Although the Sierra Maestra mountain range (south-east Cuba) stands out for having the highest peaks, and the Escambray mountains (central Cuba) for having the most spectacular waterfalls, the western Cordillera de Guaniguanico (Guaniguanico Mountain Range), has the largest cave system in the whole island. Many of its rivers go underground in stretches, thus creating breath-taking sights like La Cueva del Indio, La Cueva de los Portales, and the not as dramatic but still hauntingly beautiful Cueva de la Virgen, by the Taco-Taco River.
Though most of these caves are located in the westernmost part of the mountain range, known as Sierra de Los Organos, a few are found in Sierra del Rosario, at its easternmost end. Jardines de Aspiro is a wide esplanade found in the latter. Its topography is dominated by the valley of the Taco-Taco River, with its many pools, caves and small hills. There are many farmers who live off the intensive farming of malanga (a popular starchy vegetable endemic to the island) and other hill crops like coffee.
|Location||Sierra del Rosario (Rosario Mountain Range), Pinar del Rio|
|Level of difficulty||High|
|What to see||
Taco-Taco River, Cueva de la Virgen, Jardines de Aspiro, mountains of the Rosario range, water holes and natural pools
|Point of departure||Jardines de Aspiro Camping Site|
|Point of arrival||Cueva de la Virgen|
|What to take||Wellies or waterproof boots, short-sleeve shirt, cap or hat, sunscreen, snacks and lunch, waterproof flashlight, bathing suit|
My first "guerrilla-style" camping trip was to Jardines de Aspiro. We were visiting Alberto, our guide’s farmer friend, and we were bringing him some household goods and supplies. Our plan was to stay on his lands for a couple of nights and enjoy walking around the valley. We were really mostly interested in discovering La Cueva de la Virgen, a not very frequented cave crossed by the Taco- Taco River, and with some parts completely submerged under water.
Just at the point where the National Highway crosses the river you find the camping site at Jardines de Aspiro, with a small motel mainly used by domestic tourism. This was our point of departure after we got there hitch-hiking. Although it’s possible to get there by taxi from the eco-friendly Las Terrazas community, or from larger cities like Havana or Pinar del Rio, it’s relatively easy to get there through the highway, mainly on the way back. There are many empty tourist buses that take up passengers on their way back to Havana to make some extra money.
After you arrive at the camping site, you have to go upstream to find the cave. The path goes along the river and there are rustic wooden bridges made by locals to cross the river at different points. The trail gets more and more challenging as the plain turns into a hilly area. Three kilometres away from the camping site, the river is blocked by a small dam, used by locals to get water for their crops and for domestic use. This is a good place to make a short stop at and refuel your energy with a snack, or even go for a swim, before journeying on.
From here on, the small bridges are replaced by fords. This is the point where you'd better take your shoes off if you’re note wearing waterproof ones. After the third ford, the path breaks from the river and gets into the hills. About two hundred metres upstream from this point, the Cueva de la Virgen awaits but it’s not about to get any easier to finally reach it. This last stretch is the most difficult one for there is no clear path to reach the cave.
You can take two different routes. The first is to leave the path on the ford and continue along the river. Watch out your steps over the slippery rocks due to humidity and moss. Sometimes, the vegetation is so compact that you cannot continue along the river bank, and in some places you have to wade through the river. The second route, the dry one, requires you to find some entrance through to the left of the path within the first one hundred metres after the ford, and then follow it until you find the river again. I, personally, prefer the first in spite of how difficult it is to walk over the rocks in the river, just because it is hard to get lost this way.
At the entrance of Cueva de la Virgen, the Taco-Taco River becomes still, full of waterholes fringed by trees. When you get there for the first time, all attention is paid to the cave and the cold waters of the river coming out through it. For some strange reason, underground rivers exert a morbid attraction on most people. The wide entrance is very lighted and shallow, but as you get deep into it, the depth of the river and the darkness of the cave increase. After twenty metres inside the cave, you have to swim, and after ten metres more, passing a turn, you can hardly see without the help of some artificial light.
The most impressive part of the cave comes after this turn: you have to dive under an underwater arch to continue. Most importantly, if you don't have much experience diving, you'd better not try it. The chamber where you get to next is completely dark, but not totally underwater, and the river flows through a small waterfall.
Here I had one of the scariest experiences of my entire adventurous life as a keen trekker and hiker. Our flashlight did not survive the underwater test and we found ourselves in pitch-black darkness, with no possibility of finding our way back. The best diver in our team had to grope on the walls of the cave until he found the arch. Then, we dove under it in a chain, touching our feet, but in full darkness.
After this adrenaline rush, we were unable to continue exploring the interior of the cave, so we spent the rest of our time in the pools outside. Some years after, I returned to the cave with other friends, mainly motivated by getting to finally discover what lay after the waterfall chamber. Most of the pictures illustrating this post are from this second trip. This time we were better equipped with waterproof flashlights and headlights. We were prepared for everything, except for the storm that broke out just when we arrived at the entrance, making the river’s waters rise very fast, thus forcing us to give up this second attempt.
To me, the Cueva de la Virgen is still a partially explored mystery and I am yet to meet anyone who has gotten beyond this second chamber. In fact, there are only a few people who know about the existence of this hidden cave in the Taco-Taco River. Nature and technology have teamed up to stop me from being able to tell you about all its secrets. Let's then leave this adventure with an open end. Perhaps it will be you who one day discovers Cueva de la Virgen’s hidden secrets.