We tried our write-our-destination-on-a-slip-of-paper-and-show-it-to-a-taxi-driver trick again and got Alex, who was friendly enough but spoke no English. Our fault, we know, for not learning even rudimentary Spanish before we came to Latin America, but there it is. In retrospect we should have kept trying for an English-speaking driver but Alex seemed nice enough and the price was right so we hopped in and took off for an inland reserve where giant tortoises roam free. So far we’d seen them only in protected places where you can’t really get very close. Here, we walked a lovely forest path and came across the prehistoric-looking giants all along the way, and bigger ones than we’d seen up ’til now. Alex estimated the largest one at about 150 years old. When I walked too close to that one he hissed at me and withdrew his head and limbs in the tortoise version of “get off my lawn!”
Others were more accepting of our presence, especially since a group of young women ahead of us had picked up fruits off the ground and were feeding them to the tortoises, who were perfectly happy not to have to drag that heavy shell around and go looking for lunch. That made them much more entertaining to watch, and they didn’t seem to mind the women all taking turns posing for photos as they pretended to touch the shells.
It was thrilling to be so close to these rare and endangered creatures and we appreciated how protective even our taxi driver felt toward them.
A short drive away we visited Las Tuneles de Lava, the lava tunnels. They were formed when the outer layer of a lava flow cooled and hardened as the lava continued to flow inside. Alex explained that the tunnel will start out with a smooth and easy path, then turn very rocky, and at a point about 3/4 of the way through will get very narrow and we’ll have to crawl through a small opening to get to the last section and the exit.
He told us this by way of saying if we didn’t think we could crawl through the narrow part we could turn around and come back the way we came and he’d meet us here. If we thought we could crawl through he’d meet us on the other side. I was initially skeptical and had him describe again for me just how small the opening was.
“We can do it,” Jack said, and despite a latent but untested claustrophobia I agreed. After all, I’ve had a shoulder MRI in the nasty tube with the loud noise. How bad could this be?
The tunnel was just as Alex described, an easy path at first that grew rockier and narrower as we went. It’s amazing and beautiful and because it was formed by lava flow it’s completely different from the caves we’re familiar with in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, formed by underground rivers and mineral deposits.
We got to the squeezy part and I was relieved to see that while we would have to crawl through, it wasn’t a coffin-like tube but rather a low ledge we had to go under for a couple of meters. No problem. We did get a little muddy and here’s me with my school clothes on, I thought.
Jack and I noted how refreshing it is to be able to visit these sites alone and without the constant babysitting, guard rails and warning signs that you find in any place like this in America.
Our final stop was Los Gemelos. These are sinkholes, also formed by lava flow when tunnels like the ones we were just in collapsed to form deep craters. They are now thick with vegetation and otherworldly. Our photos can’t capture how deep the craters are or how lovely the trees and plants smelled. After being in hot dry landscapes for a couple of weeks this was a cool change.
Alex told us to take our time walking around the two sinkholes and we did. As we returned to the starting point on the first trail a large tour group marched up to the nearest overlook and gathered around their guide who pointed out a few species of trees and plants and birds, then marched them to the other sinkhole for a similar quick summary.
“Now we’ll go have lunch,” the guide said, and they piled into the bus. We admire anyone anywhere who travels at whatever level, but watching how little time those tourists had at such a unique place makes us grateful to be on our own and able to linger for as long as we want.