• Image about Puerto Rico

Among the Stars, Below the Earth

Like many travelers, when thought of Puerto Rico, he thought only of rum, a world-famous fort, and maybe West Side Story. A trip to the Arecibo Observatory and the Rio Camuy Caverns changed everything. Illustrations by Oksana Badrak.

The trolley rattled to a stop. It was a Disneyland-style tram with open-air passenger cars, but I couldn't have been farther from the Magic Kingdom. There was jungle all around me - real jungle, green and moist, blotting out the sun, the heavy air smelling of decay and rebirth. And just a few feet away from the trolley, the earth was split, a great crack showing in the face of a limestone cliff. This prehistoric maw was illicit, chilling, and strangely inviting. I had heard a rumor that the cave's interior was vast and vaulted like a European cathedral. Bats clung to the roof, and a secret underground river threaded beneath the limestone floors, revealing its chocolate-colored waters just long enough for them to whisper an invitation to an even greater subterranean adventure before disappearing, once again, into the bowels of the earth.

The juxtaposition was surreal: A throng of tourists stepped off a tram in the middle of dense jungle with all the nonchalance of shoppers entering a mall, while just yards away was the very real danger of the world's third-largest cave network, a place where the reckless had ventured and never returned.

Africa? The Amazon? The Alps? No. I was in, of all places, Puerto Rico. I had come to peer beneath the core of the earth and then far into deep space (and maybe, when all was said and done, to drink a little of the local rum). So, beckoned by a tour guide who reminded us that one wrong step could mean plunging hundreds of feet into an abyss from which there was no rescue, I stepped through that great crack in the earth and left the dank jungle air behind.