The Bayano Cavess on the south side of the lake make for a pretty cool day trip for the adventurous. On my most recent visit, this trip was being offered by some Panama City hostels and was catching on with the backpacking set. The caves are best explored with a good guide, but it’s possible to arrange a trip on your own.
There’s a boat-launching ramp to the right of the Bayano bridge and usually a few boatmen hanging around. Ask near the checkpoint for Mateo Cortéz, who probably knows the caves as well as anyone.
The trip across the lake takes about half an hour in his 30-foot boat and costs about US$50 for a single person or small group. If Mateo isn’t there, ask around for someone willing to go to la cueva.
There are actually three caves, though nearly everyone just explores the first one. The second one requires crawling through narrow passages on hands and knees—pretty intense. Even Mateo hadn’t yet explored the third. He’s been trying to find someone crazy enough to go with him.
The first has a river flowing through it, the Río Seco, which is fed by creeks and underground springs. At the height of the rainy season, it’s possible to steer the boat a fair distance inside the cave. At other times visitors have to get out of the boat and wade in through chest-high water—make sure valuables are sealed in plastic bags and be prepared to carry them over your head, or else leave them behind. Carrying a camera is a pain, and it’s hard to get good photos in here; it’s dark, and the humidity fogs up the lenses.
This trip requires lots of scrambling over slippery rocks, and it’s remarkably easy to break an ankle or crack your head. Scuba or surfing booties work well here. Second-best are sneakers with good traction. There are some aggressive fish with sharp, pointy teeth swimming around in the dark; I saw one actually capture and eat a large frog. It’s probably best not to wear open-toed shoes.
Wear a bandanna or T-shirt over your nose and mouth. There are lots of bats in this cave, and there’s always a chance of contracting something unpleasant from the droppings, such as histoplasmosis, a potentially serious or even fatal infection. Chances of this are minimized by the fast-flowing river that washes out the cave.
Flashlights are a must; it’s utterly dark in some sections. After a couple of minutes you’ll hear a roar of water and the squeaking of thousands of wings. Shine the flashlight straight ahead and you’ll likely see a solid wall of agitated bats. This is what a guide friend of mine likes to call “a high-adrenaline moment.” Some may have second thoughts at this point, and probably with reason.
Those who continue shouldn’t be bothered by the bats—they’ll flit right by—and will be rewarded by a large open area, with shafts of light streaming down from high above. Impossibly long tree roots hang through the cracks overhead, and otherworldly mounds formed by calcium deposits cling to the walls. It’s all very Indiana Jones.
The cave is about two kilometers long, though the water is usually too deep to go the whole way except at the height of the dry season.
It’s a spooky but beautiful place. No wonder the locals have stories about troll-like creatures that live in the cave and a human skeleton somewhere in the forest above it. Real, live creatures may be enough to keep the cautious (sane?) out, though: After coming back out of the cave, my little group spotted the head of either an unusually large caiman or a rather small crocodile lurking about the entrance. It could easily have come inside to swim with us.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition