La Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás

Caverna del Moncada - Cueva de Santo Tomás


Useful Information

photography
1954 exploration by the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (SEC), Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Public Domain.
photography
1954 exploration by the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (SEC), Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Public Domain.
Location: Pinar del Rio Province.
Northwest Cuba, 170 km west of Havanna.
(22.547990°, -83.842525°)
Open: All year daily 9-15.
Museum: All year daily 10-22.
[2019]
Fee: Adults CUC 15.
Museum: Adults CUC 1.
[2019]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: helmets and headlamps provided.
Dimension: L=46,250 m, VR=89 m. A=113-202 m asl.
Guided tours: L=2,000 m, D=90 min.
V=1.500/a [2005]
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Antonio Núñez Jiménez (1990): La Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás : Monumento Nacional La Habana, Ediciones Plaza Vieja. 160 pp + unnumbered pages, illus. figs. surveys. SB Español - Spanish kindle
Mario Parise, Manuel Valdes Suarez (2005): The show cave at "Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás" (Pinar del Rio province, Cuba), [in] Acta carsologica Vol 34 (1) 135-149. online researchgate DOI
Address: La Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, Escuela de Espeleología (Caving School), Tel: +53-48793145.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

18-SEP-1954 members of the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (SEC) explored the cave, lead by Dr Antonio Núñez Jiménez.
1957-1959 cave used as a hideout by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries.
1984 National School of Speleology founded.
05-JUN-1989 declared National Monument by resolution #59.
1994 opened as a show cave.
2003 Italian-Cuban speleological expedition “Santo Tomàs 2003”.

Description

With a length of 47 km this is the second-longest cave in Cuba. It is formed on 7 levels with a vertical range of 89 m and is the main drain for the 400 m high Quemado Mountain range. The entrance passage are enormous, up to 10 to 20 m wide and during the Cold War years they were used by the military. Consequently many of the speleothems near the entrance show signs of wear.

Tourists are given helmets and caplamps. This save having to install electric light and the problems of lampenflora.


Text by Tony Oldham (2003). With kind permission.

photography
Antonio Núñez Jiménez exploring Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Public Domain.

The Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás was named after the stream of Santo Tomás, which formed many of the huge passages. The cave entrance is reached after an ascent of 150 m which is a little strenuous in the hot Cuban climate. Inside the cave its not exactly cool, but at least cooler than outside. The cave has not been developed in any way, so there are actually no paved paths and no electric light. The visitors are equipped with helmets with headlamps and the tours are guided. But the floor is level and mostly dry, compressed cave clay with trails created by the feet of the other visitors. And they have the chutzpa to sell us this as eco-friendly, quite impressive!

The show cave uses level six of seven, in other words the level above the lowest leve. While the lowest level (A=113 m asl) is fully water filled by the cave river is the Arroyo Santo Tomàs, and is the current vadose part of the huge cave system, the sixth level is normally dry. Only during events of floods the water rises and partly floods the sixth level. But it is also the second-youngest level, the upper levels are older and show more signs of destruction, like collapsed ceilings. The uppermost level is at 202 m asl, so the cave has a vertical range of about 89 m.

The show cave was quite popular, and had a high number of visitors, during its first decade. This was not expected, many thought it would be a sort of low grade site, because it is off the main tourist routes of the island. But reality was different, the cave was visited by an unexpected high amount of people. At least during the first decade. For some reason the visitor numbers dropped and ten years later many thought the cave was closed. It was hard to find, and while there was a good infrastructure, there were very few visitors. The numbers dropped to 1,500 visitors per year, which is actually not enough to pay the guides. We have no current information, but we guess during Corona the cave had no visitors at all and was probably closed. The newest reviews on the web are from 2019, so if you visit the cave please send updates. And bring a helmet and a good headlamps, the ones provided seem to be substandard.

The cave was originally named Caverna del Moncada, the show cave part was originally named Cueva de las Avispar (Wasp Cave), It was later called Cueva de Santo Tomás and the name Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás sounds exactly like a caver joke. If they discover huge new parts they tend to name all the new parts with funny names, and they sometimes rename caves if caves of different names are connected. One of the cavers who came back from the cave tour, exhausted, probably made the joke "Hey, it's now so big, we should call it "Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás". And the marketing guy listening in, runs to print the new brochures...

photography
Fidel Castro, Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Public Domain.
photography
Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries, Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, Viñales, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Public Domain.

The cave was actually explored by the great old man, Dr Antonio Núñez Jiménez. In 1954, he lead a group of speleologists from the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (SEC) on their expedition. Later the Escuela Nacional de Espelogia "Antonio Nunez Jimenez" was built right beneath the cave entrance. He also wrote the book about the cave in 1990, which is still available, even for Kindle, but unfortunately it is in Spanish. For some time the school received a part of the entrance fee, but Antonio Núñez Jiménez is dead and so this decision was canceled by the bureaucrats. The school had another disastrous event, when a building was badly damaged in a flood a few years ago. The entire survey records were submerged in the flooding, now, a re-survey of the entire system is in the offing.

The cave was also frequented by the revolutionaries including Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra. They used numerous caves as hideout in the years between 1957 and 1959, due to the bombardement by the Batista army. We guess Antonio Núñez Jiménez was a great help, as a speleologist he knew many caves. There are pictures where Antonio Núñez Jiménez and Fidel Castro sit in the cave between stalactites and discuss future problems.

Nearby is the cave entrance which was named Cueva Icongnita, in which a 3,500 years old human skeleton was discovered, and the Cueva de Mesa with impressive indigenous engravings. This shows that the caves were actually well known for a long time. The cave was used as a hideout by the cimarrones, escaped slaves from the sugar plantations. The peasants in the area also knew the caves, at least the entrances, where they could find drinkable water even in times of drought. In the cave passages there was bat guano, which they could use as fertiliser for their fields. When there were hurricanes outside, the caves were storm-proof shelters. And some cave passages were good access routes to the hoyos, fertile areas in the karst, practically inaccessible from the outside, surrounded on all sides by steep rock faces. So the farmers actually walked through the cave to work on their field. Festivities and dances were held in the spacious Cueva del Salón, because of its easy access from the Valle de Quemado.