Adventure Sports - CUEVA DE LA PILETA

Cueva de la Pileta

by Chris Wawn, Dave Wood and John Gill

Cueva de la Pileta ©Michelle Chaplow
Cueva de la Pileta
The village of Benoajan is rightly famed for the caves which are well signposted around the area. South of the village of Benoaján heading towards Cortes de la Frontera, a side road leads off on the right, serving as a carpark. The opening times are not well advertised and many a tourist turns up to find that the last tour of the day has commenced. Try your luck when they open at 10am or when they open again after lunch at 4pm. Two guides are normally on duty and they take tours of up to 25 in each group. As the tours last around an hour, you will have to wait if you miss the guides, who lock the doors to the caves behind them as they set off on the tour. Still, the wait is beautiful, as the benched area looks out across the Guadiaro valley 670m above sea level.

Pileta can mean bowl, sink or trough, though there is no suggestion that the entrance to this cave resembles any of these objects. It is the most famous cave in the area, thanks largely to the prehistoric drawings to be found on its walls, and it attracts a visitors.

Although a nationally protected site, the cave is still owned by the farming family on whose land it was discovered in 1905, and the descendants of its discoverer, José Bullón Lobato, still act as guides to those who scramble the 10 minutes up the steep rocky path from the car park reaches the entrance. Today's entrance was blocked many centuries ago and this opening was only discovered in 1924.

A farmer called Jose Bullon Lobato only found the actual cave system in 1905. He noticed while looking after his sheep that bats frequented the area and then disappeared by dawn. Bat droppings are a good fertiliser and so he decided to find their home, hoping that he could quarry this valuable commodity. He found an opening that led into a number of large chambers, some of which contained a number of markings. He also found pottery and decided that, as this was all rather odd, it must be the work of the Moors.

It was not until 1911 that a retired British Colonel staying in Jimera de Libar discovered the true history of the Pileta caves. Col Willoughby Verner was staying in the area studying ornithology, when he heard about the Cueva de los Leteros. He immediately presumed that this was not the work of the Moors and set out to visit the cave. On entering the various chambers he immediately realised that this was prehistoric and set about recording the finds. His articles brought world attention within prehistory academia. Later visits by academics surveyed the system and the paintings in great detail. In addition they excavated the floor of the caves and found pottery and animal bones.

Being limestone, the cave system was originally an underground river. In dry periods stalactites formed, while in wetter periods the system flowed with torrents of water. This is why many of the cave sides have been worn smooth by the volume of water.

There are two schools of art in the caves. The first dates from Cro-Magnon man, approximately 25,000 years ago in the upper Palaeolithic period. The more common charcoal scratchings are attributed to the Levantene school and contain a number of ZigZags and stick men. Many of these are of archers hunting their prey. The actual paintings are attributed to the Cantabro-French culture and such pictures of a red horse's head, goats and the famous fish can be seen.

The caves are resolutely uncommercialised. There are no set times for the tours. The guide waits quietly until he feels that the visiting group is large enough (fifteen appears to be the minimum) and then he collects the entrance fees, locks the iron gate which guards the entrance (much enlarged since José's time) and, since the cave has no electric lighting, hands out foul-smelling paraffin lamps to a few visitors chosen at random. It is a little like being deputised by the sheriff when the James boys are known to be coming to town. Unlike many cave systems, the Pileta is also unusually warm, so dress accordingly.

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