There are marvellous spots that are hidden all over Spain, from ravines like La Hoz in Guadalajara to chapels with exultant decorations like San Nicolás de Bari in Valencia. However, one of them has such an adjective directly attached to its name. It is the Cave of Wonders (Gruta de las Maravillas). An underground space that awaits in the province of Huelva. Specifically, it is located in Aracena. Its medieval past is reflected in its wonderful castle, under which there are breathtaking lakes and corridors. All this is framed by a beautiful mountain range famous for its Iberian ham.
As usual, there are two versions of how this cavity was found. One, which is legendary, tells how a local man was immersed in it when he was looking for a lost pig. The other, the official one, is that it was mining work during the 19th century that uncovered the Cave of Wonders. From the beginning, it was surprising because of its beauty. So much so that it soon became the first tourist cave in Spain. The year in which it was conditioned for its visit was 1914. In this way, it has been one of the great attractions of Aracena for more than 100 years.
The castle-church of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores is located on the hill where the Cave of Wonders is located. This curious temple stands on what was once the medieval fortress. It was during the 13th century that Aracena became Christian. As in neighbouring Extremadura and the Algarve, the Military Orders were the protagonists. First the Hospitalarios took the fortress from the Muslims in the middle of the century. Then, the Castilian pressure meant that it was left in their hands. The Knights of Santiago took charge of the place, although traditionally the possession was assigned to the Templars.
The presence of Santiago in this southern area of the Silver Route, a road of Roman origin, was very extensive. In fact, a little further north led to the creation of an encomienda, the Mayor de León. This Leonese connection extended to the people of these lands and Asturias who repopulated the place. An example of this is the usual worship of Santa Marina. Be that as it may, the alcazaba became a castle and a church began to develop. It was completed in the 15th century, when the Gothic style was imposed with the influence of Seville and its cathedral, which was protected by Aracena along with other towns. Thus, the tower that shows the temple is based on the Giralda. The whole is solid, beautiful and is complemented by the ruins of the walls.
The rocks that water has gradually shaped date back some 500 million years. Thus, the canvas of this cave, at the height of others like those of the Drach in Mallorca, are limestone and marble. Both, combined with the humid atmosphere of the Sierra de Aracena, created the curious elements that attract thousands of tourists today. In fact, the abundant local rainfall was one of the key elements for the origin of the place.
It is also worth noting the size of some of the rooms, which have acquired cathedral dimensions. These cavities also contain extensive lakes. The waters that circulate are crystalline and calm, allowing a perfect view of the underwater elements. The speleothems, the different formations that are formed in these telluric cavities, of the Cave of Wonders are very varied. For example, there is no lack of stalactites and stalagmites. But there are also others that remind us of veils, columns, a kind of calcareous dykes called gours… A real geological festival arranged on three levels, two of which can be visited.
The starting point of the tour is next to the tourist office, in Pozo de la Nieve street. This name comes from the first name given to the Cave of Wonders due to the snow in some of its karstic and marble rooms. A radio set enables visitors to listen to all the explanations without any problem and to pay attention to the environment. The resemblances found to the formations in each room are those that gave these names. For example, as soon as you start, you can see the one with the Conchas. In the lower part of the complex, the Mantones de Manila room follows. A place with different colored banded elements, really attractive.
The largest space of all is the Gran Salón, with an idyllic lake that you walk around before having to climb some stairs that lead to the second level. Some of the most amazing elements of the cave await there. For example, a huge column reminiscent of a cathedral pillar. The lake of the Esmeralda, as well as the hollow in which it is located, hosts intricate geological formations, both aquatic and aerial.
Back to the first level, the more weird spaces are waiting. God’s glassware is overwhelming in its overpowering appearance on the ceiling and the pristine nature of its pond. The room of the Garbanzos, on the other hand, draws attention to the spherical units similar to this legume that originated under water. The roundness continues in a different form in the room of the Desnudos, where you don’t have to throw too much imagination to guess the reason behind the denomination. Basically, it is not suitable for the modest. After it only remains to conclude the visit again next to an accumulation of water.
For conservation reasons, access is limited and only 1,000 tickets are on sale every day. The only way to see the underground lagoons and formations of the cave is by guided tour. The general pass costs 10 euros and includes about 45 minutes of walks and didactic explanations. It is advisable to book in advance, especially in summer, as the influx of tourists is enormous. There is also a joint ticket that includes a visit to the castle and the Ham Museum. Although there is some up and down, cited, the tour is suitable for children and adults. Another factor to take into account is the temperature inside the cave, about 16 degrees.
Aracena itself is a perfect destination to spend a weekend. In addition to the aforementioned church-castle, the gastronomic culture of the pig has given rise, for example, to the aforementioned museum. The breeding of the Iberian pig in the Huelva mountain environment is well known, the nearby Jabugo stands out, and it is an opportunity to taste all kinds of pork delicacies. The mountain range itself is a natural park with multiple hiking possibilities. Not in vain does a branch of the Way to Santiago pass through the town, the Southern Way, which connects Huelva with Zafra and the Silver Way. To follow the trip you can go to the north, to Extremadura, or to the south, to the mining area of Riotinto. Both alternatives are a sure success.
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