Going down, down, down...

The Grotto of San Gabriel

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One of many large trees on the roadThe first thing we learned on this adventure is that before you go down, you have to go up! Leaving Manzanillo, and driving on the old road through Armeria, you'll see many beautiful sights, such as a 200-year-old shade tree, trimmed to allow traffic to pass. You'll pass the salt flats and see the ovens where bricks are made. Make sure you stop and explore. These processes go back 450 years.

local housingHeading north to the city of Colima, take the turn off to the ancient Nahuatl Indian village of Ixtlahuacán. At an elevation of about 500 feet above sea level, Ixtlahuacán is slightly cooler, and one of the most primitive villages in the state of Colima, hosting only a few hundred inhabitants. Most of the houses are constructed of sticks and rough-cut wood slats with thatched-palm roofs. The Indians' principal livelihood in Ixtlahuacán is the pre-Columbian craft of hammock making, and you'll often see them selling their colorful "beds" on the beaches and streets of Manzanillo.

mooove it!The Grotto of San Gabriel is actually located south of town, on a twisting, winding road that climbs up the mountain, and gets more narrow all the time. It's easy to find, however, because there are signs at each turn. We encountered a few beasts along the way, but A local hitchhikerit was okay; we couldn't drive very fast anyway. As the road goes higher into the mountains, it turns into cobblestones, and we enjoyed seeing the rural farming communities. A burro came out on the road to greet us with a lazy "hee-aw-hee-aw-hawww"! (Donkey talk for "hello!")

valley viewOverlooking the fertile valley below, once inhabited by the Nahuatls, one gets a sense that after only a few rainy seasons, Mother Nature could easily reclaim her land, erasing the last few remnants of human civilization.

Higher and higher we goEventually the cobblestones ended and we began driving on a good graded gravel road, and still climbed higher. The road got a little rougher, but not terribly so. Topping out at about 1,000 feet, we overlooked the fertile valleys below, and couldn't help but become entranced by the legends of Indian kings and Spanish conquerors roaming this land more than 450 years ago.

Finally (it's been about 2½ hours since we left Manzanillo), we reached the little pueblo of San Gabriel. At the last sign for the grotto, we turned right only to come to a dead end under a huge tree. There was a farmhouse nearby but it was deserted. I called out "hola," several times but was met with silence. Hmmm.

Not ready to give up after driving all this way, we went back into "town," which consisted of a few houses, a couple pick-up trucks and lots of farm animals roaming free. I asked the first person I saw where the grottoes were. (¿Donde estan las grutas de San Gabriel?)

Our capable guide, IgnacioNow this is where it helps to speak a little Spanish, because he answered, "My mother has the key; I'll take you to her house." He then went on to explain that he was the caretaker and he'd be happy to give us a tour. His name was Ignacio Denis, and as he hopped into our van, we offered him a coke from our cooler, which he accepted gratefully. It was only a few blocks to his mother's little grocery store, which didn't have a name, but offered ice cold RC colas. No beer was available; the beer truck hadn't delivered there yet that month.

The top of the cavernAfter an introduction to his family, we were off to the grottoes (there are two but only one is open to the public). Ignacio took us to where we were before, opened a gate, and we drove down the road a few hundred yards. Since it was rainy season, the road was very muddy, so we parked the van and decided to hike through the forest. After a short walk (I wished I'd worn my tennis shoes instead of sandals), we arrived at the mouth of the cave.

Our path leads down...downIgnacio explained that the state of Colima built the metal spiral staircase that descended almost 100 feet to the bottom of the hole. At the bottom was the opening to the grotto. Before we could make the trek, Ignacio had to start the gasoline-powered generator that operated the lights in the cave. The key that he got from his mother opened the lock on the door of the little 3 x 3-foot cubicle that housed the generator.

That looks like a long way down..Looking down into the blackness, I wondered, "Do I really want to do this?" But my poodle Sunny was game, and so was Vernon, so down we went. Sunny and Vernon bravely went first. The entrance was only 21 feet in diameter, and going down and around in circles was dizzying, so I followed much more slowly, clutching both the camera and hand rail in death grips,Vernon backing down the ladder wondering what I had gotten myself into! At the bottom of the staircase I saw a small hole with a rickety wooden ladder leading still further down. "Ladies first," my gallant male escorts said, so I carefully lowered myself into the cool space of the grotto, still managing to bump by head and get my butt covered in  mud. Vernon, Sunny and Ignacio followed without incident.

The pics did the cavern no justice..Once inside, the floor-to-ceiling show of stalagmites and stalactites was beautiful, and our photographs really didn't do them justice. Ignacio entertained us with stories of King Ix making a temple in the grotto and stashing his gold and silver there. During the Spanish Conquest, Cortes' minions reportedly stole this treasure, and they used this cave as a hiding place for their plundered cache.

Silently majestic!Most of us, when visiting a cave are used to a cattle boat-style guided tour, with hand rails, paved walkways, and mindless prattle about how one formation looks like a waterfall and another resembles an angel. Here, in this grotto, there were just the three of us and we were left to explore and use our imagination.

Our trek back to the surface seemed to take forever, and I was a little woozy and out of breath. Sunny was fine, however, probably because I carried her up the steps. At the mouth of the cave once again, Ignacio asked us to sign a guest book, containing the names and addresses of visitors to the site from all over the world. With muddy hands (which I unsuccessfully attempted to clean on my shorts and T-shirt), I scrawled my name, joining hundreds of others. He also asked for a little donation, in Mexico known as "cooperación" to help pay for gas for the generator. We searched through our pockets and came up with 40 pesos.

More great sceneryOn the way out of town, we stopped again at his mother's store for some cold RCs, and to listen to a few legends aboutA beautiful monument at a small ranchito buried treasure in the hills near the grottoes of San Gabriel. Ignacio told us of another way back to the town of Tecoman, which he said was shorter and faster than the way we came. And believe it or not, it really was, and we were treated to even more fantastic scenery, including a view of the Laguna de Alcuzahue and Laguna La Colorada.

Although this might seem like too much of an adventure for some, we enjoyed seeing a part of Colima that is rarely visited by foreigners. For further details, or to arrange a personally guided tour,
e-mail: susan@gomanzanillo.com.

There are many more adventures in the state of Colima, close to Manzanillo. For more information, find out more in the 150-page tourist guidebook, "Manzanillo and the state of Colima, Facts, Tips and Day Trips."