Adventure Travel: Caving Deep Beneath Budapest – My First Brush With Claustrophobia

Caving in Budapest

Claustrophobia is a scary thing.  Well, it ought to be it ends in phobia, right?  Luckily it hasn’t ever really been something I had to worry about.  Granted, I come from Arizona where we’re famous for our wide open spaces. After all “Don’t Fence Me In” could just as easily be about Arizona as Montana.  Perhaps it’s no great surprise that cramped into a a tiny hole, deep under ground, in a yellow jumpsuit with a hardhat on,in a foreign country,I finally met my match.  But wait!  Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.

I’d arrived in Budapest two days earlier, fresh off a flight from Copenhagen, Denmark.  After years of near-misses, I’d finally managed a trip to Hungary’s famed capital.  A city known for its beautiful architecture, the Danube, fantastic music, good food, decent beer, an unreal hostel and party scene (There are over 125 hostels in Buda and Pest).

My brother David who authors had suggested several ‘must-see’ stops during my stay.  One of which was a cryptic suggestion to, “see the caves, they’re incredible!”.

Once settled I asked the hosts at Aboriginal Hostel what caves David might have been talking about.  They immediately dug up a great flier for what looked like a fun caving expedition.  It sounded great.  They jokingly mentioned “I hope you’re not claustrophobic” before suggesting I wear closed-toed shoes and then booking me for the following day. The tour was cheap – less than $30 – and lasted several hours.  It also had that authentic “backpacker” type of feel where you know you’re signing up for an adventure but have no clue just what it is you’ve actually signed up for.  Not thinking much more about it we dove into several local spirits, some of which were marginally potable, and then headed out on the town for a fun night at a random bar’s theme party.

As you might imagine, the next morning was a bit rough. Not concerned I downed some water and struck off to meet the tour guide for our odd multi-leg public bus trip out to the caves (remember: only the most luxurious tours for me). It turned out the caves were located just outside of (and partially beneath) Budapest in the 20+ km long Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi cave system.  For those interested the cave system is the longest in Hungary and located in the Duna-Ipoly National Park.

At the meeting point I connected with a fun mixture of other travelers. A number of Americans, a few Aussies, a person or two from elsewhere in Europe and no doubt at least one Kiwi. Here it’s worth noting that I was the tallest of the group by a decent margin.  I’m 6’4″ (192 cm) and about 200 pounds (91 kilos).  Normally not an important fact, right?  Well, in retrospect it should have dawned on me that not all cavers are created equal.

Eventually our guide showed up, we caught the next local bus heading across to Buda, and the adventure began.  It wasn’t until the hot bus started struggling up that hill that my hangover really set in.  It wasn’t terrible, but let’s just say I turned a shade of green and was definitely keeping an eye on the absolute fastest way off the bus, just in case.  Luckily, the ride was short and the fresh air left me feeling chipper and human again in short order.

Looking the Part

In quick order we were all given multi-colored full body jumpsuits and hardhats with mounted headlights. Then we were advised to leave valuables (including phones, large or expensive camera equipment) in the lockers. With heavy reservations I decided to only take my Canon G11 with me, figuring I could fit it safely inside my jumpsuit.

In these situations you never know if the nifty outfit is the tour company’s gimmick to make you feel more hardcore or if it’s genuine safety gear, necessary for what you’re about to dive into.  I’ll admit, at this point I assumed it was a 50/50 split between the two.  Getting into the darn thing was its own side adventure, but before long we all found ourselves suited up and ready to go.

In a last minute change of heart I decided to risk it and ran back in to grab my video camera.  I’m a travel blogger after all, what kind of travel blogger would I be if I left my expensive camera equipment in a locker just because it “might” get hurt, right?

Caving in Budapest

Then it was off to the cave’s mouth.  A small metal door set into the side of the mountain.  We paused for a brief safety brief, figured out how to turn on our headlamps, and then made our way inside. What was waiting for us was a decent sized tunnel about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide that we were able to shuffle along before pausing in an open room for one last helmet and safety check.

Caving in Budapest

Then it was time to truly start step over the threshold and get the tour kicked into full throttle.   In no time we were descending a long stairwell which plunged into the darkness below us.  The air was cool, but not unbearably so, and only slightly dusty.

Caving in Budapest

The path from the bottom of the ladder opened up into a small room called the Chapel where German Soldiers had hidden during World War II.  We paused briefly to collect ourselves and to take in the mud/sandstone cave walls before diving into what, at the time, seemed like a small tunnel into the next room.

Caving in Budapest

As we slowly wound deeper into the cave system, and each narrow piece of the cave got tighter and tighter, I definitely caught myself smiling appreciatively.  The heavy duty jumpsuits we were wearing were 100% utility and not just a gimmick.  The same quickly became clear for the helmets, as you could regularly hear the sharp crack and corresponding “ooph” as members of the group misjudged ceiling height, or forgot to keep their head ducked.

Caving in Budapest

Learning the Superman

Eventually we hit our first real challenge.  One of the long, and tighter crawlspaces. The guides (both relatively small guys) pulled us into a group and explained that to get through the next space and those like it ahead we would need to go into superman position.  Superman position?  Yep – one arm forward to pull, one against the body to reduce space, and with our legs pushing, kicking and worming us forward through the tunnel.

Caving in Budapest

Fair enough, right?  We were here to do proper caving after all.  So, eager to push on but feeling slight trepidation as I dripped sweat from the exertion of getting through the areas we had already covered, I could feel my hungover muscles cry out in protest. I shrugged it off and dove head first into the next hole.  It was tight.  Really tight.  As in, I was temporarily stuck tight.  Feet pumping, arm scrambling for hold on the slick clay and smooth sandstone, I inched and wriggled my way forward as the small hole slowly arced forward and then up into the new open space.  Luckily the person behind me was able to brace my feet slightly allowing me the traction to push myself the rest of the way through and out.   It was fantastic. It was difficult.  I was starting to shake a bit.

Caving in Budapest

As we paused on the other side recovering, I looked down to see the yellow of my sleeves along my arms had turned a darker color.  The dust in the air quickly turned to a soft layer of mud as it met my face and I panted, recovering from the physical exertion of pulling myself through the hole. But, I wasn’t truly concerned. After all, my brother had done this already, right?  He’s my height, has 40 pounds on me, and a more muscular build.  If he hadn’t had issues, then it was time to double down and push forward.  There’s nothing like a little sibling rivalry to get you to push on in a moment like that.

Caving in Budapest

We continued on through wider chambers, other narrow rooms, and odd spaces that while fairly tight were more challenging because of the way you’d enter them.  One required sliding down feet forward, standing up, then turning sideways, squeezing through a narrow area and then semi-falling/semi-lowering oneself into a face-forward push-up position before crawling forward, down and then back up through a hole.

Caving in Budapest

We walked, we slid, we butt-scooted, we crawled and we squirmed our way along until we paused a second time before another tight space. The guides told us we’d have to superman through this one, as with the other ones, but that it was the tightest we’d be doing on the trip. They also mentioned that we’d have to turn our helmets sideways in one part to fit through properly. I could feel my heart beat surge. My muscles were throbbing in protest, threatening to cramp. I was drenched in sweat. David did it. I can do it. It was time to put my game face on.

Caving in Budapest

A Lump in my Throat

We slowly crawled forward, waiting for the person in front of us to squirm forward. All the while being mindful to avoid their flailing feet and offering a head for them to push against as needed. Then it was my turn. The first part was tight, but manageable. I had to be extra careful as I had both my digital camera and video camera strapped to my chest inside my jumpsuit. They made me wider and also meant I couldn’t rest all my weight on my stomach. Just what the largest guy in the group needed, right? In surges of energy I slowly wriggled my way forward, kicking and pulling before resting briefly to catch my breath. Head turned sideways, lamp light offering only a partially illuminated view of the space I crawled forward, and upward. I felt stuck even while moving. The space was too tight. I was too tired. The muscles in my core screamed in protest. Was I stuck? What would I do if I was? Was I going to throw up? Then, finally, I was partially through and could bring my other arm to play. Slowly I dragged myself out of the 10 or so foot long tunnel and out into a larger crawlway.

Caving in Budapest

I was shaking visibly. My mind raced running through how I might get out, my palms were sweaty and muddy as I wiped them on my yellow jumpsuit leaving long streaks. Adrenaline surged through my body. I wanted OUT. Slowly I collected myself, I slowed my breathing, relaxed my muscles, and took control of my thoughts. It had happened, I’d finally experienced and now truly understood claustrophobia.

Caving in Budapest

As we paused and several of the guys tried squeezing through a tiny hole only our guide could manage I waged an internal war. My dignity, my pride, my mind fought the primal urge to get out, to quit and a deep fear that I would get stuck in the next tunnel. It’s that feeling you feel right before riding a massive roller-coaster the first time. It left me shaken. I wasn’t a quiter. People did this all the time. Some had to be bigger than I was and they must have made it without issue. I could do it. I had to do it. What was my other option? Going BACK the way I’d come? Not likely. All the while I tried to figure out just how my brother had made his way through it before me. He was my size after all and far more muscular. Tentatively, hands still shaking slightly I asked the guide if there were any more like the last tight hole ahead of us. “Only the Sandwich” he responded, but that’s optional. Relieved I made the decision to suck it up and to push ahead.

Caving in Budapest

I’m not sure there was really an alternative option, but either way I’m glad I did. Instead of giving in to the fear I mastered and conquered it. I pushed through, fought through a few more tight spaces (though none were as tight as the last) and enjoyed the experience as we paused to look at deep-sea fossils, random rock formations that looked (and had been shaped into faces), and explored larger galleries that felt like lavatubes.

Caving in Budapest

When the time came to split off and to do the “Sandwich” I did opt out. I figured I’d had my fun and there was no sense pushing my luck. As we sat waiting in a small space where the two routes re-connected I remember hearing one of the smallest girls on the trip call out from in the midst of the sandwich. “I’m stuck”. Luckily before long she’d squeezed through and rejoined the rest of us.

Caving in Budapest

The trip was an amazing experience. Despite (or perhaps because of) the hangover, the brush with claustrophobia, and the bucket full of dust I inhaled it was a thrilling adventure. It teased us, challenged us, threatened us, and eventually applauded us for our effort. It was amazing and hands down one of the best adventure tours I’ve been on. It shared some commonalities with the amazing flooded ATM cave tour I had done in Belize, but had its own unique and very different feel.

Caving in Budapest

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to chat with my brother. Apparently there are two caves in Budapest you can do as a tourist.  He’d never heard of the cave tour I did.  The one he had suggested was heavily stabilized, wide open and naturally beautiful. Oops. When I told him about the spaces I’d squeezed through he physically shivered, chuckled and muttered “I’ll pass, thanks!”.

On returning to the hostel and chatting about the cave, one of the hostel employees mentioned that on his trip a guy with shoulder issues had signed up and gotten stuck/thrown out his shoulder halfway in. They had to bring in a huge cave rescue team to get him out and the tour took several hours beyond the norm.

If you find yourself in Budapest, are in decent shape, think you can brave tight spaces and don’t have any shoulder or knee issues I strongly suggest taking the caving tour.  It really was spectacular!


Like the photos and video in this post?  The photos were taken on a Canon G11, see the newer Canon G12 on amazon. The video was shot on a Canon Vixia HF200, view the newer HF R200.


Granada Part IV – The Alhambra

After wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I crawled out of my bunk bed, took a refreshing shower and then stumbled down to the hostel common area. There I chatted with a few friends I’d made over the previous two days. We checked our e-mail, recounted the previous evening’s adventures and then formed a small group. Today was dedicated to the Alhambra.

I’ve mentioned it before, but have yet to really explain what the Alhambra is.  The Alhambra is a large palatial fortress that sits on one of the hills in the heart of Granada.  The hill the fortress is on is directly opposite another slightly smaller hill which is home to the Albayzin.  The two are divided by a small stream which has cut a path along the base of both hills.  The Albayzin is the original Moorish city while the Alhambra houses a series of constructions including an ancient fortress, stunning palatial complex and amazing set of gardens.  The site has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and has a rich and exciting history.  One of the things I found especially fascinating was that the Alhambra was one of the Moors last strongholds in Spain.  I was shocked to learn that the fortress actually didn’t fall until 1492 (same year as Columbus sailed). Quite the significant year for the Spanish!   I’ll let those interested read up on it via wikipedia.

Getting to the Alhambra is easy – but make no mistake, also a bit of an adventure.  There are two options: the first is paying 2 Euro and catching a bus from the square at the bottom of the hill just off of the Grand Villa which drops you off at the entrance to the Alhambra.  The second, and far more entertaining option, is to tackle the mountainside and hike your way to the entrance. Eager to see and experience as much as possible we elected for the latter.  The path shoots off from the square and slowly winds up past a series if vendors, hostels and restaurants all clinging to the side of the hill. Once at the entrance to the Alhambra site the city ends and you find yourself surrounded by lush vegetation and periodic water features.  The path goes from pavement to dirt and the real trek begins. The photo above is from about halfway up the path.  As you can see the benches indicate just how steep the climb is. Huffing away, legs pumping and with my injured knee bothering me, I limped my way up the path, pausing periodically to enjoy the beautiful golds, greens and reds of the trees lining the path.

The walk from hostel to the ticket booth for the Alhambra only took us 20 minutes and was well worth the knee strain. The weather was beautiful.  Gray, overcast, and crisp. Luckily the rain had contented itself with a brief morning shower before moving on.  The moisture in the air brought out all of the greens in the plants and the colors in the flowers and stonework, adding a certain vividness which was amazing to see.  Once at the top we paused briefly for a quick soda and snack. As we caught our breaths and relaxed I snapped the above shot of a local cat and two considerate tourists. With a smile on my face we set to the task of tackling the lines and picking up our tickets.

The Alhambra is a huge tourist attraction. As both a UNESCO world heritage site and major historical monument it draws large crowds, even in off season.  As a result ticketing can be difficult. To help preserve the feel of the site they’ve set up an interesting system with two main entrance times.  The first entrance period starts at 8:30AM and ends at 2PM. The second begins at 2PM and ends at 8PM.  Tickets sell out quickly so it’s important to book ahead or get there early.  Once you’ve purchased your ticket you’re assigned a second time window, for a tour of the palatial compound.  The tours are small and you only get one shot.  The palace is incredible and a must while visiting the fortress – so if you plan on visiting, make sure you know where you need to be at your designated time.

When you go to buy your tickets you have two options.  You can brave the ridiculously long line and buy from the ticket windows, or bypass most of the line and use the automatic machines located just past the ticket windows.  The machines look and are marked as a place for picking up web orders and advanced tickets, but also allow the purchase of tickets with a credit card.  Do yourself a favor and go with the machines – they’re not very different from the automatic ticket machines at some movie theaters.

Tickets in hand we made our way to one of the nearby benches, wiped off a few leftover rain drops and settled in.  We had a bit over an hour before 2PM when we would be allowed to enter the site. There were a number of friendly cats wandering around which kept as entertained as we exchanged travel stories and playfully teased each other. Hungry, I pulled out a tin of sardines and quickly set to a rather fishy, but satisfying snack.

The clock struck 2 and we were off. Through the gates and into the garden area of the Alhambra. Outside of the fortress proper the gardens are a sprawling mixture of beautiful buildings, amazing greenery and beautiful water features.  Our adventure started at a large, modern amphitheater which has been built near the entrance to the Gardens.  With it to our back we immediately found ourselves in an incredible garden maze (pictured above) with high walls and beautiful fountains.  Despite the late time of year (December) there were still blooming flowers everywhere.

Once through the maze we were greeted by beautifully terraced areas full of fruit trees and with large areas used for crops during summer months.  The photo above is down the hill from the garden area and is of the outer fortress wall and beginning of the palatial section.   The whole area is covered in orange trees all of which were heavily laden with fresh fruit.

Down a narrow walkway and through a small courtyard full of orange trees we entered the first building in the gardens.  With a fantastic view of the Alhambra proper, the building was covered in beautifully carved Moorish script.  The artistry and complexity of the stonework is positively awe inspiring. In many areas it seems as though every single exposed area is covered in intricate stonework.  Even the windows and ceilings are covered in carved stone or intricate wooden inlays.

The man hours and skilled craftsmanship required to create these buildings left me speechless.  As impressive as it all is, many of the areas also appeared to have been painted at one point in time.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As amazing as it was, it ended up being minor when compared to the sprawling palace located within the fortress.

The view out from the Gardens was amazing and I regularly found myself caught visualizing how it must have looked, felt and smelled 600 years ago. After taking the shot above I turned to my right and looked out across at the Albayzin.

Further along the hill and on the other side of the old city wall that surrounds the Albayzin, there is a series of gypsy caves.  These caves are carved into the soft limestone and are a famous landmark.  Some (like the Cave Bar I blogged about earlier) are heavily improved with electricity, bathrooms and the like.  Others are little more than rough-hewn caves.  One thing is constant, very few of the caves are actually owned and many operate on a co-op like system with travelers and gypsies contributing odd knickknacks and/or small improvements before moving on and leaving them for the next visitor.  You can see a number of the caves in the above photo.  The buildings at the bottom near the river are almost all caves with improved entrances, while those further up the hill are more basic/cruder in nature.  The cactus you can see covering parts of the hillside was originally used as a defensive measure, and now grows wild.

The Moors had a passion for water, one that shows in the construction and layout of the Alhambra and its gardens.  It’s almost impossible to go any distance within the sprawling compound without the sound of trickling water and a light feeling of humidity.  As we finished our tour of the Gardens we paused to collect a few of the stragglers that had fallen behind before backtracking to a fork in the path which led us down, across the moat and into the fortified section of the Alhambra.

Once on the far side of the moat we wrapped around the outer edge of the hilltop and left the lush vegetation of the garden area behind. The whole area was still green and populated by periodic water features but more manicured and open than the garden had been.  The first sight that greeted us was a series of reflecting pools with a more recent looking cathedral built in what I’d guess was 1600s styled architecture.

As we wound past the first cathedral we quickly came upon a second, far more impressive one. It’s hard to tell if it was originally a mosque or not, though I imagine it probably was.  Immediately next to it was a small bathhouse and museum which we explored.   Even the street had a small water feature running down it’s side. I still can’t fathom where all the water used to beautify the Alhambra comes from or how it finds its way up to the top of the hill.

From the main walkway we made our way into the Palace of Charles the V…a beautiful, large, square building with a massive circular central courtyard. Though most of the building was closed, one small section was open.  The open area had a series of interesting pieces of modern art, the most impressive of which was a large lion with flowing mane made completely out of old tires.  It was absolutely fantastic! Unfortunately, they were not allowing photos.  They also had a fun 3D room setup.  The 360 degree circular room had image boxes projected with various video clips which you could control and interact with through a pointer. The whole thing was 3D and a pretty cool interface.

As I finished exploring the Palace of Charles the Fifth my 4 o’clock tour of the palace was fast approaching.  However, I’ll leave my tour of the palaces, voyage into the old fortress and rest of the evening in Granada for a 2nd follow up post.  I’m afraid this one has gotten a bit long!

Stay tuned and remember you can view all of the photos included in this post and a large number of others via my online gallery!