If you should find yourself near Arenal Volcano, be sure that you visit Venado Cave, which is located about a 45-min van-ride south of La Fortuna. Officially known in the cave registry under its original local Indian name, Caverna Gabinarraca (well, what has been explored so far) consists of over 2,700 meters and is believed to have been formed about 20 million years ago.
Although these caves were not discovered until 1945 it was almost 30 years later before any extensive exploration was done. Even to this day there are still unexplored portions, as you can see from the map below.
Any of the good local La Fortna hostels / hotels / resorts / excursion companies can arrange it for you once you are in town. Hell, they will all be fighting for your business, so don’t waste time and money and extra fees pre-booking ANY excursions online. We booked through our hostel Arenal Backpackers Resort and paid $50/person despite hearing online that others were being charged as much as $70 each. Another blogger managed to arrange transportation both ways via pirate taxi, acquire supplies and pay their tour guide all for a grand total of $30 for his entire group. However that enterprising young chap was unable to fully enjoy his part in the expedition, as he was forced to translate for the rest of his group.
The drive up there is only 15 miles or so but will probably take around 45 minutes or so given the road quality towards the end. The final segment is slow going but then the home stretch is a glorified dirt rut and thus super-slow going. It is a pleasant Alajuela drive though, up through farm country and then past a couple small villages, and provides you with an opportunity to see a variety small houses and farms.
Little did I know…
After arrival — well, technically upon signing of the waiver — we were provided with rubber boots and a hardhat with attached light. Just a forewarning: those who have a shoe size above 11/12 (US men’s) may have some difficulty here. I am a size 14 depending upon the brand and only with water to help lubricate and the assistance of an employee were we finally able to force my boots on one at a time. They were painfully uncomfortable the entire expedition too, but I survived. Once everyone was suited up it was a brief hike past a field of cows and down the trail on into the valley below, where the first cave entrance lies in wait. All the while we struggled to listen as our guide described the history of the cave system. I was the first person behind our guide and as such was the only one able to catch more than the occasional word, so for this expedition try to get the guide with the loud booming voice if possible!
Preparing to enter the Venado Caves
Upon reaching the entrance we paused to listen to the stereotypical introduction and warning spiel from our guide, as well as information on what type of creatures we could expect to see once inside. Basically this cave includes the usual spiders, bats, and bugs, but thanks to the water there is also an assortment of fish, crabs, frogs, and other small forms of aquatic life.
From the first few seconds in all the way until the end, this cave was basically non-stop amazement. I’ve explored a couple cave systems before but this one by far was the best! First off, they failed to mention just how much water you really see. From the start you are standing in 6-12 inches and the water level only goes up from there. Several times you are fully submerged and swimming to the next cavern. It was exciting and a lot of fun, to say the least. Definitely beats traditional dry spelunking.
The whole thing took about an hour-and-a-half and included lots of waterfalls, stalactites, bats, and other interesting shit. Our guide showed us some interesting rocks that appear solid but are actually luminescent when hit with a flashlight, as well as others that sounded like metal when tapped (if only I could remember what they were called).
But there are also several crawl spaces that you need to make it through, so I will warn you with this: if you are taller than my 6’2″ and/or weigh more than 250lbs, you probably should avoid this excursion. Even if you could make it through all the spaces, trust me, it will not be an enjoyable squeeze. I’m tall and relatively thin yet there was this one part in particular which I barely made it through.
Note: the caves do close periodically due to high water levels, primarily after heavy rainfalls during the wet season.