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Gate to the underworld • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

Galápagos in Puerto Rico? Part Seven

Going underground

Note: This is one of a series of photo-memoirs about a 1964 expedition to Isla de Mona, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. All photos were copied from contact sheets as the negatives and prints were lost.

Wednesday, January 8, 1964

We had explored and photographed much of the flat plateau of the 22 square miles of uninhabited Mona Island and hiked along the edges of the sea cliffs that surround it. We combed most of a dozen or so beaches and camped out in a dilapidated cabin in the pine forest on the island’s western tip. Our student expedition to Mona Island was nearing its end — but not before Mike and I ventured underground and Carl went (once again) shelling and swimming.

Two wanderers in the the dark • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

There is a legend that it is possible to hike the length and the breadth of the island underground. After our foray into the German Caves near Punto Barrio Nuevo — one of an estimated 200 caves—we believed it!

On the way, we saw and recorded several black-and-white warblers, six (endemic to Puerto Rico) Adelaide’s warblers, a yellow-billed cuckoo and a prairie warbler. Atop the cliff, a yellow-crowned night heron hopped quite close to us. A brown pelican glided past as we sat on a rock overlooking the sea. It seemed as if we were being accepted into their habitat.

A “petrified” bucket • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

We entered the cave through an old cart path. There were many decaying remains from the guano extracting period (1848–1927), but the broad and well-built trails were intact. We saw along the way rusted metal buckets, decayed wooden barrels and carts, and a few sections of rails.

The caverns were immense. The trails that we followed — a small fraction of the total — measured about two miles.

• Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

Historians — including Mike’s mentor Frank Wadsworth — relate that scores of privateers and pirates in the Caribbean were active on or near Mona from 1578 to 1848, among them Sir Francis Drake, Captain Kidd, and the infamous Puerto Rican pirate Cofresi. Some were said to have hidden their plunder in these caves. Treasure hunters have been blowing things up (see above) ever since, searching for booty…and perhaps finding it!

A stalactite curtain • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

I took photos of amazing formations, such as floating gardens, snowlike flowstone, stalactite forests, calcite pencils and bacon and huge stalagmites. We commented that we could spend days in this cave alone — and there were so many more to explore!

On the way back to camp, we visited El Pozo, where a famous Portuguese pirate was said to be buried, and a jail in a cave — probably in use in CCC times since it was labeled in English.

Iron bars do not a prison make • Photo: R.C. Flores-Gunkle

We arrived at sundown. Carl related his adventure at the beach: Three large parrotfish, about 15 pounds each, were feeding off the reef in clear shallow water near him. He tried — unsuccessfully — to capture one for dinner. He had become quite an expert at shelling but not at fishing! We looked over his cache, prepared dinner with our dwindling supplies, the learned at the station there was no news about a boat.

We repeated the old line: “When given lemons, make lemonade.” That is what we planned to do!

In case you missed any of my Galápagos in Puerto Rico stories,
they can be found HERE. For my fiction, poetry and other writing, please browse HERE.

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Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

An aging humanist hanging on to the idea that there is hope for humankind — against all current indications. You can see his published work on Amazon.