Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Under the influence of Ronda, amidst corn fields and limy mountains jutting out like real milestones, there’s Benaoján. In this plateau, you could draw a map joining the peaks, a sort of mountain network sheltering the olive groves, the farms and homes, the cultivated land. Together, the mountains create a grey skyline, strongly asserting their millenniums-old presence. They’re silent witnesses to man’s activities in the area, to our prehistoric, Visigothic, Arab, bandit, guerrilla, and farming past. The sierras have shaped the character of local people, leaving a mark on their history and everyday life. I’m heading towards them. I can see the yellowish spots of sunflower fields amidst the corn, painting the limy horizon. I’ve left Ronda behind for the craggy land to the west, slopes dressed in green and peppered with rock roses. Rolling hills, endlessly going up and down. The road runs parallel to the Bobadilla-Algeciras railway line, which I’ll certainly use some other time.

Cueva del Gato

A little before getting to the town centre, I came across the first sight of interest: Cueva del Gato (Cat’s Cave). It’s a huge, overwhelming opening on the lower slopes of a mountain. I stopped. The cave is the first (or final) part of a 4.5km-long tunnel from Montejaque to Benaoján through El Hundidero (to which I’ll come next week). The Gaduares river flows inside. The cave is appreciated by experts and sportspeople alike, mainly thanks to its spectacular, impossibly shaped stalactites and stalagmites. You need a special environmental permission to go in. The cave was first discovered by Richard Twiss in 1772. A sign read: “50m to Cueva del Gato scenic viewpoint.” Although the cave can be seen from the road, it’s not clearly signposted, so you’ll have to be on the alert (to the right). You can drive right up to the mouth. I parked my car, crossed a bridge over the Guadiaro river, past the railway track, and accessed the cave. The river flowed by, filling the air with fresh water murmurs which matched the shade of trees. I could hear a waterfall, and then I could see it, right in front of me. The cave is preceded by a tree-lined open area and two barbecue stalls. The whole landscape is quite impressive. The waterfall runs from the cave mouth, feeding the lake. You can also access the cave by climbing a flight of steps carved out of the rock. It’s shocking. It really is. It looks like a huge mouth, ready to swallow you in. The clear water running from inside is refreshing. Birds come screeching in and out. Dozens of puddles welcome the boldest travellers. I chose not to go further in. You need to be well-armed for the adventure. I went outside, where a family where getting ready for their picnic, cooling fruit and beverages in the lake. The water was cold. All in all, a must-see place. In the parking area by the cave there’s a restaurant, bar, and hotel for guests who want to spend the night in the in the “cat’s mouth.” And guess this place’s name? You’re right: Cueva del Gato Hotel. Hitting the road again, I headed for Benaoján, driving across Sierra de Grazalema Nature Park and the Guadiaro river. The train station lay to the left, but I turned right and, after a bend, I came to the town centre.

From the Town Centre to the Pool Cave

The second sight I was to see, Cueva de la Pileta (Pool Cave), closed at 1:00 p.m., so I went to visit it first. The access road skirting the town at 4.5km was closed, so I had to drive across the narrow town streets and followed residents’ directions. Past Plaza de la Constitución and El Tajillo bar, I found the “dreadful uphill road,” a steep, zigzagging, narrow street which you can barely climb in first gear. After three failed attempts, a local resident volunteered to help. He drove my car past the steepest stretch. Then it was easier: I reached the road and easily got to the cave’s parking area.

Access to Cueva de la Pileta - History

The access to the cave is preceded by several flights of stone steps and an uphill trail culminating in a little open area, featuring a log cabin and a roof sheltering visitors from the sun. In the cabin they sold water and sodas and gave information on the cave (two bottles of water = €1.60). The tour is 1km long and takes one hour. The story of the cave’s discovery is subtle and wise. In 1905, a local farmer, José Bullón, set out to explore inside the cave in search for guano droppings (bat excrement), which were used as fuel and fertiliser. With a rope, he went down 30m and reached the bottom, where he found a lot of pebbles thrown by residents in the early twentieth century to see how deep the cave –which was called Las Grajas by then– was. Trying to take a look around in the dark, José came across ceramic pieces and bone remains. They couldn’t have got there by chance. Bullón went farther in, only to find a series of drawings in black paint. It became obvious to him that the cave had been inhabited by human beings. He returned a few days later; he couldn’t sleep; his mind was set on the bones and images. Then, during the day he laboured in the fields while at night, after dinner, he climbed the trail to the cave, carving steps to make it more accessible. Back home, he told his wife and children about his findings: more paintings, more cavities, more huge vaults, more rock formations, more “portraits.” In 1909, José began showing his underworld to his neighbours. His story spread like wildfire. Many a night he stood guard so that nobody took his prehistoric treasures. In the spring of 1909, the cave was visited by the ornithologist Willoughby Verner, who was dazzled. He came back in 1912 with a palaeontologist, Hugo Obermaier, and an archaeologist, Henri Breuil. After their scientific inspection, Breuil told Bullón, “Protect the cave from damages. Its paintings are an invaluable treasure.” José and his descendants have done this until now. La Pileta turned 100 in 2005, and they’re still looking after it. In fact, the cave is in great condition, and some of its paintings are really overwhelming. On April 25, 1924, Cueva de la Pileta was designated as a National Monument. The story of its discovery is told in Cueva de la Pileta: Acontecimientos históricos más importantes sobre La Pileta y la familia Bullón (1905 - 2005), which you can buy when you exit the cave for only €10.

Cueva de la Pileta

I was waiting for the tour to begin in the shadow. A sign warned that this adventure was not recommended for visitors who had a heart condition or who were not in good shape. The hours of group tours (25 visitors maximum) are 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission tickets are €5 for groups of students or children aged 5 to 12 and €7 for the rest of visitors (for groups of 10 or more members). The guide, who was José Bullón’s grandson, warned us: No photos, no videos, no animals. Then he gave out gas lamps (one every five visitors). The journey was only 1km long but 20,000 years back in time, to the dawn of mankind. The lamps were on. The door closed. The trip began. One hour later, I emerged feeling one of a privileged few. The cave is beautiful, grandiose, precious. Nature has endowed it with wonderful shapes and colours, and men have added paintings giving wings to your imagination. Calendars, animals, men, arrows… and two special drawings: a fish and a winged man (a sort of Icarus). There aren’t enough words to describe Cueva de la Pileta, but it’s a must-see, part of a unique heritage. To think that the ancestors of today’s serranos lived, slept, and built a society here some 20,000 years ago, dreaming of men who could fly and painting fish that were impossibly far away… how overwhelming. Blinded by daylight at the mouth of the cave, I could only think about who I was and where I came from. The Bullón family did a great conservation job. They know this, and thus they say, “Get out of the cave and be sure that, when you come back, you’ll find it exactly as you’ve seen it today.” Observing their regulations, I took no pictures, so here there are two short videos of the cave’s geological formation and its paintings.

In Town

Benaoján is a town of extremely narrow streets and steep roads. Given its irregular layout and the difficulty in finding places to park, the best thing to do is leave your car in the lower part of town and walk around. I walked up Presbítero Juan Moreno Street to Plaza de la Constitución, where I found the Town Hall, the Church, and a mailbox for my usual postcards. The town is charmingly simple in a humble, silent way, sharing in the essence of the sierras of Málaga without showing off. Getting lost in its streets is like walking in living history. The Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario is the town’s nerve centre. It’s a large building, curiously situated. Its sidelong frontage on a chamfered corner is preceded by a flight of steps. Its red-trimmed belfry and façade add to its modern yet austere character. The streets in Benaoján are brimming with flowers and pots; all corners are peppered with them. The whole town is like a huge maze where you can play hide-and-seek. Simple round arches connect the houses in the air, flowerpots hanging from them. I asked locals about this practice, but I was given no conclusive answer about its origin. The strong smell of corn and olives can be felt everywhere. It’s typical of the sierras in Málaga. Standing like a watchman keeping an eye on residents, there’s a humongous granite mass.

Bartolitos at El Tajillo

After my tours of Cueva del Gato, Cueva de la Pileta, and the streets of town, I was feeling hungry. I asked a woman where to eat, and she said there were many bars in town serving good homemade food at reasonable prices. She recommended El Tajillo, though, past the Church, before the “dreadful uphill road” to La Pileta I’d already been to. I took her advice. Although there was an outdoor eating area, I chose to sit at a table inside, enjoying the air-conditioning, protected from the scorching afternoon sun. El Tajillo is a tapas bar, the typical place where the menu is written on a blackboard and patrons follow the bar tender’s advice. I was no exception: 2 beers, 2 Cola sodas, ½ serving of bartolitos, 1 chicken steak, 2 small bacon sandwiches, 2 small filet sandwiches. The bill = €18.50. Bartolitos are a variant of flamenquines (fried coated ham rolls stuffed with cheese, garnished with garlic-scented salad). The bacon sandwiches were decorated with avocado, and the chicken steak was delicious. I thanked the cook when she once got out of the kitchen. After a friendly talk, I was ready to drive back home. Plucking up courage to face the heat, I walked across the deserted streets to my parked car.


Leaving Benaoján and the rock dominating it behind, I also parted ways with the experience of discovering that my ancestors dreamt of flying and that a brave farmer’s care for the environment saved a cave –one of the best-kept prehistoric treasures in Spain– from pillage. I left behind the emotion of being in the jaws of the cat (Cueva del Gato), the flavour of bartolitos still in my throat. It was nice to discover Benaoján, a town remaining faithful to its essence, keeping the wild spirit of its primitive inhabitants intact. “Benaoján”: “Ben’s Children”, or maybe “House of Bakers,” “Ibn Uyan.” A town to come back to.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: 1. Cueva de la Pileta: You can visit the cave’s website,, before visiting the cave itself. You can read about history and paintings, as well as seeing pictures and videos here. Remember the guided tour hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. What to take: comfortable and, if possible, anti-slip footwear. It’s wet inside the cave, and the floor is slippery. What to buy: The book I cited above is a great buy, containing the whole amazing story of the cave’s discovery and conservation. 2. Cueva del Gato: There’re active travel companies, like Pangea Active Nature, organising semi-professional cave tours for €68. Warning: The worst danger is unforeseen rises in the Gaduares river level.
Useful links: To the websites already mentioned, I should add the site of the Benaoján Town Hall, containing information on travel activities, and two private websites, Benaojá and Benaoján: Sierra y Luz. As usual, I’ve used the website of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board as a reference.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. This is intended to be an open door, so the more things shown and said, the better. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.