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Kolem Chen: Facing Fear in Tabasco’s Epic Cave

Hiking up to the top of Kolem Chen Cave

Hiking to the cave entrance

After experiencing Chiapas, I continued to Tabasco, the Mexican state that has pretty much nothing to do with the famous American hot sauce of the same name.

What I found surprised me.

Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, may be Mexico’s reigning Capital of Adventure… but Villahermosa, Tabasco is no snooze, either!

I was psyched to learn that within an hour’s drive of Tabasco’s capital, adventure-hungry travelers could be deep in nature: hiking, rappelling, mountain biking, and so much more.

Kolem Chen, an explorable cave of epic proportions (it means “Big Cave” in the indigenous Ch’ol language), is also conveniently located within Tabasco.

So, on my visit to Villahermosa, I opted for a Day of Adventure exploring the dark (and sometimes creepy-crawly-filled) reaches of the cave with Jungla Experience: rappelling down its sheer cliffs, and crawling through its tightest spaces.

I’m scared of the dark, of weird insects, of heights, and of tight spaces – what better opportunity to explore not only a cave but also these fears?

Let’s get started!

Kolem Chen in Tabasco, Mexico

Descending into the cave entrance for the first rappel

Along with my group, I got suited up for the adventure in a helmet (complete with the very necessary headlamp) and harness.

The guides double-checked everyone’s equipment to make sure it was fitted correctly, we took a few photos, and we were off!

First, our group needed to hike to the top of the cave.

I’m not going to lie; it was pretty tough.

After we’d climbed up a few hundred cement stairs, I thought we were done.

Nope! We’d just reached the entrance, and needed to continue up through the jungle.

The hike was difficult both in the environment (humidity and heat) and physically (the path was steep and required focus).

Luckily, it was short, less than 20 minutes or so, though it felt like longer.

Rappelling in Kolem Chen Cave

Rappelling down a cliff

At the entrance of the cave, we jumped right into the swing of things, with a rappel to the next level of the cave.

I don’t know about you, but my first rappel of the day is always my most nerve-wracking.

I think the movement is a bit counterintuitive (leaning back, having your “weak hand” free or only loosely holding onto the rope, keeping your legs fairly straight) and it can take the first go to get used to the rhythm and motion again and feeling confident.

Fortunately, the rappel instructors at Jungla were both patient and experienced (and Ramon speaks perfect English, appreciated at any point where I felt nervous and couldn’t think through my Spanish), and I got right back into the groove.

If you’ve never been rappelling before, this would be a great place to start!

As our group made our way through the cave, we stopped to look at bugs adapted to the strange environment, to consider the calcification of the walls, and to see the slow formation of stalactites and stalagmites.

In total, there were four big rappels (several broken up by a level section), a section of crawling, and a rope ladder at the end, taking about five hours from start to finish.

Enjoying the darkness

Enjoying the darkness

Aside from the adrenaline activities, it was rejuvenating to spend time in the silence and isolation of the cave.

Turning your headlamp off and sitting in complete and utter darkness needs to be experienced to be understood.

It feels a bit trippy and a bit disorienting… in a good way.

It’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut and routine of the daily grind, and doing something new is one way to break out of the doldrums.

There’s nothing like experiencing the blackness and silence of a cave to make you appreciate the sights and sounds of your life.

Bats in Kolem Chen Cave

Bats clustered on the cave ceiling

We ended our cave adventure by walking out through a bat cave, the little guys flittering above us, slowly growing more active as daylight began to die down.

Bats, like caves, are too often vilified and feared.

A single brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitos per hour, so maybe think about saying thanks, instead of squealing, the next time you come across one.

Rappelling in the dark

Rappelling down through the dark and unknown with my headlamp to light my way

Fear grows in the unknown and thrives in misunderstanding.

Exploring what makes you scared (like, say, spending time in the dark by rappelling through bat-filled caves) provides an incredible opportunity to replace fears with understanding and appreciation, and maybe even allows you to discover a new hobby.

Kolem Chen Cave

Exiting the cave and the adventure

What fears will you be exploring next?

My trip to Kolem Chen in Tabasco was hosted in partnership with Go Backpacking, Jungla Experience, and ATMEX. All opinions are my own. 

All photos credited: Jungla Experience


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