Monday, February 6, 2012

La Gruta

South of San Cristobal, in the limestone mountains, there are caves. Some are dinky, dank, and home to small animals, but a few are large caverns reaching a kilometer or two into the mountain.

Entrance to the cavern.
One cavern is called La Gruta, the grotto. It's a live and growing cave with water constantly dripping down forming ever longer stalactites, and during the rainy season, a spring at the back of the cave feeds a rather deep stream.

Outside the cave is a park, owned by and guarded by the federal government. A military installation is just down the road. It's a wooded forest filled with picnic areas equipped with cement structures that double as picnic table and wood fired grill. Saturday I went there for the first time with new friends Laurie and Tom. Laurie is the other student in my Spanish class with Edith (pronounced eh-DEETH).

The place was populated with locals from San Cristobal and the surrounding area. We were the only Gringos. The entrance to the cave is a couple of kilometers through a beautiful and very tall pine forest, past picnic'ers, and children riding ponies. The cave is the reason for the park, but the entrance and ticket booth were well obscured by all the other activities.

Inside, looking out.

Two long buildings with an open covered patio housed a dozen food vendors, all pretty much selling the same food: quesadillas, tacos, fried bananas with liquid cheese squeezed over, potato chips with Valentina sauce, grilled meats and onions, roasted corn, corn kernels with chile and mayonnaise, and fried corn bread. Next door is a riding stable and for $15 pesos (about a dollar) you can ride a horse for half an hour.

Formations with Electrical wires....
Another set of two buildings facing each other across a patio housed the artisans who sell exactly the same stuff as in the markets: hand embroidered clothing, trinkets, plastic toys, painted ceramic animals, baggy drawstring pants, warm Mexican hoodies, wool capes and scarves. Behind that building was a restroom featuring the usual 3 peso entrance fee which entitles you to a small wad of toilet paper, and in front of the cave elaborate shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The cave entrance looks a bit like the entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, only not so deep. This cavern is not below ground at all, but a fairly level "tube" into the side of the mountain.  There had been no attempt to hide the electric lines which were strung up in a set of four wires pulled tight between insulators bolted to the stone walls. The bulbs were the newer tubular florescent bulbs sticking out of sockets, blinding if you looked directly at them. The cave has little color, but a lot of formations. Some of the larger stalactites are curved toward the back of the cave, telling of a constant breeze blowing in that direction as the water evaporated over the last few centuries. Seeing those was a surprise, since the entrance has a strong cold breeze coming OUT of the cave.

Very wet walls and growing formations.
A wide concrete walkway has been built above the "river" at the bottom of the cavern. In the far reaches there was water standing in pools, but it was dry closer to the entrance. The walkway itself was quite wet, pooled with water in some places, and the walls of the cave were slimy. Quite a bit more water in this cave than Carlsbad, but probably much more like Carlsbad was during it's growth in the Pleistocene. Children, around the age of 10 or 12 were guides in the cave. Each one was droning in a horrible monotone the memorized sequence of words for each stop along the walkway.  I asked one little girl-guide if the river ever has water flowing in it, and she said yes, during the rainy season.

Laurie and Tom
At the entrance are quite a few hand-lettered signs saying that smoking, eating, drinking and "making bathroom" are prohibited in the cave. We got a laugh out of that one, as many Mexican men seem to think peeing on things and over edges of cliffs (or in this case a railing) is a fun thing to do.

As we walked along, several chubby uniformed men dashed past us down the walkway. At the end of the raised platform, there was a crowd of people. Apparently some locals had climbed under the railing, gathered on the rocks at the back of the cave with candles and incense, and were holding a ceremony. The excitement was over by the time we got there, the authorities were gently escorting them back under the rail. The women had short (now dead) candles in their hands and were dressed in traditional indigenous clothing. Some children were with them, and a couple of men, but the ceremonial group was mostly women. From the silence and the body language, I gathered this might be a fairly common occurrence and no one was upset about it. This cave was probably sacred to the Mayans and the modern Mayans still use it for religious purposes, even though it's no longer "theirs".
The lovely forest in the Park.