OR, HOW A OLD BIRD CLIMBED TWO MOUNTAINS IN A DAY.
When I made the decision to visit prehistoric cave dwellings that have been inhabited for 10,000 years I thought it would be a little tricky but not that hard. yesterday I worked my little travellers socks off to visit two of the major sites in Mitla. I had chosen two, maybe three places but hadn’t anticipated that they weren’t just there like most tourist sites, they are tricky to get to and a lot of leg work. I would advise not to try for them unless you’re feeling top notch and are prepared to go slowly.
Now I’ve been to Mitla two years ago to see the famous Mayan site of Mitla and also Hierve el Agua, which now sadly is permanently closed. Both were things of wonder so I was excited to be even more daring this time with a bit of pre history caves and their paintings all in the same area. I have always wanted to see some more ancient art in caves but have only once before been to an island off Sicily and no photos were allowed but here one has the privilege of getting out the old camera. I had no idea how remote they actually were and how hard you had to climb on treacherous slippery terrain after the rains. Although the soil had dried off there are a huge number of springs which are obviously spurting out excess water as you go higher up and make the soil and rocks really slick.
MY SUNDAY OUTING TO VISIT 10.000 YEAR OLD ANCESTRAL CAVES.
I had planned my bus ride to Mitla and even prepared myself a little picnic, the romantic I am. Had bought a waterproof anorak and new insoles for my very smashed up walking shoes the previous day having seen the deluges that occur most days this month but usually in the morning, I just wanted to be practical.
I walked to the supposed bus stop, that was wrong so walked on to the right one, I had already lost half an hour with that. Flagging down every bloody bus I became a little desperate for although each one swore I was in the right place I grew increasingly suspicious. However finally my one did turn up and I got on with my twenty pesos clutched sweatily in my hand and began my adventure. I didn’t know which cave to choose first bit when I arrived in Mitla I found a collectivo cab and for a mere eight pesos it would take me to Xaaba. Negotiating with my young driver and after much fuss about where the fucking cave actually was, we agreed that he would take me. I hadn’t really understood that it was on foot for the last bit after we had driven down a very bumpy track. Amidst the fields of aloe for the making of mezcal. En route he picked up his girlfriend for a romantic walk up the mountain. When I asked where the actual cave was I was horrified., it was a long, long way.
I trudged behind the couple and was touched that he picked her flowers along the way. They both were very quiet young people and I can imagine them living to a great age only really caring about each other. It was a very lovely thing for an old bird like me to witness the couple holding hands, and from time to time he would point out plants to her. I lost that loving feeling when we began the ascent puffing and blowing and sweating. Every time I looked up the fucking place seemed further away.
Top Tip: Don’t feel worried about making tour guides or whoever is guiding you to remote places to slow down. This might be their terrain but they needn’t show off. As I’m always saying go at your own pace. It’s a must for not having a bloody heart attack and also you want to enjoy the experience it’s not supposed to be a boot camp. when your’re crossing meadows with flowers it is nice to stop and look a bit. And without being rude to Celestine and like I said to him his much shorter legs were better adapted to being a bloody mountain goat ffs. Slow and safely does it my old birds.
Long story short after two stops for me to recover a bit we made it up there. The scenery magnificent and the cave paintings were too dangerous to climb the last bit but it felt such a privilege to see them, even though I couldn’t get up close and personal and he seemed unwilling to go up, even though he claimed he had before (he had to say that in front of his bird didn’t he!) Although a cynic like me felt they could have just been done by a villager, they have been verified and as I found out later the whole plateau had been covered in water in ancient times hence the height of all these caves dwellings and paintings in this area.
These paintings were not of some Michelangelo of the times but still were very touching. As in the other caves in the area red and white were visible. Minerals for painting are easily accessible from all the rocks around and these doodles look like the red were from an earlier time. A little hand visible, human figures, what looks like maize and a couple of weird scribbles, one looks like a fish with big eyes. Here we are in the area of the cave of Guila Naquitz that I was going to go to but was too knackered to after my second lot of caves.
We went back down and I was humbled by actually feeling the ancestry of these people. The small village itself is mud-brick dwellings and the track there for the most part is a bumpy old route to the village. Along with the old farmer plowing with his oxen it has also it’s feeling of being locked in time.
Slide show below: click buttons under for more pics
He drove me back to Mitla unwilling to take me to the next cave system and explained that it was a little territorial as all the small villages have been exploited in the past getting no revenue from money being made on their land, hence the closure of Hieve el Agua (sort of over the other side of the mountain). There has been a fierce five-year fight by the poor villagers and landowners there as they were getting nothing for the tourism, it’s a case of victory of the poor, over bureaucracy and those greedy bastards in high places. Now it would seem they are running the show.
MITLA PREHISTORIC CAVE SYSTEM WITH PAINTINGS.
ROCK ART AND DWELLING FOR PEOPLE AND THEIR ANIMALS FROM 10,000 YEARS AGO.
Some blurb for you from UNESCO
This property lies on the northern slopes of the Tlacolula valley in subtropical central Oaxaca and consists of two pre-Hispanic archaeological complexes and a series of pre-historic caves and rock shelters. Some of these shelters provide archaeological and rock-art evidence for the progress of nomadic hunter-gathers to incipient farmers. Ten thousand-year-old Cucurbitaceae seeds in one cave, Guilá Naquitz, are considered to be the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize. The cultural landscape of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla demonstrates the link between man and nature that gave origin to the domestication of plants in North America, thus allowing the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations.
Of course, I’m saving the best, but my initiation about trekking across agave fields, streams and meadows then climbing up a mountain with rocks and rock faces and nearly having three heart attacks, only to crane my neck to see the ancient art as it was not possible to go higher, was a piece of piss in comparison to the Mitla Prehistoric Caves.
When I got back to Mitla collectivo cab station the guy organised a tuk-tuk for me to these caves. A long and bumpy ride on a dust and rock track and over a brook ensued and the breathtaking scenery all around got me in the mood to walk in ancestral shoes.
Even an ox pulled plough over the fields, seemed almost staged in this bucolic paradise. The guy I shared a ride with said it was really close not like Xaaga so I told the tuk-tuk to come back in an hour. Joke. I walked over an improvised metal bridge that crossed a fast-flowing torrent. It wasn’t far to the point when grizzled old Celestine ambushed me from behind a bush demanding a whopping 250 pesos. 50 for entrance and 200 for him. I was really indignant at first but I was there so really wasn’t going to let this final hurdle faze me and after all, I had paid 200 to the previous cab driver to walk me to the caves. I paid up but was pissed off, I’m an arrogant bitch sometimes.
Slide show below: click buttons or slide sideways for more pics below
When we started it was apparent you needed the village guide to get up there, it’s really hard and twisty and steps and rocks and all sort of shit to get to the first cave. After my grumble, I apologised to him saying indeed I couldn’t have done it without him. This cheered him and we walked along an easy bit and then I saw the ‘steps’ and started looking up, and up, and up. Oh dear.
He explained all the plant life along the way and its uses, pointed out Devils cave over the way and filled me in about the various minerals and geology of the place. I hasten to add this was all in Spanish so if you go read up about it first.
I would find out later there are four distinct levels and five caves. As I huffed and puffed my way up to the first cave that was an average affair except for a ghostly carving and a rock that looked like a lion, I thought that maybe this was going to be a bit of a rip-off but as Celestine explained more and more, I got into the whole geology thing and when I explained I was a ceramicist so use a lot of oxides in glazes he was very interested because the strange colours, especially the pale blue, he just didn’t know what they were. Me either but I will look into this and report back.
Anyway, we carried on up, me gasping for air and regretting not doing more exercise between sites and smoking so much, and arrived at the cave of the painted hands that I had seen in the photos of this place. I was very impressed and thought that was it, but no, onwards and upwards to the ‘dark cave’. I loved this one. I could imagine living there indeed Celestine sleeps there sometimes when it’s hot at night. He showed me indentations clearly where the ancients had ground their cereals and livestock areas.
I was done but clearly, I had missed the point because he insisted we carry on, ‘it was worth the pain’ he said to me, saving the best till last. After more pathetic moaning from me, I understood, for there at the top was a locked up gated cave that had the real deal. As he unlocked the gate I could see what he meant, a cave full of paintings and finally, I gasped not for air but in astonishment.
These ones are jam-packed with doodles that obviously had significance in their time. In red, white and black. Notably anthropomorphic and celestial drawings and some geometric swirls and what appears to be the orange sun shining. I was told the oldest was the black effort, as with all these pics you really had to be there or have a good camera for the dim light but I’m sure you can see there was a lot.
Now Celestine told me of the whole valley being flooded in those ancient times so the oldest and highest cave would have been older . In all the caves however were signs of habitation and livestock being kept. Although I haven’t been to Guila Naquitz caves which is where they found all the proof and the dating of 10,000 years ago, the actual beginning of farming for the whole of Mesoamerica so far, I was still in the zone so I felt the vibes of what I had read about. I’m still going to try to get there but am chilling for a few days as I feel I’ve really been pushing myself a bit hard.
Coming down the mountain was oh so much easier by then however I was exhausted and after I found a shop open was able to have an ice cold beer to go with my flattened ham and cheese sandwich. It looked like me tired and past its sell by date. The bus ride was interminable and foul. I was so drained I felt I would collapse. I was let out in a very dangerous way at the traffic lights in the middle of the road and hauled my weary arse back to the hotel. How I made it back I will never know.