Cave Tubing, Hiking and Petrogylphs Around the Tanama River
Though Puerto Rico is full of all sorts of neat things to do, one of the few things we don’t have here is river rapids for tubing or rafting. We did find an adventure that offers "lazy river" tubing through a cave, along with some hiking and Taino cave exploration. Those are some of my favorite things all rolled into one day, and all in beautiful Utuado. So, when some family members came to visit, we decided to check it out.
Utuado and the karst region are really beautiful areas. Located about 1½ hours from San Juan, they are full of breath-taking views, nature, caves, and a rich history dating back hundreds of years before Columbus "discovered" Puerto Rico. Remnants of that pre-Columbian civilization can be found throughout the Utuado valley. The tour is on a property that contains many caves (both in and out of the water) and Taino artifacts.
We contacted Atabey Eco-Adventures (now there are a number of other options- see contact info below). We decided to do a tour which had hiking, petroglyphs, and (most importantly) cave tubing.(Note- this exact tour is no longer available, but they have other similar ones). The catch here is, no matter what company you go with, if you want to go tubing in the cave, they require you to get there early, to hopefully avoid the typical afternoon rains (though there is no guarantee). Despite having to get up early, the drive up Route 10 in the early morning is breathtaking — through karst country, with the clouds rising from the valley. Really pretty.
We met Ruben (our guide) and another helper guide, and followed them to the property. The drive to the starting point is along one hairy road — I was glad to be following another car! We parked along the road and off we went.
The trail starts down a steep dirt/rocky road. At the bottom of the road, we started on a fast-paced, 45-minute hike through the woods, along the rivers, and through the rivers. There is a neat suspension bridge, but we were unable to use it, so we had to walk across the river. Then we continued up and up to the petrogylph cave.
Our guide was young and a fast walker, but we all kept up with him. He did stop occasionally for rest and water breaks. Note that this is not an easy hike — lots of up and down hills and valleys. It had rained a bit a few days before, so the trail was a little muddy and a bit slippery.
The petrogylph cave was a nice place, with a number of petrogyphs around on the walls. There was also a place were they had found a Taino Indian burial site and other Taino artifacts, like pottery. But nothing was left but the petroglyphs carved into the walls. After spending about 10 minutes in the cave, continued hiking up some more to the top of a mountain.
After a another fast-paced hike of about 10 minutes, we got to the mountaintop, which had a great breeze and pretty views. I had read we would be able to see the Arecibo radiotelescope from the top of that mountain, but we didn’t see it.
We then started hiking down and down — for about 30 minutes — back to the river. Hiking down the mountain was a little trickier on these slick trails, but we all made it without much incident.
Then we got to the best part of this tour — the water tubing. After putting on life jackets and headlamps, we sat in the tubes and started our slow journey through the beautiful 500+ foot long underground tunnel/cave called El Portillo Cave. The cave has a large opening on one end, and it is really high. When you are inside of the cave, you can see why they don’t allow tubing if it rains — large tree branches were stuck up toward the roof of the caves, easily 12 feet above our heads. It’s obvious the water level can rise quickly during heavy rains and fill this cave to the top. But we had a sunny day so we had no worries.
We floated slowly along, passing lots of pretty cave formations, like curtain stalactites. As you get farther into the cave, it gets darker and darker, and soon you are happy to have your headlamp. Then the walls look like chocolate. You can see a little light at the other end of the cave, where you eventually come out the other side. It is relly pretty. The water is a bit cold, but it feels nice after the hot hike.
After that, we had a long walk back up the hill to where we started, where we could use the bathroom and change into our dry clothes. Then, we followed our guides to a local restaurant for a nice local meal of mofongo and our choice of meat.
Some Hints from Our Experience
Here is some stuff that we didn’t know before we started our trek (due to miscommunication) — hopefully, you can learn from our mistakes.
For this tour, you will need sun glasses, sun screen, and water. You should wear fast-drying, long pants, hiking shoes and socks. You can carry water shoes and change into them if you don’t want to get your hikers wet. If you don’t want to go tubing in your hiking attire, wear a bathing suit under your long pants, and strip down before going into the water. Bring a dry bag for camera, wallet, and anything else that you need to keep dry while tubing.
You should bring a complete set of dry clothes to change into at the end of the tour. You can leave those in your car or in the bathroom area at the beginning of the tour.
Speaking of that … There is a bathroom right at the beginning of the tour. Use it. You won’t see another one until the end of the tour.
Our Take on this Tour
This tour takes place in a beautiful, natural area that is rich with history, but …
I was surprised and disappointed that our guides did not speak English. I guess I assumed (incorrectly) that since all contact with Atabey Eco-Adventures prior to our tour was in English, and the tour descriptions did say that we would learn about nature, the caves, and Taino history along the way, that the guide would be able to communicate with us. This was not the case.
We enjoyed the trip but didn’t learn anything new that day. We had a lot of basic questions/concerns that were not addressed (like a bathroom break before the hike started or what to bring with us on the hike … we ended up leaving our drybag in the car at the beginning of the hike, and had to go back to the car to get it) so we just had to wing it.
Maybe if you are fluent in Spanish the guide would have more to say, but he didn’t really offer much commentary, even in Spanish (which everyone with us that day understood to some degree).
I also was a little perturbed that it seemed that there were all sorts of Taino artifacts (including skeletal remains) found in the cave, but I don’t believe that archaeologists have come to document or conserve the items. According to Ruben, the bones have been stolen and other things (like bowls and pottery) have been taken out of the cave over the years.
As an alternative, Batey Zipline Adventure offers a wide selection of tours on the same property that include hiking, caves, a river trip through El Portillo Cave, and also a tour with ziplines on the owner’s private property. We really like the personable guides that Batey uses, and we can highly recommend their tours as some of our favorite on the island.
We took this tour in April 2011, but have held off writing about it for months since we were so annoyed. We contacted the owner of Atabey Eco-Adventures in September 2011, and she assured us that they have all new, bilingual guides. I can’t say if that will be the case for you. If we did it again, we would use a different company as we felt we were ripped off by Atabey Ecotours.
The hiking/tubing tours cost around $120/person, cash only. Reservations are required.
The cave tubing tour starts at around 8am.
Trips into the river will be cancelled if there is rain, as the river rises quickly and can become dangerous.
The tour description said it should last about 4 hours. The tour took about 3 hours on the day that we went.
You can call Atabey Eco Adventures at 787-806 5272 or try one of the other companies that do similar tours-contact information below. OR use Batey Zipline Adventures 787-484-3860 for their tours.
The tour companies will tell you specifically where to meet your guide when you make your reservations.
Allow about 1½ hours to drive to Utuado from the San Juan area.
We have no experience with them but now there are a bunch of other companies that do similar trips in the same area: Tanama Cave Tubing is another company (one of the originals) that runs similar tours. There is also another company that does a similar trip on the Tanama river but with body rafting instead of tubes- EcoXplora. Rancho Julio Rosa that does a hiking tour with tubes -(787) 484-9590, Zumbate Eco Tours that visits a few of the caves and does body rafting through El Portillo – (787) 552-9161 , and Mountain Eco Tours hiking tour with river tubing 787-718-3084 and another new one Aventureo PR whose prices are a bit lower since they are newer. Phone: 787-669-7997 (7:00am-10:00 pm), or Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Use this map to locate places mentioned in this article. You can click on a placemark to view the GPS coordinates for that place.