Ever since I came to Mexico, people have been telling me about caves in their area. Strange as it may seem, the descriptions are always remarkably similar, although the caves, if we find any at all, may be completely unalike.
“This cave starts at a little hole over there by a guamúchil tree and goes straight through the whole mountain … ¡Sí, Señor! It comes right out the other side. But no one has ever gone all the way because as soon as you get 100 meters inside, your light is mysteriously blown out, even if it’s a flashlight! That’s what has stopped us from reaching the treasure … and then there are the snakes … No, you’d better not go into that hole!”
The snakes. Everyone supposes that caves are crawling with them, so I always make it a point to tell people that in 53 years of underground exploring, I’ve seen just about the same number of snakes in caves as treasure chests. But one day something happened that made me change my tune …
Not far from where I live there’s a steep hillside with a big black hole that looks, from a distance, like a railway tunnel. When we walked into that dark opening, we discovered something really curious: on the roof, all along the tunnel’s length, were nicely rounded holes, spaced about 11 meters apart. We found 74 of these “skylights” and were unable to explain their presence until we took two archaeologists inside and discovered our cave was not a cave at all, but a man-made underground aqueduct, commonly known by its Arabic name: qanat.
Some years ago I was visited by two cavers from the U.S.A. After taking Ray and Cindy to Tequila, I thought I would stop on the way back to quickly show my friends our mysterious qanat with its curious string of skylights.
After exploring the lower section of the qanat where, long ago, people used to come to collect water, we climbed up a steep hill of debris and down the other side. The long dirt slope brought us into the main part of the system, a narrow passage about 10 meters high. As we had not planned to do any caving that day, we had only one proper flashlight among us, plus Ray’s feeble throwaway, which was emitting a hazy brown glow.
“No problem,” I exclaimed confidently as we made our way down the dusty dirt pile, “there’s plenty of light in this section from all those holes in the ceiling.”
The four-meter-wide fissure we were in quickly narrowed to a maximum of 1.5 meters at shoulder level and a mere 30 cm on the floor. Right at a spot halfway between the shafts of light, a spot “as black as a cow’s inside” (as Mark Twain might have put it), my friend Ray, who was bringing up the rear, suddenly let out a nerve-wracking scream and began yelling bloody murder at the top of his voice.
“HOLY ☼#Δ■₰!!!!” was shouted with such force and genuine panic that Cindy and I literally leaped into the air and jumped forward while Ray jumped back.
Up until this moment, we had assumed there were only three of us in that cave but, from a point halfway between us, we could hear inhuman noises that made our hair stand on end.
“John, shine the flashlight over there, down on the ground!” And we had our first look at the creature with which Ray had been doing a tango in the dark.
There in that narrow slot, the bright beam of my light revealed the coils of a nearly two-meter-long snake, type unknown. It was obviously enraged, crazily striking left and right and putting on a terrifying show. As Ray so colorfully expressed it, “That sucker was hissin’ an’ spittin’ an’ jumpin’ all at the same time.” And with good reason. Apparently I had woken it up, Cindy had stepped right on it and unlucky Ray was left to make the apologies.
How do you get past an incensed serpent in a narrow crack? Even when we moved farther away, we could see it lunging at every shadow. It had a good 75 cm reach and there was no way we were going to slip by it in that narrow fissure. The possibilities of “chimneying” up and over it (a technique for climbing cracks) were not too bright, and a little experimenting showed us that one of the side walls was extremely slippery.
Cindy and I pondered our situation while stretched across the crack at a spot farther away and too high for the snake to reach. Meanwhile, Ray left the cave to hunt up a long stick. One thought kept coming back into our conversation: what if all three of us had got trapped on the wrong side of that furious ophidian?
Ray returned with a long pole and we discussed escape plans. Should he prod and push the critter further into the cave, beyond the high spot where Cindy and I were now perched? Or should he try to hold its head down while we made a flying leap over it? Both solutions might have resulted in the snake taking off after Ray. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a copy of the Guinness Book of Records to find out what this reptile’s top speed was, so we decided on option two, which might result in demobilizing the beast for a few moments.
Cautiously Roy reached out with the pole. “Keep the light on it, John! Keep the light on it! Ah! Got him!” There was a wild thrashing of rippling coils. Hoping Ray had the right end pinned down, Cindy scrambled over, feet on one wall, hands on the other. “EEEEK! I’m slipping!”
Ah, what a scene for an Indiana Jones movie! But she didn’t slip, and now it was my turn. I opted for a flying leap, which resulted in my going right over Ray’s head. Of course, as I flew over him, there was no more light on the snake. “Run for it, Ray!” I shouted and believe me we didn’t tiptoe out. Never have I seen anyone get up the steep dirt-hill entrance faster than the three of us.
On our way home we acknowledged that our little problem might not have developed had we not broken one of the cardinal rules of caving: don’t go into a cave unless every member of the group has three sources of light.
One person trying to light the way for three reduced our chances of spotting danger to almost zero. In addition, we might have realized that a cave with 74 holes in the ceiling is 74 times more likely to contain extraneous objects than a normal cave. Breathing frequent sighs of relief, we celebrated our “self rescue” with frosty bottles of Negra Modelo. After all, having found that elusive snake-in-a-cave was a sure indication that on our next trip we were bound to run into a treasure chest.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.