Caving in Lanquín, Guatemala
published aug 21st, 2015
The caves in Lanquín are pretty incredible. There are two main cave systems in the area, Las Grutas at the beginning of the Lanquín river, and K’an B’a across the bridge from the Semuc Champey Natural Monument. Both are awesome, but Las Grutas is definitely the winner in my book. The most important difference is guides aren’t required at Las Grutas, and the cave system is not 100% explored.
That was pretty much the deciding factor for me.
Las Grutas entrance, complete with rickety stairway.
If you’ve spent more than a grand total half-hour perusing tourist literature in Guatemala, you’ve seen a picture of K’an B’a. There’s a long line of scantily clad foreign men and women, chest deep in water, holding candles above their heads in a well lit, narrow cavern. They’re smiling, or making surprised faces at the camera. Tourists file in and out of the K’an B’a caves, following a guide and carefully holding onto a rope that leads visitors into and back out of the cave in a (fairly) orderly fashion. Most people report thoroughly enjoying it.
A closer look at the Las Grutas entrance.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it’s a cakewalk. This last Sunday I was up near the entrance of Semuc Champey photographing a local footrace when an ambulance was sped down to K’an B’a after yet another cave accident. I asked a local kid at Rana Camping on my way back into town if everything had turned out alright. He didn’t know. But he launched into a diatribe about the dangers of K’an B’a. He brandished two long scars on his arms for emphasis. He was a guide.
So no, I’m not knocking K’an B’a. But to me, Las Grutas is where it’s at.
This is the main entrance of Las Grutas from the inside. Yes, those are bats.
There’s such a huge difference between slinking clumsily through a corridor with a well lit human chain complete with all kinds of cackling and commentary, and taking a few hours to explore massive, pitch-black caverns by your lonesome.
I visited Las Grutas twice. First with a fun and friendly German couple, Michael and Sarah. Then, the next day, by myself.
It was scary alone.
The first cavern in Las Grutas, high ceilinged and dark.
Las Grutas is the birth place of the Lanquín river, which is the water source for all of Lanquín. The water comes gushing out of the side of a rock formation at incredible force, from who knows where. There’s speculation about the water’s source, but no solid information. One thing is certain: it comes from somewhere deep inside Las Grutas.
The caverns in Las Grutas are impressive. Stalagmites tower some six or seven meters high, and stalactites in strange, ripple formations hang down at least three meters in some places. In several caverns, the ceilings are too high to see. Shining your flashlight up there is like shining it into the night sky — only starless, moonless, and chock full of bats and cave spiders.
Another cavern in Las Grutas, this one pitch black without a light source.
Cave spiders, by the way, are the size of your hand, fingers extended. They’re almost too big to deliver that familiar brand of spider-creepy — almost. And the bats are either eerily dead-silent, shrieking their little heads off, or suddenly relocating in groups with a roaring of wings that sounds more like a huge killer dragon than forty thousand bats flying in a tight-knit swarm.
Another view of a cavern. Also pitch black. Bats drop out of basketball sized holes in the walls and ceiling.
Las Grutas has a footpath that’s fairly well marked from the entrance to the last wide open cavern. It’s about forty minutes’ walk one way if you’re taking everything in, probably quicker if you’re making a race of it. Bare bulbs, no longer serviceable, are strung willy-nilly along the path. There’s plenty of terrain off the path, too, although rules about unauthorized exploration are almost certainly in place. Probably best not to ask, assuming of course that you’re taking responsibility for your own life. Yes, there are dangerous falls. Yes, there are bottomless holes in the ground. I also saw broken stalactites two meters long and about as big around as a fat dog laying in fresh ruin on the ground. Their origin? Too high to see.
A random rock structure I (for some reason) took the trouble to photograph.
There’s an underground river in the cave (way off the marked path) that’s got to be some ten meters below the level at which the Lanquín River is gushing out of the mountain outside of the cave. I’m at a loss as to how that’s possible (or probable, I guess). It is, however, startlingly beautiful in a terrifying sort of way. The river makes a constant sucking noise and simply disappears into the rock wall at both ends of its short length. The water is very cold and blue-green.
Underground river in Las Grutas. Pitch-black, and ~10m below the river Lanquín. Stalactites in foreground are as tall as a man.
Keep in mind that it’s pitch black everywhere but the entrance. The flash on my camera wasn’t helping at all (super bright foreground, terrible shadows, random focus, no background, also temporary blindness) so I improvised with a tripod, super slow shutter speeds, and a roving flashlight. Also manual focus, using a spot of flashlight light to calibrate.The results weren’t great, as you can see, but they give a vague idea of what’s down there.
A different shot of the river. The water is almost immediately waist deep closest to the camera.
Entry fee to Las Grutas is Q30. The caves are a twenty minute walk from the town center, towards Coban. It’s more popular around sunset when hordes of bats gush out of its main entrance, and generally empty earlier in the day. I suggest going early, alone, and with courage.