By John Pint


In an article entitled “Return to Paradise” I mentioned how we left the pleasures of a steaming hot pool of water in the state of Nayarit and headed for Sanganguey Volcano, located about 25 kms southeast of Tepic, to determine whether we could find any lava tubes there. Three of us, Canadian Chris Lloyd, Mexican Luis Rojas and I, drove into the little town of San José Mojarras in Nayarit and tried our standard technique for locating caves: we went to the main plaza, found an old-timer sitting on a bench, and mentioned the word “cueva.”

We quickly discovered that you have to be careful using this approach in Nayarit. Our informant immediately started to tell us all about a place that was dark “and has plenty of muchachas.”

 “No,” we told the man. “We mean a hole in the ground, full of mud and guano—and with bats instead of girls.”


Treasure and maps

Well, we got a funny look at that that idea, but our old-timer did know of one such cave in a nearby community and off we went, finally arriving at the grocery store of a very big man named Don José, who asked us exactly what we wanted in his cave...

“To see what kind of bats you have.”

De veras, and what about the treasure?”

“In forty years, I haven’t seen any treasure.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter because the cave entrance is only this big, (indicating the size of a soccer ball).”

“Bueno, we don’t have to go inside, but just seeing the entrance will tell us if this is a lava tube.”

Here followed a long description of lava tubes, limestone caves, deep pits, ropes and ladders, interspersed with anecdotes and jokes which put Don José at ease and produced a smile on his face.

“…and, of course, we always give the land owner a detailed map of the cave.”

“A map, eh?... Bueno, maybe you’d like to take a look at the entrance; it’s only five minutes from here.”

Don José Hernández


...Big Don José, his big son and a big friend all somehow squeezed into Chris’s truck and off we went, bouncing over what could euphemistically be called a dirt “road” between two large fields of Blue Agaves. Then we walked to the cave entrance, a collapse of big basalt blocks. There was a space about 60 cms high and 1.5 meters wide with a dark cave beyond, and air smelling of guano was wafting out of it. “You see,” said Don José, nobody could fit through that little hole!”

Don José (in the back) and son peering into the impossibly small entrance to Zurdo Cave.



Much to Don José’s surprise, we slid right into the cave like three lizards.  Although none of us had helmets and only a few little lights, we saw enough to figure this cave was worth a return visit. And, of course, there was a nice current of air blowing out of a low passageway…


The Australian Connection


A month or so passed. Then, determined to show visiting Australian caver Greg Middleton a whopper of a lava tube, Sonia Calvillo, Chris Lloyd and John Pint took our visitor back to the little town of Colonia Moderna, where we hoped to visit a “really big” cave that Don José had told us about. A nice old guy named Don Eduardo was supposed to take us there, but instead led us to a small cave which was not very interesting, except for the fact that Greg was the only one bitten by the cave’s ants, suggesting that Australian meat merits its reputation for being extra tender.


LEFT:Seventy-seven-year-old Don Eduardo says, (after taking us to a little cave) "Oh, that BIG cave everybody talks about? Sorry, I've never been there!"


RIGHT: Aussie Greg Middleton exiting Don Eduardo's disappointingly small cave.


Greg and Sonia investigate tindarapo molts in Cueva Eduardo


 Giving up the hunt for The Big One, we went back to La Cueva del Zurdo.

While Chris and Greg did a geological examination inside, Sonia and I proposed to start the survey. However, it turned out that somehow none of us had brought along a clinometer, nor even a protractor and a string, each thinking the other would have one. Fortunately, Chris had by then discovered more cave beyond the entrance room, so we stowed the survey gear and began exploring.


The Obsidian Room

The first room is about ten by twenty meters with a going passage at the far end. The walls and roof of the passage are composed of pumice tuff and therefore exceedingly soft.  A belly crawl leads through a small room into the  Obsidian Room. The floor of this room is covered with breakdown but the ceiling consists of small, tightly packed obsidian fragments. Both Chris and Greg stated that obsidian in a lava cave is rare indeed and probably unique.

Curious ceiling of the Obsidian Room.

Photo courtesy of Greg Middleton




Detail of Zurdo Cave map, showing Belly Crawl and Obsidian Room. The small room between these two points is where we left the cameras after discovering that the inner part of the cave was too humid for normal photography. Click on this picture to see the complete map.


Click for complete map of cave



LEFT: closeup of the tightly packed obsidian fragments making up the ceiling of the Obsidian Room


RIGHT: One of several snake skins we found in various parts of the cave.


In this area we found two puddles of semi-liquid vampire goo and a great deal of fresh guano deposited by insectivorous bats. We also spotted a little spider and what looked like a cockroach with an ovaloid form.


Photo courtesty of Greg Middleton


LEFT:A tailless whip spider (Acanthophrynus coronatus) looks ferocious but is harmless to humans. Cuevas Eduardo and Zurdo are full of them.


RIGHT: Both caves also feature a few pools of smelly vampire guano, a black semi-liquid.


Along the wall were entrances to several other passages, each shaped like an A and so symmetrical that I wondered whether they might not be man-made, considering how soft the walls are...

...Chris disappeared into the biggest of these passages, resulting in a mass exodus of bats. It appears there are at least three species in this cave and we hope we can find a bat expert interested in visiting this place. Rather than cause any more disturbance to the bats, we decided to postpone further exploration (and our survey) until we could do this at night when the bats are all outside.

Chris Lloyd with bats


Evil Weeds

Near the end of November, 2006, we finally got enough cavers together to carry out the survey of the cave. The crew consisted of Luis and Mary Rojas, Sonia Calvillo, Chris Lloyd and John Pint. Our plan was to camp outside the cave so we could survey at night when the large bat population would be outside, devouring the local bugs.

We pulled into Colonia Moderna in the late afternoon and told Don José our plan. “Where are you going to camp?” he asked, “It’s all full of weeds.”

...Well, of course, we weren’t afraid of a few weeds, so off we went. Chris parked nice and close to the cave and we jumped out of the car… and that’s when we discovered what Don José was talking about. In one minute, our pants were covered with hundreds of the prickliest burrs the world has ever produced. We had no problem learning the local name for these diabolical stickers (huizapoles) as they seemed to repopulate our clothes and shoes as fast as we could pull them off, and even weeks later—back home—we continued to find them in the most unexpected places...



Shimmering white walls

By the time we got our tents up and had plucked all the “wee-sa-POL-es” (that’s the pronunciation) off one another, it was dark. Chris had kindly chopped a path to the cave and we crawled inside to begin the survey. One of the passages off to the side of the first room was almost completely covered with a white sheen caused by tiny water droplets stuck to what I assume is one of those bacterial mats that Diana Northup is all excited about.


Sonia among the sparkles.


Curious "hairs" (fungus?) were spotted near the bacterial mats

At the far end of this room, there’s a small opening that one could easily miss. Sliding through on your belly leads you to a room with a smooth, flat floor where I decided to leave the thermometer and hygrometer. A smooth upslope at the other end of this room leads deeper into the cave. This passage is typical of many others in the cave: it’s A-shaped and flat on the bottom. I still wondered if human beings had not assisted in enlarging the openings of this cave, but Chris says all the passages were formed by natural, phreatic processes...

John Pint enjoying one of the belly crawls in Zurdo Cave: "My poor camera!"

Photo courtesy of Greg Middleton


Photo courtesy of Greg Middleton

Chris Lloyd in front of a typical A-shaped passage. Note the walls made of soft volcanic tuff or pumice.

The next room was the famous Obsidian Room where we spotted several of the biggest tindarapos  we had ever seen (also known as tendarapos or canclos or cancles) as well as some smaller ones with very noticeable white “elbows,” so I handed the tip of the survey tape to Mary Rojas in order to take some pictures. I went back to drag the tripods, flashes and other stuff into this room, got some good shots of the ugly critters and then followed the surveyors into the next room. This was the bat roost where we had stopped last time. Now it was mostly empty except for a number of small bats with cute little faces hanging practically in front of our eyes, their wings tightly folded. They were no longer than five centimeters long and, of course, I wanted a picture. Sad to say, however, the cave photography came to an end right in this room as every picture I took came out foggy. Well, the truth is, I had measured 22 degrees and 98% humidity back in the second room but the “bat zone” felt much hotter and stickier, so much so that all of us were beginning to feel exhausted. However, there were a number of interesting things we observed in this area, which is about 100 meters inside the cave. First of all, there was a nest of leaf-cutter ants and next to their hole was what to them must have been a veritable mountain of chewed-up leaves, upon which these ants supposedly cultivate a tasty fungus. Normally, this “farm” is located in a tunnel of the ants’ making, but in this case they could use a hot, dark cave provided by Mother Nature. Naturally, this was another photo that never was taken!

Prehistoric Pepsi

...We also discovered a glass Pepsi bottle, the only human artifact we saw. It has what seems to be an old, 1940’s logo on one side and a more recent logo on the other and was made in Mexico… obvious proof that the ancient Aztecs preferred Pepsi over Coke! A bit farther on, we found an interesting room with only one thing in it: a rectangular, flat-topped rock about 60 cms long by 20 wide and 20 high. The floor was perfectly flat and smooth and the rock—which was in the center of the room—had obviously been transported here from elsewhere. Could this spot have been used for ceremonies or meetings? OK, archeologists, when does the investigation start?...

"Too bad it's empty" says John, admiring the ancient Pepsi bottle.






LEFT: Luis Rojas (under the Sherlock Holmes Caving Helmet) trying to get a reading as sweat pours into his eyes.


RIGHT: Chris Lloyd sketching. Note the obsidian stratum above his head.


In this part of the cave, there were passages going every which way, most of them beginning as a more-or-less triangular shaped opening. At the end of two of them we found ceiling exits, no doubt used by the bats.

After mapping some 240 meters of passages, we headed out. Along the way, in the obsidian room, Luis and I spotted the strangest cave creature we’d ever seen. It has the oversized legs of a walking stick, but a shorter and thicker body. It didn’t react to a flashlight circling it, so we imagined it was blind. Once again, we got no pictures, having left the cameras in less steamy parts of the cave...

...We exited, dripping with sweat, quickly finished off all the beer and soon crawled into our tents...

This is one hot and sticky cave! Notice the only one smiling is Mary Rojas...what's your secret, Mary?


... Although we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, with the great hulk of Sanganguey Volcano looming above us in the night sky, we could still hear—all too clearly—the blast of trumpets from a Mariachi band somewhere on the other side of the cane field. It was a typical Mexican Saturday-Night Fiesta, but I was so worn out from that steamy cave that I didn’t even notice at what time the Ranchero music was replaced by the natural sounds of crickets and owls.


Camping under the shadow of Sanganguey Volcano.




The next morning we packed up and spent a bit of time with Don José, who proudly showed us his tobacco crop. Thousands of tobacco leaves were neatly hung side by side beneath a tin roof. As none of us knew much about this crop, Don José demonstrated how to tell a good tobacco leaf from a bad one. “Just crumple it up in your hand. When you let go, a good leaf will quickly resume its original shape, whereas a low-quality one will stay crumpled.” The only smoker in our group was Luis Rojas, but I’m sure he’ll bear this info in mind next time he camps in a tobacco field.


Chris checks the quality of Don Josés weed.


As we had plenty of time on our hand, having completed the cave survey, we decided to check out a local town named “Las Cuevas” (which we had spotted on the map) to see if there were actually caves there. So we drove to San José Mojarras and started hunting for a dirt road hopefully heading towards Las Cuevas. Well, we found a road alright, but it forked quite a few times and all we could do each time was to randomly pick a direction. This technique worked perfectly, no doubt because the car was full of typical cavers with the extraordinary ability to sniff out “cuevas” at a distance. Thirteen kms from San José Mojarras, we arrived at our goal.


 The Wonderful Rivers of Las Cuevas

Las Cuevas turned out to be a typical pueblito in all respects but one: a surprisingly large number of people had a boat in their back yard. When we stopped to chat with a local youth, he explained that we were very close to the banks of the Santiago River, which, the young man told us, “is broad and clean” in this area, and very nice for boating. This seemed hard to believe as this river is a stinking soup of toxic waste after it flows around the city of Guadalajara, about 250 kms upstream. “No, no,” said our informant, “the river is clean here—many people in our village are fishermen, including me. We get very nice tilapia from the Santiago River.” Of course, we also asked about the cuevas for which this village is named. “Ah, these caves are on the property of Don Antonio Cabanilla.”


Well, soon we were chatting with Don Antonio’s wife, who assured us her husband was very much interested in caves and such and a little while later Don Antonio himself took us on a tour of a river and waterfall on his property. We were amazed at how beautiful this place was but Don Antonio remarked that there’s another waterfall further down the hill which is much bigger and more impressive. “Come and camp here on my property. I’ll show you several nice places to swim and I’ll take you to several caves around here.”...


Don Antonio's river has several good places for swimming, as long as you don't accidentally go over the waterfall.


 On our way back, we ran into a fellow named Don Simón who also promised to take us to several mysterious pits he knew about. Don Simón turned out to be quite a comedian and after he drank one beer, had us all in stitches.



Left: Don Simón

Right: Don Antonio


Is Las Cuevas the new Shangri-la?


Swimming holes, waterfalls, boating, fishing and caves! Las Cuevas turned out to be quite a find. Don’t worry, Don Antonio…we’ll be back!


Photo courtesy of Greg Middleton