After my first spelunking experience a few years ago—in a limestone crevice thirty feet under the city of Austin—I thought I hated caves. The caving instructor had told us, “Just follow the channel,” and promptly scrambled out of sight. So all of us, like lemmings descending into hell, slithered into a passageway that became so tight in places we had to remove our hard hats to squeeze through. My glasses fogged. My right knee kept popping out of joint. At one point the denim rump of the pudgy young woman in front of me got briefly stuck in a stone aperture, like Pooh in the honey tree. The group grew quieter and quieter as we tried to suppress claustrophobic panic. Three torturous hours later I flopped onto the ground in the glorious sunlight and vowed never to crawl into another hole in the earth as long as I lived.
Last February, however, I conquered my subterranean phobia by venturing inside a mountain in northern Mexico. My son’s Boy Scout troop, along with some dads, journeyed to the town of Bustamante to explore the famous Gruta del Palmito. “Gruta” means “grotto” or “cave,” and palmitos are dwarf fan palms; usually associated with East Texas, they thrive, incongruously, on the arid foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the state of Nuevo León.
As we learned, you don’t have to be a caver to enjoy the staggering beauty of la Gruta, which its fans call simply Bustamante. The series of caverns extends into the mountain the length of ten football fields. Massive floor-to-ceiling columns appear to have been dipped in melted caramel. Stalactites hang like sci-fi chandeliers, surrounded by a field of “soda straws,” the delicate precursors of stalactites. “It’s bigger than Natural Bridge Caverns, and it has the formations of Carlsbad,” says one frequent visitor. Just as important, a trip to Bustamante delivers the anything-can-happen experience that I love about Mexico.
The cave is high on a mountainside above the town of Bustamante, accessible by a scenic but heart-stopping drive up a narrow switchback road. For my carful of Tenderfoot Scouts from Austin’s Troop 9, even more exhilarating than the view was a radio program we picked up from Monterrey called La Hora de los Machos. Instead of a celebration of Mexican manhood, the show turned out to be a musical hour sponsored by a restaurant that specializes in a goat sausage called machos. My sixth-grade passengers shrieked along with the ecstatic pitchman as we slowly ascended the road.
We were fortunate to have as our expedition leader Bob Burnett (no relation), a retired cave and white-water expert for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department whose nearly white beard belies his agility. His advice: “Pace yourselves. Select a foothold and a handhold and move carefully.” He also repeated the caver’s admonition: “Pack it in, pack it out. I mean everything.” The contents of full bladders would also have to be carried out—in empty water bottles. (By the way, don’t ever call a caver a spelunker. “All my friends are cavers,” Burnett said. “ ‘Spelunker’ is too big a word; it sounds pretentious.”)
Everyone rechecked his gear: water, cotton gloves, lunch, camera, helmet, headlight, and two extra light sources. Somebody said, “Let’s go cheat death,” and we ducked into a discreet opening in the rocks. A local municipal employee named Rogelio Rangel, wearing a sport shirt and loafers, guided us into the cave’s spacious entry room. The descent was slippery but easy, thanks to the addition of concrete steps and electric lights.
The first chamber offers a walk-through version of the children’s activity-book game Find the Hidden Objects. Rogelio pointed out speleothems (cave formations) resembling a Buddha, a baseball glove, a girl in a quinceañera dress, a mummy, a frog, a lion’s paw, a hunchback, and Homer Simpson’s profile. One of the boys christened a double stalagmite formation Jabba the Hutt, the blubbery villain from Star Wars, and everyone seemed satisfied with the free association.
For us, the real caving began at a slippery decline hyperbolically named el Paso de la Muerte (the Pass of Death). The muddy slope has been made significantly less treacherous by the addition of a stout hand rope, which we made good use of. But the Pass of Death was nothing compared with what came next: el Desnivel Grande (the Big Drop).
We found ourselves standing atop a mountainside within a mountain: a boulder-covered slope that dropped seven hundred feet into total darkness. When the water-filled cave drained eons ago, rock from the ceiling tumbled onto the slanted cavern floor. With the faint glow of the lightbulbs behind us, we stumbled through the massive talus boulder field, totally dependent on the beams of light shining from our foreheads. Burnett had a $300 quartz halogen headlamp, but the $5 camping lights most of us had duct-taped onto bike helmets and hard hats worked fine. Nevertheless, the cavern was so immense that neither type of light reached the ceiling, 120 feet overhead.
Bustamante veterans swear that nobody has gotten lost or seriously hurt there in the forty years it’s been open to the public, but trouble could be just around the next boulder. Bustamante is a “wild cave,” as distinguished from a “show cave.” Carlsbad Caverns is a show cave. It has wheelchair access, handrails, and rangers. It also has a snack bar and an elevator, which cavers consider abominations.
Bustamante is at the mercy of the manners and the ethics of its visitors, which over the years have been less than scrupulous. Some Mexican cave clubs have the unfortunate habit of leaving graffiti behind; for them, the cave is a guest book to be signed. Every so often we would find a pink spray-painted signature such as “Los Cobras” or “Los Alacranes” (the Scorpions) on a formation, which in the orthodoxy of cave conservation is akin to scrawling “nice hooters” on the Venus de Milo.
More headway has been made with garbage. Over the years, Mexican and Texan cavers have hauled out some hundred cubic yards of trash, but