This is part one in a multi-part series documenting Nathan Roser’s participation in an expedition to the Cheve Cave System. The cave system is one of the deepest in the world.
At 3 A.M. on February 22nd, we arrived at the airport in Rochester, NY. Nobody else was there, not even security. Nobody was awake on Facebook to talk to. We waited until 6 A.M. to get on the first plane to Mexico for the 2017 Cueva Cheve expedition. Soon enough, the gates opened and I was on my way to Newark first, then Mexico City. Getting into Mexico was no trouble despite the 80 day planned stay and not having an address of where I’d be. Customs was a breeze since I had only 2 bags with nothing but clothes and some batteries in them. A few hours later I made it to Oaxaca, the common jumping off point for many caving expeditions in Southern Mexico.
Travelling in Chinese cities 2 years prior was a bit intimidating since I knew none of the language, but at least in Mexico, the rusty Spanish I learned in middle and high school was enough to get what I needed and have a bit of conversation with locals. Directions in hand on how to get to Cueva Cheve from Oaxaca, I took a taxi van to the centro in Oaxaca, found a hotel for the night, and got a van the next day to Cuicatlan. The streets of Oaxaca were narrow and busy, a constant mix of cars and trucks on 1-way streets, with all manner of merchants and food carts on every street. You never have to walk very far to find some good food, or a store selling most ordinary goods. I wandered around awhile and located 2 different van companies with morning rides to Cuicatlan, then I was off to find some food. With all the choices it was tough to choose, so I opted for the restaurant next to the hotel I stayed at. Wifi was available so I had one last check of internet things before heading off the grid for a month.
Dinner was chorizo con salsa rojo, a ground sausage in a spicy sauce that came with some cheese and beans along with the essential small tortillas for scooping them up to eat. I made a stop at a hardware store for a wrench, and another small shop to get some breakfast for the next day. I had pineapple pizza, an apple, a banana, and some Oreos. After dinner I went to the hotel, took the last shower I’d get for over 2 months, and got some sleep before getting up at 5:45 A.M. The next day, I caught the 6:30 A.M. van to Cuicatlan but failed to relocate the place in time. So I headed back to the one nearest to the hotel and waited for the 8:30 A.M. van at another company. I hopped in and took a window seat while the van filled with many locals. We went out of Oaxaca and onto the road.
Once out of the city, the landscape changed to a valley of farmland surrounded by mountains. There was lots of tilling in the soil, but not much was growing yet; the dry season wouldn’t end until May. Soon the road changed to winding mountain roads; giant agave bushes dotted the hillside, along with cacti that looked like 10 Menorahs fused together. We passed a small village here and there, and food and gasoline were frequently for sale. We made a stop where the driver took all the wheels off 1 by 1 to fix whatever was causing some weird noise. 3 hours after leaving Oaxaca, I got dropped off in Cuicatlan to find a ride for the next leg up into the mountains. I had a nice lunch of eggs at a small comedor with some Victoria beer. In the span of a half an hour, 3 different people came up on motorcycles to make food deliveries. The food here was quite localized.
After lunch, I went to the bus station to find a ride to Concepcion Papalo, and got pointed to a spot up the road. I walked by some taxi drivers waiting for a customer and one said: “Hey, you need a ride amigo!” I kept on looking for a cheaper option first. I asked around some more and kept getting pointed every which way, so I just decided to take a taxi. I showed the driver the map of where I wanted to go. It was 100 pesos to Concepcion Papalo and 500 pesos to get all the way to the Cheve road. 500 pesos was a lot more than the pasajero trucks and was good money for the driver. But a ride that distance in a US city would cost much more, so I went with it.
We began up the mountain road and I was able to make decent conversation with my limited Spanish. The view was incredible. The road was probably the craziest I’d been up, though. Plenty of crosses on cliffs marked where some unlucky car or truck of people plunged off the mountain. As we went up, the pavement ended and the air got cooler. We passed through Papalo and went off onto a dirt road through jungle. As we got higher, this changed into a grassy pine forest where I got out and walked.
Now I was starting to get excited; in front of me was a valley miles in diameter; I’d heard the stories about Cueva Cheve and how big it was. This entire valley in front of me all drained into the cave, which was actually a giant sinkhole. Walking along with my bags, there wasn’t a sound except for a small stream and the wind in the trees, with no clouds in the sky. It seemed like a great place to be spending the next 2 months in. As I went further I saw a car and truck parked, and was hoping the rest of the team had already arrived. Then, the road ended and a rocky trail went down into Llano Cheve, a flat grassy area by the 70-meter cliff the cave entrance was in.
I came down into the Llano and there were only 4 people there, including Mike Frazier, who was on Cheve expeditions throughout the 1990’s and Roland Moore, a caver who moved to Mexico and started a business and a family near Huautla de Jimenez. Roland didn’t stay long before driving home with his wife and child, but Mike was there for the expedition. The trucks from Texas were supposed to have arrived already but hadn’t. One of those trucks had my big bag of stuff I’d handed off to a friend in Virginia a month earlier to avoid having a checked bag when flying. It had my tent, sleeping bag, and warm clothes. Luckily Mike had been there a few days already and had an extra sleeping bag. That meant no freezing outside at night; despite it being in the tropics, we were nearly at 3000 meters elevation. Things would freeze overnight until about mid-March. We spent the remaining daylight hours gathering firewood, picking up trash left by locals, and cooking food. We hoped that the rest of the team would show up soon.