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Spanish Adventures

Chris Jewell

At the beginning of April I went to Spain to do a scuba diving internship, this meant working in exchange for doing the my PADI instructors course. Although I enjoy diving I knew that just doing this wouldn't satisfy me for seven months. This was why I picked the Costa del Sol, because of its proximity to some caving and canyoning areas. However once there I realised the number of obstacles in my way. Firstly I didn't speak Spanish so meeting up with Spanish cavers would be difficult. I didn't have transport; I hardly knew the area and my days off were few and far between.

I began by emailing some caving groups (in English and getting no reply), ordering some maps of the surrounding area from the internet and arranging to buy a car with one of the instructors at the diving centre. Several months later we had our first car (Ford Sierra 1989) and on my first day off with the car I headed to Malaga to get some canyoning rope. I planned to have a go at a short canyon close to the diving centre on my return. However on the way back from Malaga the car developed a terminal problem and one week later we were car-less again.

After this I persuaded one of the other interns to come canyoning twice and we were able to use his car until finally we found another car and I managed to be independent again. Over this period my Spanish also improved and finally in September I met up with some Spanish cavers.

Left: “Garganta del Guadiaro” or “de Las Buitreras”

I was determined to do some decent canyoning during my time in Spain. Garganta de las Buitreras is supposed to be the cathedral of Andalucian ravines and you can do it with just one vehicle so it was the perfect objective for me. I wanted to do it together with a diving colleague of mine but at the last minute he let me down. As I didn't know if I would get the opportunity again I decided to go a head anyway. The only problem with this particular canyon is that the descriptions of it found on the internet told me I had to park my car at the bottom and walk up the train track to the top. This means walking through four tunnels, the longest of which is supposed to be about 800m. To make matters worse this is (quite sensibly) forbidden and carries a minimum fine of 600E if you are caught!

The closest village is El Colemar, not far from Gaucin. After crossing the river and driving into Colemar I took a right hand turn signed for CH Buitreras (which is actually an electricity transformer or junction station) and drove along the road towards the end of the canyon. This road runs by the side of the railway track and I figured I could get onto the track easily. At the end of the road was a set of gates with the electricity company’s logo and private property marked on them. So I parked the car a little way back down the road and had a walk around. I could see it was easy to get onto the track but unfortunately some men had just started working on the telephone lines by the track and so the issue was how to sneak up on to the track without being noticed. I walked back to the village to see if there was another route and using my bad Spanish I asked if it was possible to walk to the canyon. I was told yes, just go through the gates and up where the large pipe come down (obviously it was in Spanish and not a clear as that but this is what I understood it to mean). So I got changed by the car and headed off towards the gates and the pipe. The gates were locked for cars but a pedestrian gate on the side was open and so in I went in - confident that the guy in the village has told me this was ok. I quickly found the said tube and headed up a small but well warn path. After a short distance this intersected the railway track by means of a small gate. However as I approached the foreman of the men working on the telephone lines appeared. He had obviously been watching me walk around and knew what I was up to. I explained in bad Spanish that I wanted to walk up to the canyon and that a man in the village had told me it was ok. This didn't go down too well and a short discussion followed. This consisted of me repeatedly saying I wanted to go up and him repeatedly saying it was forbidden because of the tunnels. Just as I was about to give up he appeared to change his mind and opened the gate for me. However once I was through again he started telling me it was forbidden because of the tunnels and pointing at the tunnel to show what he meant. After another minute or two of this he finally gave up and put his hand over his eyes to say "I didn't see it" and waved me off. With just one more shout of "muchos peligrosos" from him I headed into the first tunnel.

There are three short tunnels, which didn't worry me, though it is useful to have a light. I also put my ear to the train track before going into each of them, as I seem to remember you hear trains coming this way very early. Next is a long tunnel, it is reportedly 800m and this felt about right. The first half isn't a worry as there are large arched windows in the side, which look to the canyon. This means that if a train came you could easily step through one of the arches and be out of harms way. The second half however is a proper tunnel. Although the tunnel is quite wide (wide enough to stand or lie by the side) being in the tunnel with a train rushing right past me was something I was anxious to avoid. Fortunately I didn't have to find out what this was like and made it through without any trains coming. Just before the fifth tunnel it is possible to follow a path off to the side. To reach this, continue on the track until past a small stream which the track crosses and the go behind the small concrete wall next to the track when it starts. Two meters past the start of the wall a path heads up and to the side of the tunnel. It then drops down until you are level with the track. There are more arched windows here and it would also be possible to reach this point by going inside the tunnel and out of the windows. From here you can get down into the canyon just before the track disappears back into the hillside in the tunnel.

The first section of the canyon was very dry with lots of boulder hopping, climbing and sliding. Though it wasn't long until I found the first pool which was a deep 30m long lake of green water, after that more hopping, some wading and another long pool, this time full of algae and weeds. It was after this that the canyon 'proper' started with plenty of water and the occasional pitch. It is worth noting that it might be possible to skip this less appealing beginning section by getting down into the canyon at an earlier stage just after the fourth tunnel.

Overall I counted five 'pitches' although I only rigged three of them. One had some slings to help you step over a hole so a rope wasn’t necessary and the other I should have rigged. It only looked like a short pitch but in actual fact it went round the corner so after free climbing and sliding my way down the first part I realised my mistake and that I couldn't get back up to the top and the anchors. A bit of precision jumping brought me safely down though and I continued down the canyon. There are lots of lakes and few distinct features to describe through at one point there is a smaller boulder is wedged in the canyon just above the water, leaving about a foot's air space.

Later you reach a small beach on the left and where a large boulder hangs down in the middle of the canyon. On the left, up from the beach is a small cliff you can climb up to, to get a nice jump. After this the canyon dries out for quite a while any you would be forgiven for thinking that it's over, I even stripped off my wetsuit top. However there are several more pools and the final obstacle a 300m swim. After this the canyon opens right and there is a small 'beach'. Near here you can climb up some rocks and make a final jump into the water before the end. To get back to El Colemar I just followed the course of the river, wading in the river itself, swimming very occasionally or walking on the bank where possible. Eventually I reached a point where the river twists back on itself several times and becomes a bit steeper. Here I left the river up a very obvious track next to a fence and headed towards some buildings. These turned out to belong to the electricity junction station and so I was soon back at the car.

Overall it was a excellent canyoning trip though I would have preferred it to be steeper and so have more pitches. The water level in the pools doesn't seem to drop much even in the height of summer. When I was there it had been really dry for several months and yet there were no noticeable water marks on the walls. In wet weather it does rise a lot though apparently so the general advice is don't do it in these conditions. I think the walk up took about 3/4 of an hour and the whole canyon maybe two and a half to three followed by another half-hour walk/wade along the river back to El Colemar.

After this trip I decided to see if it was possible to avoid walking through the tunnel by looking for a place to park a second car at the top. I followed the road over the hills towards Cortes de la Frontera, which is a narrow windy road, and after a short distance it is possible to turn off this down a small track. This track is marked on the map and is the turning before the last hairpin, just before the road runs straight for a while. I turned down here and drove as far as I felt comfortable in my VW Jetta from 1988. In a better car (hire car) you could certainly drive quite a long way along this road though in truth the road isn't that long really. After about 15min of walking some farms appear and it is possible to get down to canyon between them. I even checked with one of the locals who, disgusted with my bad Spanish enquired which language I spoke and answered me in perfect English. He told me that it's a very popular canyon and all weekend lots of activity groups go there and park at the top. So if you have access to two vehicles I definitely recommend this.

Excentrica and Fuentosa

By July we had another car (VW Jetta from 1988) and so on my next day off with the car I wanted to go caving. So I selected two short caves close together from my guidebook. I didn't have anyone to accompany me but this didn't bother me as both were very small caves.

I parked in the village of Igualeja and headed up the hill. There are even signs pointing to the path and everyone seems to know both the caves. I thought this would make them easy to find however I was armed only with my guidebook in Spanish and 1:50,000 map. The guidebook recommended using a GPS but unfortunately the one I’d borrowed from the dive centre turned out not to work. Without worrying about this too much I set off up the hill to find my caves. My first mistake was to go far too high and completely miss the first cave (Excentrica) which is only 10m from the path. After an hour of searching I retraced my steps down the hill and found the entrance. It was an easy, pleasant little cave, with some interest being added by the spiders in the entrance and the loud frog inside. The cave immediately splits in two and has two main passages. One is dry and one is effectively a long lake. Not having my wetsuit with me I thoroughly explored the dry section before heading out.

After finding Excentrica I mistakenly thought it would be easy to find Fuentosa but although I searched for another hour and a half I was forced to admit defeat. So my advice is take a GPS if you want to see these caves. Otherwise you risk spending a lot of time looking for the entrances. The only eventful thing was meeting a local policeman on my return to the village who seemed rather anxious that I had been caving on my own. I explained in bad Spanish that they were very small and easy caves and this seemed to keep him happy.

Spanish Cavers

In September I decided to try again to contact some Spanish cavers. This time though I tried writing my email in Spanish and was delighted when I immediately received a reply. I initially asked if I could join in their campaign to clean the Hundidero Gato system, thinking this would be a good way meet some cavers. However Juan, the president, invited me to come on some other trips before the clean up and before I knew it I was heading off to the mountains on a Sunday morning. Although my Spanish had improved over my time in Spain I had never had to communicate solely in Spanish for a whole day and so I was slightly nervous about this.

We met in Jimera de Librar at 9.00 in the morning in the village square (plaza). Whilst I waited I wondered if I would recognise this caver I was meeting. Though I need not have worried, as cavers are the same all over the world and his hiking boots and 'outdoor' trousers marked him out. After going to his house in the village and meeting the other cavers we headed off to Montejaque where there is a Centro de Interpretación de la Espeleología (a small tourist building/information centre/caving office) and a centro de exploracion (a hut for cavers to sleep in and store kit). The club were using the latter to store their equipment overnight. Two of the cavers, Maki and Nerea (a tough looking lady in army boots) went off to do the Hundidero Gato through trip whilst the rest of us went in Juan's car to do another shorter cave. This unfortunately was Cueva de las Excentricas, the only other cave I had done in this part of Spain!! Juan apologised but obviously I couldn't complain and so I just became determined to get a useful contact for the future. The reason we were doing this short easy cave turned out to be that two of our party were complete novices and the other had only been caving for four months. Plus unbelievably they were all fairly attractive females!! I commented on this remarkable fact to Juan who assured me that he had many 'chicas' in his club whilst I explained that caving women like this in were sadly rarer in the UK.

Although it was a cave I had been in before last time I didn't explore the lake section, as I didn't have my wetsuit. So this time with my wetsuit we were able to see something different and with very pretty formations. After caving we ate an excellent lunch in Igualeja and had a few beers. Juan and I were quick to agree that "cerveza es moy importante por espeleologia" so it is nice to know that Spanish cavers aren't much different from us!

After picking up the two cavers who had done the Hundidero - Gato trip we headed back to Montejaque to pick up SRT kits and rope for an afternoon of SRT practice on a rocky outcrop not far away. This gave me the opportunity to see any differences in SRT kit and technique as well as see how rusty I was after six months with no SRT. We stayed out in the dying sun around the rocks until about 7.00 when we finally parted. I gave Juan several 'BEC get everywhere' stickers and he proudly put one on his car before we said our farewells and I promised to meet them all again when I next had a free weekend.

Hundidero – Gato through trip

Two weekends later I was back in the mountains to take part in the Hundidero – Gato clean up. The plan was for five of us to make the 4.5km through trip armed with rubbish bags ad gloves to clean the interior of the cave. However when one participant dropped out our team was reduced to just four, myself, Nerae, Maki and an eccentric bloke called Pierre.

The Hundidero - Gato system is comprised of two entrances (Hundidero and Gato) which are joined by a large fossil passage through which the river Guadiaro runs. The upper entrance, Hundidero is close to the village of Montejaque in an unmissably large shake hole whilst the bottom entrance is a huge opening in the side of the hill opposite the main road and the railway track. Although the main route through the system is only 4.5km, in total almost 8km of passages are known. Over the length of the trip more than 160m m of height is lost though there are only half a dozen pitches, mostly at beginning of the trip. These are normally left pre rigged.

As an obvious feature in the countryside this cave has always attracted attention although not necessarily for the right reasons. In 1920 the electrical company of Seville attempted to dam the Guadiaro River above the Hundidero entrance. Not surprisingly the water seeped through the limestone into the cave beneath and continued to flow. Undeterred the company launched a misguided campaign to seal the interior walls of the cave. In order to do this they constructed massive hanging walkways throughout the interior of the cave, the remnants of which can still be seen today. 

We parked above Hundidero and got changed into our wetsuits in the early morning Spanish sun before walking down the steep track to the cave entrance.

The entrance is a large dry fossil passage but we soon encountered the water, which characterises the trip. The first section of the trip comprises of lots of abseils into water, this soon gives way to fewer pitches and more swimming until about a third of the way through the cave dries up and there is lots of walking and climbing. Some of the interesting features include the Plaza de Toros a large round chamber where a little bit further the Grande Estalagmita can be found. Just after this is the longest section of swimming before your feet are dry for a while. Towards the end of the cave you encounter the large dry Sala de las Dunas and finally you emerge into the bright sunshine of the mouth of Cueva del Gato. Here the rock is especially slippery due to the large quantities of guano.

Although the Spanish cavers do regard cave conservation as important the cave is used my lots of activity groups who obviously aren’t as consciences. On the route we managed to collect a considerable amount of rubbish and filled four bags. On the out side of the cave other people had been busy cleaning rubbish out of the river and in total we had quite a large pile. All of this was sorted as well so it could be recycled.

The cleaning session is an annual event, which is fairly well known in the area. However the event which takes place the weekend before is better known. If you are of an extremely strong opinion when it comes to cave conservation I suggest you stop reading now because every year they actually organise a race through the cave!

This race is held in memory of a well-known caver called Federico Ruiz Ortiz who died tragically in the system after getting caught in high water. In defence of this activity the cave has already suffered heavily thanks to the Seville electrical company so I doubt the race has a huge impact on the cave. Teams of two complete the 4.5km course as fast as possible and the winning time (and new record) this year was 57minutes.

If anyone is thinking of visiting the area it is worth noting that there is a closed season for the cave. From my memory it is closed from Nov until about the 15th of March, then open for one month until being closed until June.