Whenever we stop for a break and turn off our headlamps, the darkness swarms in. My imagination takes over and I see blotches of color despite the blackness, as if my sense of sight is trying to fight back, to prove it’s still worth something. I wave my hand in front of my face. The physical act of moving your muscles can prompt your brain to manifest a hand. You think you see it, waving back and forth in front of you. But you can’t. You can’t see anything. It’s just a temporary illusion, a diversion from your vulnerability.
I’m in the depths of the Chorreadero cave system in Chiapas, Mexico, about 100 miles from Guatemala, looking for an anchor against sensory deprivation amid the region’s mountainous interior. Waving my hand hasn’t made me feel any more in control. This cave system runs on for 3 miles and 1,000 vertical feet of descent; it’s full of subterranean rivers, cascades, and pools—and wouldn’t seem so long if it wasn’t so dang dark. Most people simply visit the entrance of the cave, marveling at the mountains and the fanning, 65-foot waterfall that spills out of its mouth. But true adventure lies inside.
I’m a hiker at heart, and caving has never been on my radar—exploring underground requires a lot of technical knowledge, navigational skills, and belly crawling. But the Chorreadero is different. The routes that run through it—the one I’m on takes four to six hours, the other requires 12 to 16—are mostly wide tubes with high ceilings, where you can stand up and walk normally. Picture the slot canyons of southern Utah with their wavy, water-carved walls, steep ridges, drop-offs, and picturesque pools. Now just imagine they are subterranean and concealed in total darkness.
Our guide Carlos instructs us to turn the lights back on after a moment of silence in the darkness. As we’ve gone along, he’s encouraged the five of us to sit in this total darkness to remind us of where we are. In the beginning, the darkness was overwhelming. Now, having spent two hours in it, exploring its depths, I’ve grown to enjoy it. When we sit in the dark there’s a sense of comfort that comes over me. The darkness is a cloak that envelopes the senses. To know you cannot go anywhere means you can only be right where you are. Right now, for example, I know I’m sitting in a space that’s more like a cathedral than what most people think of as a cave—the ceiling arches 100 feet above my head.
We finish our snacks and I gear up, zipping my wetsuit up to my neck and pulling my life jacket tight to ward off the chill. The air is crisp—20 or 30 degrees cooler than outside —and the cold water flows straight from the region’s high mountains. We move in a single-file line, headlamps lighting the way. The floor of the cave is a gigantic boulder field, slicked by water that drips from the ceiling. In the distance, I can hear rushing water.
Dozens of waterfalls, some as tall as 40 feet, pour down the cave’s sheer walls. In December, a month into the dry season, there’s still a 20-foot-wide river flowing through, carving the cave ever deeper. Downed trees, carried here by flash floods, lie among the boulders.
Because of the terrain and the darkness, we can travel no faster than a mile an hour. Soon, we reach a cliff. Carlos doesn’t say anything—he just jumps off into the darkness, the light from his headlamp disappearing over the edge. My stomach drops. I walk up to the edge and look down—and there he is, treading water in the pool maybe 30 feet below, encircled by the light from his headlamp. He calls for us to come down. One at a time, we edge up and jump off into the darkness. It’s a step and go, and I feel my heart accelerate as I freefall, not sure when I’ll hit the water, my headlamp’s beam bouncing off the walls like a searchlight. The jump is bigger than I expected, and I’m surprised when I splash into the water. I swim to the side and climb out onto the flat rock where Carlos has set up. I look back toward the cliff and see my companions’ headlamps crashing into the water like falling stars.
In this moment, it hits me what a unique place this is. We’re not caving in a traditional, on-all-fours sense. All the jumps, rappels, slides, and swims add up to canyoneering, but the total darkness means my less-used senses deliver the awe.
We rappel one by one down a final cliff into the darkness below. I can’t be sure what will await me there, but at this point, I’m sure it will be out of this world.
Trailhead Chorreadero waterfall tourist center, Chiapas, Mexico Guide Petra Vertical; $82/person for the short tour Season Fall through spring