The mountainous area around Viñales (some 150 kilometres to the west of Havanna) is riddled with caves. The whole territory with the undulating Mogotes is, in fact, a so-called “doline”, a collapsed cave. The Mogotes are in some places just as majestic as the rock formations in North America´s Monument Valley. And they contain countless holes and caves which the forces of nature have eroded into them and which are just waiting to be explored. The Cuevas de Pueblo (which have been converted into a loud folk discotheque) and the Cuevas del Indio (with a river which enables visitors to go through the caves by boat) may be adequate for the busloads of passing tourists and will certainly bring out the “Look at that!” effect. But they can hardly convey the real fascination of these monuments to nature and have effectively been spoilt by mass tourism. Fortunately, my little Spanish was sufficient to enable me to find out about a location which is sometimes offered by the hotels and local guides: The cave system of Santo Tomás.
Located about 10 kilometres to the west of Viñales, it is beyond the reach of public transport. But you can quickly get there by cab or with a rented car via the road going towards Pons/Minas de Matahambres. When you reach the El Moncada crossing, turn left, then right and watch out for the little signs saying “Cueva” at the two roundabouts (as depicted on the map here).
Some 180 kilometres of the caves have already been explored and documented by local researchers and several different tours are on offer. As for myself, I decided to go for a two-hour standard tour. Having been fitted out with a helmet, a lamp and a rope, we set off across the village towards a little path which steeply ascends the mountain. The entrance to the cave system can be found at a height of 40 metres (not recommended under wet conditions). Having reached the top, you enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape covered with palms before going deep into the mountain, passing bat hideouts and numerous large rocks while doing so. The air becomes increasingly stale and gets hotter the further you go into the mountain. In the deeper chambers of the mountain there is a temperature of 34 degrees Celsius and an air humidity of 100%. It feels like being in a sauna. After 45 minutes, a breeze of fresh air indicates that we are moving towards the mountain´s outer walls again. But this is, however, only a doline within the Mogote (from the air it should like a crater within the mountain). And then we suddenly step out of the mountain into a green paradise – there is lush flora and fauna within the doline.
In fact, it looks like the scenery of an Indiana Jones movie: Twisted, entwined plants, huge rocks lying around and the bright green light shining into your eyes. Time to have a break and explore the exotic plants of the doline! We go back into the mountain and pass a shallow, subterranean river (not open to passage during the rain season) and beautiful lakes inhabited by little blind crabs. Then we encounter a colourless frog whose head largely consists of two big, black eyes. The poor fellow is so surprised by our visit that for a while he just sits there motionless. It is only after we have briefly switched of our torchlights that he disappears into the water with a “plop”. Another surprise comes our way half an hour later in a different part of the mountain: a coral-reef in a cave! The corals are of course dead but they have not lost the charme of their structures – only the colours are missing. Two hours later, my guide and I have finally reached the exit of the cave. Impressed, sweaty and dirty, I offer him a cigarette before we descend back into the valley.
By the way, did I actually mention the caves’ numerous other treasures, like the diverse stalactites and stalagmites in all their unusual shapes? One of Cuba´s greatest assets is undoubtedly the sun from above. But Cuba from below is just as interesting...