Posted by: Jessie Kwak | September 19, 2009

Wherein we become spelunkers.

There is no shortage of things to do around Tarma, at least according to the tour company reps who accost us once or twice a day here. We decided to take our own advice about going independently to places that look interesting, and so on Thursday we set out for the Gruta de Huagapo, the crying cave.

The Gruta de Huagapo (wa-GA-po) is in the fertile Palcamayo Valley, the place from where many of the vegetables we find in the markets come. It is narrow, hemmed in by steep, barren mountains on both sides. The land there is farmed by hand, cut into irregular plots to fit the valley, and built up into stone-wall terraces wherever the mountain isn’t too steep. This is land that has been farmed for ages; the terraces are overgrown, with long grasses and moss harbored in the spaces between the stones. In the barren hills above the plots the sabila macho sends out its massive shoot.

The plots are marked out by low stone walls, some new and clean, some old and so covered with grass you can barely see the stones. Our driver tells us that they are all canal irrigated from the river that carves its way through the valley floor. Huagapo is that river’s source.

As the canyon narrows to less than fifty meters across, we pull into a dusty parking lot in front of a house that could be any other in the canyon except that it sits below the gaping mouth of a cave, and its trout ponds are fed from water that cascades down from a hole below the mouth.

Imagine these fried in butter, with some rice and a nice salad...

Imagine these fried in butter, with some rice and a nice salad...

A woman greeted us at the gate, offering us a trout lunch and a guide for the cave. Her husband, David, was waiting with lanterns, a rope looped over his shoulder. As we hiked up to the cave’s entrance, he told us the stats:

Only 2800 meters of the Gruta de Huagapo have been explored, our guide tells us, but one can only go for 300 of those without entering the river. No one knows for certain how far the cave goes. David has worked there for four years, leading countless amateurs into the darkness (and back again).

The entrance is twenty meters high, a narrow slit with stalactites hanging lumpy and gray in its throat. we’re standing on the lip of a ridge in front of the mouth, from which you descend to the cave floor. A river runs along the right side of the cave floor, then disappears into a hole in the wall.

The entrance to the Gruta de Huagapo

The entrance to the Gruta de Huagapo

The first bit is simply walking and scrambling over rocks as we followed the river deeper into the cave. Then David gets out the rope and we begin a series of short climbs and descents while the light disappears behind us. He stops from time to time to point out figures in the stalactites.

Our cab driver, Percy, has come with us. It’s obvious he’s been in the cave many times before, and I ask him about it. He tells me that he has gone into the river and has explored the entire 2800 meters of the cave. “Isn’t it too cold?” I ask when he tells me they go simply in bathing suits. Percy shrugs. “You get used to it.” There is air, he tells me when I ask, but his tone of voice suggests a claustrophobic place that I would not like.

David leads us to a place where we can descend over a hole to see the river below. He goes down first and wedges himself against the wall so that he can spot us as Rob and I follow him, but it’s not too comforting to me. Below us is a thirty-foot drop into the icy water, and I think that if I slip on the rope, what’s to stop David and I from tumbling in together?

Eventually we’ve come the full 300 meters of dry land, and we stand on a precipice looking down at the rushing river. “It’s possible to climb down even farther,” says David. He shrugs. “But it’s a bit dangerous.”

Rob and I decide to stay put, and David begins to tell us the story of the cave. The native people would use the cave as a hiding place for the women, children, and elderly while the men went off to war. The would hide in the depths and wait for their warriors to return, and, he says, if you turn off your lights and stand perfectly silent, you can still hear their voices and their weeping as they wait for their husbands and sons.

We turn off our lights and stand perfectly still in the pitch black. In the silent darkness, each of us is completely alone, with just the water gurgling in the throat of the cave to keep us company. It echoes eerily around us, and it sounds like voices. Some are calling from far away, some are whispering in your ear. They are all weeping.



  1. Great post.

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