Another Zotz Speleo Mythbuster


“That cave goes right through the mountain, she does, all the way to the other side and thar’s GOLD inside her, te lo juro, more gold than you could ever imagine!”
It was the first week of August, 2007. Luis Rojas and I were standing in a muddy street in the village of Chapulimita, just north of Ahualulco, surrounded by a crowd of men and boys who were briefing us on La Cueva del Picacho, located somewhere nearby.

Downtown Chapulimita. Our all-terrain VW Bug (the white one) was raring to go, but ended up parked here all day.

...“Hay un espanto (There’s a ghost) guarding that cave…” explained an old-timer who turned out to be our guide, “…and as soon as you get good and deep inside it and finally come to the gold, the espanto blows out your flashlight (!) and you hear an unearthly voice saying TODO O NADA (All or Nothing)…”
“Which is why we need a lot of people, so we can carry out all the gold at once,” chimed in a wiry youngster who looked like he’d make a great caver.
Then our guide pointed at our car. “That little Bug will never make it, not even with those big tires,” he said. “The road is slippery.”
Fortunately, it seemed like everyone in Chapulimita was interested in visiting Picacho Cave and a tall, lanky fellow wearing a camouflage shirt immediately volunteered his truck.
Our main problem solved, we were invited onto the gangly soldier’s porch for cool drinks. From the side of the house we could hear “Are you sure the tank’s not empty?” and after a little while a big red pickup truck backed out onto the street. Then we and what seemed half the town were scrambling into the pickup’s open bed. Luis and I got the seats of honor on top of a built-in metal box. We soon found out these seats positioned us so we were the first to get hit by every tree overhanging the road...

...Once the back of the truck was stuffed with as many bodies as could fit, we rumbled onto the road. Behind us came a skinny, spotted dog, running at top speed. It leapt into the air and landed right in the truck bed on top of the enthusiastic cave hunters. Numerous hands immediately grabbed the dog, lifted it high above their heads and unceremoniously heaved it back onto the road. By now the truck had gathered considerable speed, but that dog no sooner hit the ground than it was galloping behind us and gaining on the truck. Then another mighty leap and Spot the Wonder Dog landed in our midst again, feet flying. Naturally, two seconds later the dog was flying in the opposite direction again. You won’t believe it, but this scene was re-enacted yet a third time before Spot finally gave up and joined two other dogs which followed us the entire way.

Spot the dog wagging tail just before being thrown off the truck.



...We could soon understand why Spot preferred riding in the truck. He knew what was coming up ahead. That road was not just “slippery,” it soon turned into a regular river and the few “dry” stretches had deep, thick mud sticky enough to trap an elephant. It was obvious our soldier friend had driven this road a million times. He knew exactly when to speed up, when to slow down and which side of the river had the least potholes hidden underneath.

While watching our driver’s skillful maneuvers through the murky waters, we had to keep a sharp watch for plants and branches: WHAP! “That was a close one, did you see those thorns?” SKREECH! “Look out for those agaves—the Aztecs used to use their sharp points as sewing needles!” ARGHH! “Be careful, the sugar cane leaves are like razor blades and can cut you to ribbons!”


Luis Rojas inspects the so-called road.

After eight kilometers (which seemed more like 80) of lurching and splashing, the truck came to a stop at the edge of a big agave field. Our guide pointed vaguely over the top of a dense tangle of trees and brush: “It’s that-a-way!” And into the maleza we plunged. The first thing we came to was a stream full of chocolate-colored water and—of course—plenty of mud. “Follow the stream!” shouted our guide and we slipped and slid over smooth, wet rocks until we eventually left the stream and headed into a forest of huizache bushes. These, of course, are acacia trees, famous for their sharp thorns. “Ah, so it’s going to be one of those kind of cave hunts,” I said to myself as I stashed the camera and pulled on my heavy-duty gloves. Sure enough, no sooner had we cleared the huizaches than we found ourselves in a dominguilla patch. “We call this plant “El Quemador” (the One that Burns),” our friend told us and I soon saw a lot of red arms and painful looks because that was no “patch,” it was a regular Dominguilla Jungle and it took forever for us to get out of it.

...But suddenly, high above us loomed the rocky peak of El Picacho. “There it is!” said the guide. “See? You can make out the cave entrance from here.”

“Uh-huh,” mumbled Luis Rojas who was already studying it with his monocular. “I can make it out alright and that cave is only four meters deep. In fact, I can see the end of it from here.”

“Oh no, no! You are totally mistaken,” everyone shouted. “We know all about that cave. It goes all the way through the mountain, not to mention the fabulous…”


El Picacho within near and yet so far...


"OK, OK," we said and we all plunged back into the "jungle."

Bravely, we forged ahead, but, unable to see anything, we had no idea whether we were heading in the right direction, and, it seemed, neither did our "guide."

Finally we stopped for a breather. “Amigos," we said, "it’s now 3:30 PM and there’s nothing but thick maleza (weeds, thorns and worse) ahead of us …why don’t we come back in the dry season?"

Well, this was debated a while and it looked like most of the gang were ready to throw in the towel, when suddenly from the tangled brush ahead of us, we heard a kid’s voice: “Vengan, Vengan, I found a clear spot.”

Reconsidering strategies in the "jungle"


“Vámonos!" Shouted the whole crowd and off we went. Half an hour later, we were at the foot of El Picacho, working our way up enormous blocks of volcanic rock.



Halfway up the mountain, we came to a nicely shaded spot with a tremendous view of the surrounding countryside. The cave was now about 50 meters above us. But it looked pretty much straight up to me.

“I’m no mountain-climber,” I said. “Go to it, Luis…”


Luis Rojas, already dripping with sweat, prepares to climb up the sheer cliff to fabulous El Picacho Cave.

Followed by four humans and one dog (Spot, of course), Luis crept up the sheer wall, peeked into the cave and shouted, “Four meters!” down to the rest of us. Then he turned and took a look at the face of the soldier, who was right behind him.

“His pupils were dilated and I knew he had gone into shock,” Luis told us later. “Apparently he had made the mistake of looking down (a 150 meter drop). Since he was a soldier, I started giving him short, concise orders: turn around! Grab the rock! Don’t move! etc. Then I got out my fetucha (flat nylon webbing) and tied all of us but the dog together.”

How Spot made it up that vertical wall to the cave entrance, I don’t know. How he made it back down is even more amazing, especially in the light of the terrified yelps of the other two dogs when they tried to head back down from the sheltered balcony where the rest of us had taken refuge.

Mountain-climbing Spot, racing down the hillside.


The Chapulimita Caving Club, perched upon the only flat spot on  the mountainside, celebrating the successful discovery and exploration (lasting three seconds max) of El Picacho Cave.  The number one topic of discussion was the word "vertigo" which the soldier (slightly woozy guy in middle) had never heard of until this particular day.



Well, there was just enough daylight for us to make our way through the poisonous plants, acacia forest and muddy stream, hop back into the truck, dodge the thorns, agave spikes and slashing cane leaves and splash through the deep waters and muddy ruts back to the soldier’s home, where we were rewarded with a delicious supper of home-made tostadas. The big talk all through the meal was the hard-to-swallow discovery that El Picacho Cave was not, after all, the marvel that everyone in town had always believed in.  "A legend has died today!" said one of the boys and I think that summed it up quite nicely.

It was now 7:30 PM. “Thanks for everything,” we said, eyeing the sky which was filling with black clouds.
“No, no!” piped up one of the kids. “There’s one more cave you have to see. It’s right here in the pueblo.” Luis and I looked at each other.
“Bueno,” said Luis, “as long as it’s right here, let’s take a quick look.”


There is probably no need to describe what happened next: you can surely guess where "right here" turned out to be. Weaving through practically every empty lot in Chapulimita, our young guide led us right out of town until we were once again ducking under acacia branches, hopping over muddy puddles and carefully dodging steaming cow pies. As thunder ominously rumbled in the distance, we arrived at the “cave.”

“It’s a drain pipe,” I said.

“No, no, it’s a cave,” cried our budding spelunker. “Just look inside.”

The grand entrance to Drain Pipe Cave.


I got down on my belly, shined my light inside the hole and looked. “1.5 meters,” I announced, “and plenty of mud.” The little boy got down there with me and seemed utterly amazed that there was no entrance to Cacahuamilpa Caverns inside his drain pipe.

At last we could take our leave of Chapulimita, its imaginative citizens and its miserable caves. As we climbed into our Bug, a crowd surrounded us. “We know another cave, right next to a wonderful waterfall,” they shouted above the howling wind. “We’ll be waiting for you next week.”

Now, darkness fell and with it came the biggest thunderstorm we had seen in years. As the deluge poured over us and lightning bolts cracked above us, we unanimously decided that we would leave Wonderful Waterfall Cave for Susy and Sonia. “It’s only fair,” we agreed, “We wouldn’t want to deprive them of the Chapulimita experience.”

John Pint

The Hero of our story: Spot the Wonder Dog

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