Deep inside the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, they hold the secret recipe to live an elongated life. Maybe, just maybe, the secret lies inside the dark magical "Cavernas del Venado" (Deer's Caverns or Venado Caves). Centuries ago these caves served as home to the indigenous God "Toku", worshiped by the "Maleku" Tribe. The caves were believed to be a sacred place; but most importantly, they were kept untouched because of its beauty and natural mysterious formations that still even today, scientists and geologists can't agree to how old they are.
There is something about darkness that intrigues us humans, almost as if it were an aversion that pushes us to explore incredible corners of the World, and the Venado Caves offers a hand full of adventurous emotions through its natural sculpted treasures that hide the history in plain sight of how Costa Rica was formed and created from the deepest places under the ocean.
The Venado Caves were discovered by mistake when a hunter got lost in the forest near the village of "Venado", where deer hunting was permitted decades ago. Amazed by his discovery, he mapped a way out. On his second visit he went inside the caves and deeper and deeper on every visit, until he managed to explore almost all of the vaults and corridors. Now it's a realm to the bowls of Costa Rica.
"Venado" inhabitants don't mind our intrusion inside the caves; and I’m not talking about its people, I'm talking about the cave's wildlife ecosystem, where you can see different bat species, even the bloodsucking ones! But don't be afraid, they are all busy minding they're own business, nesting on the darkest spots, pollinating and matting to help preserve the caves as an untouched place. There are huge spiders that feed from other insects, and some of the most interesting frogs I've ever seen, with completely transparent skin, a rare find as they have great camouflage.
Entering through the cave's "main entrance" is just a couple of steps through a farm like place. As soon as you step inside, you can already smell the freshness of the damped rock walls and a slight breeze sucked up by its deepest corners keeps the air flowing inside. The adventure begins, as soon as you are conscious that you have to turn on your flashlight; the darkness inside is pitch black, where at points you can't even see your own hand 10 cms away from your face. Walking inside, through the river, the architecture of the rock formations amazes its grandeur and the river’s current through out the age of ages shaped the layers on weird creepy rocky formations.
Anxiety soon enters your body as you are now further from the entrance and the sound of silence drums in your ears with nothing else but your breathing and the water splashing with your every step; follow the sound of the moving water far in the distance behind giant solid mineral materials surrounding you. You are now deep inside the earth, underlying the soil and possibly the oceans, what a magnificent feeling to be here! Anxiety turns into a rush of emotions when your guide tells you, you have to crawl inside a small hole to get into a rock vault, I can barely fit inside, but the flow of excitement in my body, pushes me to advance using my forearms against the clay tunnel, to move forward into an empty semi-dome, where I wait for my guide.
"Turn off your flashlight" he tells me with excitement.
I do so, true blackness enfolds me, and it’s even darker than closing your eyes; a whole world of dreamlike silhouettes crosses my mind, almost like hallucinating, you get lost on your thoughts, thoughts that become visually real, until my guide breaks the silence;
"Ok lets move on, shall we?"
Adrenaline now owns my body and my senses are fully awaken, I can almost feel that I can see in the dark, the sounds are now familiar, my primitive brain is now in control and my body is telling it to "survive". The best of your instincts are put to test, when all of the sudden you're facing face to face a small waterfall inside the cave. Its sound is almost deafening as your senses are sensible now, and the mist of fresh water against your skin, gives you goose bumps, refreshing the sweat after struggling inside the clay tunnel. The guide jumps rock after rock, until he steps behind the waterfall, but I want to try something different; I slowly cross between the same rocks he jumped through, until I'm right under the waterfall, I believe there is nothing more refreshing I have ever done than this. Fresh, lusty water falls right over me, invigorating and reaffirming me, that I’m underground and alive, a key word that resonates with an eco on every stonewall of the cave. Now that I know I'm alive I get back to my senses and realize what my surrounding is; smooth rocky formations with dripping water sculpting a "papaya" shaped rock placed on an unintentionally rocky altar and rock formations that seemed to be covered in glowing white minerals so strongly, that they shine with a simple light reflection of the flashlight. We take nature for granted but here you're able to see the magnificence of how life is shaped out of darkness with the aid of other natural influences acting and working between one another, no words to describe being present in this slow but perfect event.
The amazement doesn't stops here; I'm brought to another cave, where the water reaches your knees and if you're "brave" enough you can swim through a dark tunnel to reach this cave (you can reach it through another path) but once you reach it's entrance you'll be received by what looks like a dormant "waterfall" made of solid rock and minerals from top to bottom. White smooth formations caressed by water and carved in time surrounds this cavern. Its silky white floor creates a ladder to the top filled with puddles, that I like to think are the footprints of "Toku", the Maleku God who inhabited the caves and this grotto was his throne.
A couple of hours later, I'm blinded by the light; recovering from this dreamlike state I was in. The breeze gets stronger and you realize you're out of the caves; a breathtaking tour through the underground world that will leave you wanting for more.
Adrenaline can be addictive once you try it. But luckily the area around "Venado" village is filled with adventure if you drive a bit further. The small village of Venado is a small place that bases its economy on tour guides, milk and cheese. But it interested me how their main economy is based on self-sustainable trade. People grow their own products and exchange meat and milk, which are also exported, to other Costa Rican towns and cities. This system is very fascinating, specially to be able to see how it has shaped friendly, hard working people, who have earned the privilege to have the best spots around this areas. Their cozy small houses might be modest, but by midday, they all await their owners walking miles back with bags filled with fresh products, to arrive to a warm, wood-oven cooked meal, visible by the emanating smoke from the small chimneys over the rooftops. Up in small hills, their farms guard the rest of their nearer lands where they keep the cattle and enjoy the striking colors of a Guanacaste sunset.
Continuing the hunt for adrenaline I drive further to "La Fortuna" home of the "Great Colossus", the massive Arenal Volcano. Its magnitude will make you feel so small, that you will want to scream at it just to fail at trying to be heard by its impressive vastness.
There is a huge contrast between the peaceful, easygoing life of La Fortuna and their active entrepreneurship to survive in a competitive touristic place. I think there's no one in Costa Rica that knows better about adventure as the people in La Fortuna; after all they themselves are addicted to that rush of danger and adventure, they live in the outskirts of a giant volcano!!
It's La Fortuna's people unique point of view towards life how they manage to balance the perfect equilibrium between adventure and wellness. The perfect recipe to have a prolonged life is their contagious happiness, part of the ingredients in their food with local products that supports the local agriculture. But most important is how they never will give up perseverance; rainy days, hurricanes, or the menace of the Volcano's roars wont stop its people to wake up everyday and start the day hard working with a big smile in their face. Their pleasant company and kindness gets stuck with you and soon you realize that struggling for survival, makes you find passion for life and trying different (sometimes wild) things gives you the knowledge to understand what are the real important things in life.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro