Cave Exploring in Brazil's Atlantic Rainforest

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Brazil's southeastern Atlantic Rainforest offers some of the best opportunities for cave exploration in the country. Brazil's safety measures do not overwhelm, however, so be ready for some real adventure.

PETAR-curtain c Elizabeth Willoughby

Spelunking in the PETAR caves

It's amazing how many thoughts can race through one's mind at times of intense anxiety, such as when sliding uncontrollably down the smooth, wet rock in a grotto while other cave explorers sit like bowling pins only metres beyond.

My fellow spelunkers and I went to the Parque Estadual Turístico do Alto Ribeira (the PETAR Caves) for some adventure, not to bowl. Situated about 320 kilometres south of São Paulo city by Paraná's state border, PETAR has hundreds of caves — one of the largest concentrations in Brazil.

But that is not what was running through my mind while I was winding up for the strike. I was thinking that the rock wall to the left had nothing to grab to slow my descent; the pool of dirty water below on the right offered no clues as to its depth or composition. Funny how it didn't look so perilous when we were climbing up this ledge a short while before. Surprising how quickly gravity took things into its own hands. Strange how the bowling pins hadn't noticed the incoming traffic. Shocking how cold the water was when I plunged into it instead of knocking everyone else off the bottom of the ledge.

However, this minor yet embarrassing incident couldn't dilute the thrills of Ouro Grosso, the cavern we had just come through, exciting from the very start. As we approached the cave that morning, another group was exiting. Their clothes were completely soaked — an omen perhaps? — their faces an odd mixture of tension and glee. No one said a word, but worried thoughts ran through my mind.

Climbing down into Ouro Grosso through a wee square hole was our first challenge — more for some body sizes than others. The second was stepping into the darkness beyond the entrance to descend mud-caked boulders. Once safely at the bottom, we followed a stream lit by flashlights and headlamps, most of us avoiding stepping into the cold running water. Conversation was difficult due to the reverberations of a small cascade up ahead, which we scrambled up and over. So much for keeping dry. Then came the pool (my future tub) which we walked around to reach a flat slab of rock laying at a 45 degree incline — like a stairway but without the steps. Smooth, slippery and wet, we still had to climb it. A low ceiling made even crawling difficult, but we had a rope to haul ourselves up with. We were a lizard train, on our bellies, knees forced outwards, feet searching for a grip — slowly, arduously, slithering forward.

PETAR-entrance c Elizabeth Willoughby

Next, we shuffled through a narrow gulley and found ourselves at the top of a circular chasm. The roar of a waterfall up ahead coaxed us on, but how to cross the chasm? Part of its towering wall had a broad, jutting ledge to walk along, except a huge stalactite had formed across it, completely blocking the path. We had two options. For those tiny enough, there was a hole in the stalactite to crawl through. The rest of us had to grab hold of the rock-cicle and swing out and around it, over the abyss. Trusting the formation not to break off in my hands, sending me plummeting down into the waters far below, was intimidating, but it turned out to be quite easy. "Just don't look down," as they say.

The next obstacle was another cramped, inclining shelf, much like the last ledge we slithered up. Upon reaching the top, we jumped down into a chilly, swift current, swam through a small, deep waterhole and entered the mouth of yet another cavern. Here we balanced on submerged rocks in waist-deep, turbulent waters and looked to the far end at our trophy — the wondrous, thundering falls.

The climax over, our return to the cave entrance was much quieter while we paid less attention to the now familiar formations and more to sensations. I noticed then that we could see our breath; the air was cool and the cave rock cooler. Mist vaporized off wet clothing and permeated the air. I recognized the smell of burning gas from the carbide lamps. Down the shelf, past the chasm, along the gulley, thoughts were churning. That's when I went body bowling. Splash! Following the stream once again, the group of saturated cavers trudged through the centre where we had previously wasted efforts trying to stay dry.

PETAR c Elizabeth Willoughby

When we squeezed back out of the cave, we passed by members of the next group coming in. They eyed us up and down looking for clues of what to expect – our facial expressions, our clothes, our condition. Remembering the butterflies that fluttered through my stomach when I saw the last group exit, I knew exactly what apprehensions were in the minds of these spelunkers. I knew what the next hour would hold and, had it been possible, I would have joined them.

About the park: Alto Ribeira, near the Paraná state border, is in one of Brazil's last Atlantic rainforest reserves. Besides natural beauty, it offers canoeing, tubing, rafting and rappelling. It is also home to Brazil's Parque Estaual Turístico, with its stalactites, stalagmites, columns and curtains — formations carved into limestone over thousands of years — and underground rivers and waterfalls. As the guide says, "It's pure adrenaline."

Atlantic-rainforest c Elizabeth Willoughby

Intervales Rocks and Rolls

Inspired by my PETAR adventure, I decided to explore other caves in the area. The Intervales State Park offers a variety of hikes, lots of rocks and some unadvertised rolls.

Hiking through the dense, humid Atlantic Rainforest, the path was muddy and slippery. It was only at steeper inclines where that became a problem though, when there wasn't anything suitable to grab onto for support. Where the path was not muck or protruding roots, it was rock. I was glad I wore my hiking boots instead of sneakers. The group trudged along like good sports, mingling amongst each other. Within the first hour, the length of one man's pant leg was coated with drying mud as was another chap's rear end. I did say it was slippery. I wondered when it would be my turn to fall.

The vegetation was thick. Bushes of bright red helconias bulged out over the path and pink bromeliads and orchids hugged the palm and cedar trees. Unseen birds chattered noisily; human voices droned on for awhile and then faded away as silent hikers sensed something ageless in the atmosphere. Whiffs of floral fragrance occasionally overpowered the lingering aroma of moss, loam and dampness. The forest felt ancient and primal.

On we marched over fallen trees, up wet, soapy hills, around boulders and through mires. One hiker's boot remained in the ooze, though her foot did not. There she wavered trying to balance, arms outstretched and a stocking foot in the air. I wondered how long she'd swing and sway before the inevitable mud bath. She teetered; she tottered; I held my breath. Then she was in control again. Impressive in a disappointing sort of way — it could have ended much funnier. With her foot safely back in her boot she began tugging it out of the sucking muck. Fearing a similar ordeal, I gave her ample space and no assistance.

We finally arrived at a cave entrance and readied our hardhats and flashlights. The mouth of the cave was small and steep so ladders and steps had been built in. We entered, one by one and, once again faced with slippery, uneven footing, we started up a mound of sand-covered stone that led on to larger chambers and narrow passages, through shallow streams and pools of water. Underground, the air was cooler. The rocks were cold to the touch and every surface was wet.

Curtain c Elizabeth Willoughby

The scene changed continually between colourful patterns displayed within the rock walls, enormous formations hanging down from above and delicate-looking designs forming around the mineral icicles on the ceiling. Deep within the cave, our guide instructed us to sit down, turn off our flashlights and be silent. The blackness was inimitable, flawless. There was no sound, save water dripping now and then into puddles, yet one could vaguely sense a constant echo. I tried to imagine what kind of life might exist down there in the cold darkness. I noticed that I'd worked up a sweat, and found the cool, damp air refreshing. As I brushed my wet, sandy hands off against each other, I became aware that my feet were cold from wading through the water. Interesting where one's mind wanders when uninfluenced by visual input.


With our lights back on, we browsed the chambers further, here a curtain wall developing, there a stalactite hanging from the cave ceiling has almost met with a stalagmite growing up from the floor.

Before long, we returned to the cave entrance and then back to the base lodge along a shorter route. I was grateful that the journey to lunch was easier than the long, after-breakfast trek, mostly because I was hungry, and that the colourful flowers, towering trees and glimpses of brightly-coloured birds were no less impressive than they were earlier in the day. A hot shower and change of clothes would remedy the cold feet and mud-caked trousers, but the connection to this pristine, natural environment would stay with me long after the weekend's eco-adventure was over.

PETAR-flora c Elizabeth Willoughby

About the park: The 42,000 hectares of the Intervales State Park extends from high in the Paranapiacaba mountain range to low in the Ribeira de Iguape river valley in the south of São Paulo state, less than 300 kilometres from its capital. Because of the geographic location, the subtropical park has high humidity and rainfall. Coupled with no dry season and an average temperature of 18 degrees Celcius, there is tremendous floral diversity. Half of its Atlantic Rainforest trees are unique to the area.

The park supports the local population through employment in maintaining the park's nature, infrastructure, rustic visitors' lodges and restaurant, and through guiding. Scientists and researchers are also frequent visitors to the park, as are bird watchers. Intervales' biodiversity is said to be greater than the Amazon's and has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

There are seven caves that tourists are permitted to visit with guides, each at the end of a walking trail anywhere from 2.5 to 30 kilometres long. Alternative trails pass lakes, ruins, waterfalls, waterwheels and lookout points, all enhanced by the abundant flora.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2003

This article was published in the Sunday News, Brazil ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2003 and at © 2009

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