Talgua Cave Archaeological Park
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Don Stierman: August, 2001
In May and June of 1996 over 30 scientists and science students, along with several journalists, work to discover secrets of the Cave of the Glowing Skulls, the Cueva de las Arañas and a series of prehistoric mounds called Talgua Village. The Discovery Channel broadcast an abridged version of Dean Love’s "director’s cut" in September of 2000.
Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the new archaeological park in late October of 1998. The park reopened in July of 2001. This report is based on a visit that took place on August 7 of 2001.
The road to the park entrance is longer but less challenging that that taken in 1996. We cross the river on concrete pads built to withstand the power of the usual floods. Any bus or taxi in Catacamas could have reached the park entrance (left). Mud holes were rare and shallow. A stone path leads from the park gate to the park facilities: cave entrance, ticket booth, museum, restaurant, and restrooms.
We have to wait for the cave to open. A recent storm downed a large tree that blocks the path from the gate to the visitors' center and the park director was arranging for its removal. Iris, a guide, practices her English with my graduate student as I tell her all I know about the science done to discover the ancient secrets of Talgua Cave and its neighborhood. Students from a local school arrived shortly after this photograph was taken, the cave opened and Iris went right to work.
A boardwalk (left) takes us past an iron gate (locked when the cave is closed) above the flowing water and deep into the heart of the mountain. There is plenty of room for even this stout gringo but watch your head, even our guide has to duck under some stone ledges and stalactites. We are greeted by several large bats – they are probably more frightened of us than we are of them. A generator provides power for lights strung through the cave, mostly positioned to illuminate flowstone and other features as calcite accumulates on floor, ceiling and walls of the cave. All too soon we reach a second (locked) gate at the top of some stairs. Through the bars we can see the bottom of the ladder extending up to the famous burial chambers. Sorry, that part of the cave is not open to tourists. Entrance to the cave costs $5 for foreign visitors plus a tip (Lps. 5 per person is the suggested tip) for the guide. It takes money to put gasoline into that generator, and there is still a lot of work to do in the museum.
The cave seems smaller now that there are lights and a boardwalk that it did 5 years ago, when we navigated this passage up to our knees in water, carrying flashlights. The hike is not as taxing but the cave is no longer as mysterious. Tourists today may not appreciate the effort made almost 3000 years ago by people who carried bones and gifts up this passage with only torches for light before climbing to the burial chamber without using a modern ladder. We do not see the bats as we walk back to the entrance. They are probably hiding in one of the many side passages or high overhead, out of sight above the lights.
Our bilingual guide (white shirt) poses with Santiago under a spectacular flowstone formation.
Museum displays of cave burials are replicas – preserving the "real thing" probably requires climate control. The ‘statue’ found during the Talgua Village dig is on display in the museum, but someone has marked the face with chalk. It looks sad and in need of a good cleaning. Posters with images from research reports hang on the museum walls, and pottery representative of the prehistory of Honduras is nicely and efficiently displayed.
This path leads from the museum back toward the visitors' center and cave entrance.
This map shows the visitors' center next to the cave entrance. Restrooms, the museum and comedor are just a short walk to the north (left on this map).
The comedor is not yet running at capacity, probably because customers are few and far between. There is ice (made from purified water, of course) for our soft drinks. A terrace overlooks the river and a rain forest covers most of the opposite bank (left). Cultivated fields expose the steep terrain to our left as we look across the Río Talgua – this diverse environment should attract a wide variety of birds and butterflies. I hear more birds than I can see. This park is a very peaceful retreat. The only sounds are occasional birdcalls against a background of water rushing over rocks. Light sprinkles fall from some of the clouds passing overhead. These are small morning drops; really heavy rains are usually confined to afternoons and evenings. Most of the morning showers are intercepted by broad rain forest leaves and never tough the ground.
Water is this stretch of the Río Talgua is clear and cool, but probably not pure enough to drink untreated. We saw some tourists cooling their feet in the river after visiting the cave. A few hundred meters upstream the canyon divides; Quebrada El Penabetal to the east (right) and Río Talgua to the west (left). A short walk up Río Talgua brings us to the river’s source – an enormous spring flowing from the base of the hill. We cannot investigate this spring in detail, it is fenced off, no doubt to protect water collection structures feeding the three pipes (see photo) that carry water from this relatively uncontaminated source down the canyon to supply residents of the Catacamas valley. Still further upstream the riverbed is dry (well, damp). This is Río Seco, or Dry River. Rain falling in this watershed either drains quickly from steep impermeable slopes or infiltrates an extensive karst system where it is carried underground to discharge points such as the spring we just passed.
Río Seco is a highway into the heart of a rain forest. Paved with boulders and cobbles, this highway no doubt becomes a violent rapids following heavy rains. Hurricane Mitch swept the floors of these quebradas clean of trees and brush almost 3 years ago but few plants have taken root on exposed sand bars, in stark contrast to the impenetrable jungle rising above us. Rocks over a meter in diameter have been rounded and polished by abrasion as they are tumbled downstream during floods. Really large rocks, fallen from cliffs we occasionally glimpse through the forest canopy, are too massive to move. These room-size boulders also show effects of abrasion. Nowhere do we see bedrock clearly exposed – is this a ledge of limestone in place or is it a particularly coherent slide or fallen block?
-----End of walkabout: later, south of the park:
The road to Talgua Village is the same as in 1996 only less traveled. Branches hang low over the trail, as few trucks or busses higher or wider than a Toyota pick-up passed this way recently. Less traffic also mean fewer water-filled ruts. The road north of the dig looks more like a braided set of paths made by cows and horses. "Where’s the road?" was the only comment made by my student, who was certain we were lost.
Grass still covers Talgua Village. Oscar Moya, the landowner, has divided the site in half with a sturdy barbed wire fence and uses both sections for cattle grazing. Thorny branches still attack the shoes and legs of those who walk heedlessly through the knee-high grass. It is difficult to locate evidence of the dig; minor depressions that mark former excavations might be overlooked by visitors unfamiliar with their locations.
Little appears to have changed at Hotel Juan Carlos. The street remains unpaved and ditches dug for one or another water or sewer project remain incompletely filled. The As de Oros has printed new menus, updating prices to keep pace with the decline of the Lempira with respect to the dollar. Most meals list for Lps. 110 to 130 ($7 to $9). Testiculo de toro is still on the menu (5 items under that category now) but I though it best to leave that delicacy for visitors who had not yet experienced it. The dinner was gringo sized, more than twice the food served elsewhere, so much I didn’t have room to test the cabbage salad for gastrointestinal microbes.
The bus that transported field school students (and the rest of us) – or its twin – is still operating.
All I know about Larry August’s current activities in the area is what I read in the newspaper or hear as rumors from other people who read the same newspapers or supply hearsay to newspaper reporters. They say that Lawrence August wants to purchase the old military ("contra") air field at El Aguacate, east of Catacamas, to establish an international airport with connections to La Mosquitia, Trujillo and the Bay Islands. They say that he is looking for investors for the airport venture and for construction of a 5-star hotel.
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The background image used on this page was borrowed from the Web site of another famous tropical park.