perhaps adventure in general. But she loves to run on trails and I figured this cave would be big enough, and bright enough, to not completely dissuade her from entering.
We had attempted to find Catedral with Sociedad Espeleológica de Puerto Rico (SEPRI) once before. During that search, eight experienced cavers (a few of those had visited the cave before) had thrashed through the jungle for over an hour and hadn’t found the entrance. But we heard SEPRI had returned for a second attempt, this time with GPS, and we hoped to follow their fresh trail.
We were surprised to find that during our first reconnaissance, we had missed the cave entrance by a mere ten-feet. Yes, ten-feet––another testament to how thick the jungle is here.
Cueva Catedral was impressive with its seven-foot long stalactites hanging like gnarled fangs. This was indeed Chicken’s favorite cave. She ran at top speed between Ashlee and me whenever I stopped to take pictures. The bat guano occasionally got stuck between her toes and we had to help her remove it, but other then that, she had a grand ol’ time. And so did we.
In my opinion, Indiana Jones and The Temple Doom is not a movie for six and seven year old children. That said, it was Dad’s turn to watch the kids, Dad wanted to see the movie, and my six year old sister and I weren’t complaining. For children, everything is an adventure. The simple pleasures in life that adults tend to forget––tying your shoes, going up an elevator, using the public bathroom––all still adventures in their own right. So one might imagine, for young impressionable children, a simple trip to the movies might resemble boarding a space vehicle bound for another planet. And so it was for my sister, Lexie and I, in the summer of 1984.
Lexie and I pushed together against the heavy door, excited to enter the theater. Once inside, we were hit by the chill of well conditioned air, always a reprieve from the sweltering humidity of a Florida summer. The fresh popcorn caught our noses and we instantly yearned for the sweet fizzle of soda pop––Nectar of the Gods. In the background, muffled sounds of laughter, cheers, and explosions filled us with a sense of eagerness, to get our seats and see what everyone was oohing and awing about. But first we would need to stare longingly through the glass cabinet at the over priced candy. Dad never got us any but we begged like dogs anyway.
We entered the theater itself, which was larger than life, and took our seats as the lights dimmed. Indiana Jones, the savvy treasure hunter, appeared on seen. About five minutes into the movie I realized what I wanted to be in life. That, of course, was Indiana Jones. As the movie continued, however, I started to change my mind. They had to eat disgusting things like monkey brains and slithering unborn snakes. There were insects all over them, big, hairy ones; crawling in their cloths and squirming in their hair. After a series of narrow escapes that left me trembling, they came to an overlook that allowed them to secretly witness a gruesome sacrifice. A satanic priest chanted excitedly to his entranced followers, “Gali ma, Gali ma, shuk dee day!”
Lexie and I started to get scared. We could see for ourselves that the devil, was in fact, REAL. Then unexpectedly, the evil priest drives his hand into a man’s chest and rips out his beating heart. That sent Lexie and I over the edge and we both began whining. Unbelievably, the man with no heart is still alive. And he’s being lowered into a pit of lava! As the man burns alive his still beating heart bursts into flames in the evil priests hands. This sent our whining up to a new level. Dad, who was really enjoying this part of the movie tried his best to ignore us but our whines soon turned into cries and then wails. Dad could not ignore us now and I’m sure he was given some bad looks from audience members. Much to my father’s dismay, he had to take his two crying children out of the theater, where he explained what we saw wasn’t real (yea right Dad) and he was forced to take us home.
Back then, after every movie I saw, I tried to relive it in my backyard, me as the hero. The backyard of 3121 Hillside Lane was my personal jungle, the deck under the house my secret cave. Karate Kid was especially hard on Lexie and she soon stopped being my playmate but that didn’t dissuade me. I had a hearty imagination and would spend hours a day, by myself, pretending to be Indiana Jones deep in my cave under the porch. I so badly wanted to have those kinds of adventures which I assumed only happened in the movies.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
I am now 42 years old and I can tell you this- I STILL want to be Indian Jones. Now I would never go so far as saying that I’m some elite adventurer and I would never compare myself to my childhood hero––Dr. Jones. But I’ve had adventures and they’ve taught me this––adventuring isn’t easy. In fact, the life of an adventurer is actually quite hard. The ‘perils of the unknown’ right? Where am I going to sleep for the night? Where is my next grubstake going to come from? How am I going to dodge this giant bowling ball? The true adventurer will find out very quickly that his or her exploits are very rarely enjoyable experiences. At least at the time. It’s not till the adventure is over and one is well fed, with a roof over head, do you come to appreciate the experience for itself. In fact, over time, the bad experiences will very nearly be forgotten––the wet socks, hordes of mosquitoes, the heart-sinking realization of impending doom––all this will fade.
What I’m saying is that with all the hardship that adventures bring, they are worth it. I’m saying that I BELIEVE in adventure. This isn’t some religious innuendo, I’m saying adventure is a good thing. It’s kept me young at heart, open minded, healthy. Adventures are about learning something about yourself and for god sakes enjoying life, right?
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many adventures, some fun, some not so fun. I’ve traveled to exotic places and met some amazing people. But one of the most important things I’ve learned in life was at that tender age of seven, watching Indiana Jones with my Dad at the movies––you’ve got to put yourself out there, show some gumption, be willing to sacrifice. And the hardest part of any adventure is that first step into the unknown, beyond the comfortable, beyond the secure, just one scary step, beyond the backyard.
It takes thousands of years for a rainforest to grow a proper canopy. A canopy with leaves so thick, not a single ray of light can penetrate to the forest floor. There is very little bushwacking when walking through primary rainforest, as there is not enough light to support vegetative growth below.
One mile an hour. That’s how fast a person can travel through primary jungle with a healthy canopy. That may sound slow but it’s actually quite fast. Most hikers would have a hard time traveling at two mph on a maintained trail in Colorado.
Puerto Rico’s rainforest got annihilated during Hurricane Maria and the leaves from the jungle canopy were ripped away by winds exceeding 150mph. Suddenly, the understory was exposed to sunlight for the first time in possibly hundreds of years. The foliage underneath began to grow in unison, exponentially, each species competing with another, growing taller, faster, taking up every available inch of real estate. Suddenly, walking through the jungle became a very real challenge. You’d better have a machete and you’d better know your plants––because some of them are quite sinister.
When I first started jungle-bashing (primarily looking for caves) I thought it might be a good idea to see if there was poison ivy in Puerto Rico as I am highly allergic to it. A quick internet search simply produced a ‘No.’ But I wasn’t asking the right questions, you see. I should have asked: What plants in Puerto Rico are worse than poison ivy? Well, I found out the hard way. Here is a list of the worst.
Carrasco (Guao)– This is the worst poisonous plant you will find in Puerto Rico. Its related to poison sumac but its effects are much worse to those who are affected. If you have had reactions to poison ivy or its relatives, beware of this plant! The leaves look like holly– albeit, less festive.
The oil on the leaf is powerful and will react to the skin causing large blisters after 2-3 days of exposure. It can resemble a chemical burn and is extremely itchy.
Making this plant especially nasty are the barbs on the leaf, which can pierce through clothing and inject the skin. If exposed to this plant, be sure to wash thoroughly with soap and water. I have been told that applying rubbing alcohol to the affected areas will neutralize the urushiol in the plant’s sap, although this has not seemed to help me.
Extremely hot showers will intensify the itching but provide some relief once the affected areas are scalded. An over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritin can help reduce the reaction. A steroid shot (like Solu-Medrol) is a last resort although extremely effective. Most doctors on the island will have no knowledge of Carrasco. Apparently jungle-bashing isn’t a popular pastime here. Your best defense against this plant are long sleeves and pants, gloves, thick socks or gaiters. I double layer––which is almost unbearable in the heat––but preferable to three weeks of itching.
Often confused with Carrasco, Chicharrón is another poisonous plant similar in appearance to Carrasco, although the leaves are smaller, cupped, and often reddish in color.
The word chicharrón is used for a type of Puerto Rican street food of deep fried pork skin which resembles the wound this plant can inflict. It grows well in dry areas and is common in Guanica State Forest.
Treatment is the same as Carrasco.
Stinging Nettles (Ortiga Brava)
This native plant can grow to 15-feet tall but rarely grows higher than 4-feet. Its broad, green leaves are serrated and warty. Yes, warty. Anything with warts should be avoided––let this be a life lesson. The stinging hairs can be observed on the underside of the leaf. Once they are touched, the pain feels like fire-ant bites. The sting is immediate but doesn’t last more then a few hours. Fortunately, this plant is easily identified and avoided––especially after touching it for the first time.
This isn’t a poisonous plant but it will kick the crap out of anyone who walks through it. I thought it appropriate to add to the list. As the name implies, it looks like grass yet can be 10-feet tall and is common along river banks. Its leaves are serrated and sharp as a razor. As a kid in Florida, my friend and I were playing in sawgrass of the same species and he cut his leg so badly I could see the subcutaneous fat beneath. Stitches were required.
Pica Pica (Cowhage, Oyo de Venado, Devil Bean)
The Spanish word ‘picar’ or ‘pica’ roughly translates to the word ‘itch’. During the winter months this hearty vine produces seed pods, or beans, which grow a coat of fine, velvet-like hairs. Should you be unfortunate enough to get these hairs on your skin, or are downwind of the plant when it is shedding, the all encompassing ‘itch itch’ will commence. It would be the equivalent of getting fiberglass insulation on your skin. The itching won’t stop until the hairs are removed. This can be down with soap and water. Remember to wash your clothes too.