Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Underground Zapatoca

 It was yet another holiday in Colombia on Monday and we decided to go back to Zaptoca. It's a small town sitting at about 1500 m between the River Sogamoso and the mountains and national park of the Serrania de los Yariguies. It's only 30km sw of Bucaramanga, but the journey takes nearly two hours even without traffic. Most of the road is paved; good in some places, not so good in others. From Bucaramanga and Girón you have to cross the Sogamoso canyon by descending 500m to the bridge via 15 or so hairpin bends, and then climb even more on the other side!

  The town is pleasantly warm, with typical colonial architecture, such as the Museo Cosmos in the Casa de Ejercicios which has a good restaurant apparently.

  About a mile outside of the town is the Cueva del Nitro, a system of caves that runs for at least 38km. For a small fee you can borrow a head torch and explore on your own. Alternatively you can hire a guide to show you around, which I'd recommend.

 The tunnels are challenging in places, and to see some parts you need to be reasonably fit, agile and not to mention thin! It was warm inside, but muddy and very slippery in places. We got very dirty and collected a few bumps and bruises, especially during the 50m or so crawling on hands and knees. A hard hat would have been a big advantage.

 We asked the guide to show us the cave fish, a trip which takes about 3 hours in total. There are two species of fish, which are supposedly unique to this cave system. I understood they were blind, but they seemed to react to the head-torches. Nearer the cave entrance were cave crickets with enormous antennae which chirped occasionally. It is possible they are unique to these caves too. In addition there was a small tarantula spider and several large bats hanging from the cave roof.

 There are plenty of stalactites, pillars, curtains etc to see, as well as some very attractive crystal covered tunnels.

 The caving was great fun though we were relieved to get back in the open air. On our way out, dirty, sweaty and tired, I came across this small snake (about 25 cm long). At the time, I wasn't at all sure if this is a highly venomous coral snake or a harmless mimic false coral. Since then I've learned the "rule" that all venomous coral snakes have odd numbers of black bands in their pattern, that is, one or three black bands repeated. Most false corals have two or four repeated. Some false corals though do look very similar to real corals. So according to this rule, this snake with two black bands repeated is a false coral. As there are at least 24 species of real coral snakes in Colombia, it pays to be careful and avoid them all anyway.

 After a big steak lunch in El Rancho, a local restaurant with a great view, we finished off our trip by taking a quick visit to the Pozo Ahogado, a popular swimming hole on the other side of town. This is where the 28km Sendero de Lengerke path from Zapatoca to San Vincente starts. We plan to do this walk another time.

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