It’s hard not to fall in love with this idyllic hidden corner of the Valley of Oaxaca . Don’t be put off by the scruffy, tourist-comedor- cluttered Highway 131 right turnoff intersection, 45 miles (73 km) south of Oaxaca City . After a quarter mile (0.4 km) toward the grutas (caves), the road becomes a gently winding, sylvan creekside drive.
The jade-green brook (sometimes muddy in wet season) gurgles downhill over little rocks and giant boulders, pausing here and there in picture-perfect swimming holes. Meanwhile, from overhead, a regal host of towering, gnarled sabinos (tules or ahuehuetes) shades the creek, appearing every bit as ancient and grand as their northern cousins, the California redwoods.
Now and then, you pass by the rustic wooden homes and the cornfields of the local farm families. Or you might glimpse the big cylindrical fermentation vats of a rough-and-ready roadside mescal factory.
About eight miles (13 km) past San Sebastián de las Grutas town (pop. 2,000) you reach the caves. The creek emerges clear and pristine, as if by magic, from beneath a big rock at the foot of a mountain.
A hundred yards uphill are the caves, which you can tour for a fee of about $2. A guide with a pair of strong flashlights will lead you on an easy, mostly level walk through the cave’s several chambers, which vary from about 20 feet (six meters) to more than 200 feet (60 meters) in height. He’s used to getting a tip of about $2 per person.
The cave you will see is only one of the several partly explored caves honeycombing the mountain, Cerro Cruz del Lado. Its five or six main chambers stretch about 500 yards (about 0.5 km) into the mountain. Inside, the formations, which include many towering stalagmites and plenty of bulging stalactites, initially appear, in the semi-darkness of the flickering flashlights, to be gargantuan mounds and columns of half-melted vanilla-chocolate-swirl ice cream.
However, when your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, most of the formations, more than any cave I’ve ever seen, take on fanciful shapes. Bring your own flashlight and have fun dreaming up your own interpretations instead of merely seeing the guide’s camel, turtle, shark, alligator (which looked like a seal to me), or tiger.
One could spend several enjoyable days hiking, bird-watching, swimming in the creek, sitting in the town plaza, and getting to know the local people. They’re generally friendly, having seen enough visitors that they’re not afraid and don’t think you’re too strange.
The shady streamside, moreover, appears ripe for camping, either in your tent or (self-contained) RV. Get permission first from the municipal authorities at the presidencia in San Sebastián de las Grutas, a mile (1.6 km) downstream from the cave parking lot.
A number of downscale eating stands near the caves sell basic local meals, which, if hot, should be wholesome. Water, drinkable directly from the pristine spring source by the caves, is not a problem here.
Get there by bus via the Solteca or Estrella Rojo del Sureste bus from the camionera central segunda clase next to the Abastos market on the southwest side of Oaxaca City . The Solteca buses, some of which go right to the caves, leave several times a day, beginning around 6 a.m. The Estrella Rojo del Sureste may only drop you at the intersection, eight miles (13 km) from the caves. Take a taxi or colectivo van or truck from there.
Drivers, follow Highway 131, a total of 53 miles (76 km) south of Oaxaca City . Allow about two hours’ driving time. In the reverse, north direction, the grutas are 119 miles (190 km) north of Puerto Escondido . For safety, under the best of conditions, allow about four hours of daylight driving time.