A short drive up the jaw droppingly scenic, but not for the faint hearted road from the small town of Benaoján and with commanding and breath-taking views of the Guadiaro valley below, stretching to the coast, lies one our most fascinating and beautiful stops; the Cueva de La Pileta.
My well-thumbed, 2004 copy of the Footprint Guide to Andalucía suggests visiting La Pileta Cave as an excursion from Ronda as “…it’s inconceivable that current arrangements will last long…as the inevitable interpretation centre will be built…or the caves closed altogether to protect the paintings…”. Happily this hasn’t been the case.
Instead we experience an atmospheric and enlightening hour long tour, given by a passionate and knowledgeable guide, in fact a descendant of the discoverer of the cave José Bullón Lobato, a local farmer, who in one spring day in 1905 went in search of guano to use as fertilizer for his Olive Trees.
The intrepid farmer observed the entrance through which the huge bat (murciélagos) colony (currently estimated at around 18,000!) enters and exits the limestone mountain each dawn and dusk. Upon descending he discovered a chamber over 1km long with a remarkable series of prehistoric paintings, as well as fragments of pottery and animal and human bones.
Since then archaeologists have discovered kilometres of chambers, tunnels, vents and caverns, many covered with paintings. Only a fraction of the painting are viewable to the public today, with the majority being in caverns occupied by the bat colony which is endangered and therefore protected.
With the oldest paintings dated at over 30,000 years old and with the most recent being around 5,000 years old and with walls stained with ancient soot from fires for light and heat, it’s an evocative thought to imagine our ancestors painting in the shadows; animals, abstract patterns, calendars and human shapes over the millennia.
The tour through the pleasantly cool caves, take us roughly 500m into the cavern before retracing our steps, through narrow passages and up and down some occasionally slippery steps carved by archaeologists in the 1920’s.
It’s not the marvel of the human art that impresses the most however rather the irrepressible marvels created by nature. With Stalactites and Stalagmites in bizarre formations and with names such as the “Michelin Man” or “The Guillotine” (think cloud spotting…some imagination is needed!).
The huge caverns streaked with different coloured minerals and brilliantly glittering calcium carbonate from water filtering through the mountain over millions of years arouse the same sense of awe and mystery that one feels when entering religious buildings. The caverns remind of us of cathedrals or temples and inspire silence and contemplation. It’s important to remember that in fact these were the first “sanctuaries” or places of worship and today’s religious buildings were inspired by them, as always, by man trying to capture the essence and inherent beauty of nature.
The limestone massif which the cave occupies was originally formed during the Jurassic era, the cave itself was formed by the River Guadiaro flowing through cracks in the rock and the final (and on-going) additions of the formations, colours and deposits have been caused by the filtration of water through the mountain.
Unlike other cave systems such as Altamira, where only replicas of the original paintings can be seen or the Caves of Nerja, where the silence and wonder is lessened by artificial lighting and music, a visit to the Cueva de La Pileta is a truly one-off experience. As the old travel guide says, it’s inevitable that one day there will be safety measures, lighting, souvenir shops, cafes etc.
For now however the Cueva de La Pileta is one of those hidden jewels that inspire all our Marbella Escapes tours and make us passionate about showing our clients the beauty of Andalucía and escape Marbella and the Costa del Sol for an unforgettable day trip.