The Caves of Nerja
One of the most visited tourist sites in Andalucía
Just four kilometres outside the town is the Caves of Nerja, a spectacular cave complex consisting of a series of spectacular caverns and the most enormous stalagmites, including one of the largest columns in the world. For decades it has been one of the most visited tourist sites in Andalucía, with about 500,000 visitors annually, and must be a definite tick on any itinerary to the area.
You will find most references to it in English as ‘The Caves of Nerja’, however in Spanish, it is known in the singular as ‘La Cueva de Nerja’. Either way, it is monumental in size, and there are actually a number of caverns inside.
A natural work of art - the geology of the caves
It is difficult to describe the true wonders of the caves on view, but perhaps the fact that the caves currently open to the public are just one third of the entire cave system, gives some idea of the scale of this natural work of art.
The caves of Nerja have evolved over millions of years, caused where the permeable limestone Almijara mountain range has rested on impermeable schists (metamorphic rock), and over time rain has dissolved and eroded the limestone, creating these spectacular cathedral like caverns and galleries.
Each one has been given its own name such as the ‘Sala de la Cascada’ (chamber of the waterfall) – where concerts are held during the Caves Festival; ‘Sala de los Fantasmas’ (chamber of the ghosts) which has impressive stalagmites and other rock formations; ‘Sala del Cataclismo’ (chamber of the cataclysm), which is home to one of the longest stalactites in the world; and the ‘Sala del Bélen’ (chamber of the Nativity) that has a formation that looks like a nativity scene. The Sala del Cataclismo is called this due to an earthquake which broke one of the columns, the remains of which are scattered over the ground. It is in this room that one of the largest columns in the world stands, at 18 metres thick and 49 metres high.
Prehistoric man at the Caves of Nerja
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of human presence in the caves dating back to some 40,000 years ago.
In fact the Nerja caves also house one of the most important collections of Paleolithic cave paintings in southern Spain. Many species of animals are represented in the paintings (dating from 20,000 to 16,000 years ago), including horses, deer, goats, seals and birds. There are also cave paintings dating from end of the 3rd millennium BC, which include human figures believed to have been used in funeral rites, and others which could represent female deities.
This prehistoric art was made using mineral and organic colourings. As in most of western Europe this type of cave art disappeared at the end of the Palaeolithic age.
In the ‘Sala del Bélen’ (chamber of the Nativity) the remains of a woman was found, affectionately known as Pepita, who was buried here 8000 years ago (now exhibited in the Nerja Museum).
Indeed, the Neolithic period (7500 to 4500 years ago) saw the slow adaptation to agriculture and farming; these changes brought on a population increase and more complex social structures, with new ideas relating to the land, fertility and death. Evidence of this period can be found in the caves, including ceramics, polished tools and ornamental objects such as rings and bracelets made from bone and shell. The living areas in the Nerja caves were the outer most parts, with evidence of their use for sheltering herds of animals, storing agricultural goods and even as a burial ground.
Unfortunately, the caverns with the cave paintings are not open to the public for good conservation reasons.
Visiting the Caves of Nerja
A visit to the caves has to be high on the list of things to do when visiting Nerja. Especially now that portable audio-guides are available, which give a far more immersive experience. There are also guided tours (details below) which will make the visit an even more special occasion.
Remember to wear good, comfortable shoes as some parts of the cave can be slippery. Prams are not allowed, so be prepared to carry younger children. It is not suitable for wheelchairs.
On exiting the caves you can explore the grounds which include a cafe, souvenir shop, museum, picnic area, children’s play area, and gardens. There is also an interesting statue commemorating the boys who first discovered the cave.
As mentioned above, the upper galleries which have important cave paintings, and the new galleries are only opened for official speleo-tourism.
What to expect
In a general visit, there is firstly a screening of a 10 minute audiovisual presentation about the cave, followed by an audio-guided visit through the different chambers of the cave which lasts about 45 minutes. The audio guide is in English, German, French, Italian and Russian, as well as Spanish, of course.
There are also three different tours also on offer which take place outside the normal cave hours:
– The Secrets of the Caves
A guided tour through some of the areas not open to the public during normal visits. Held every day, apart from Monday and Saturdays, starting at 5.00 pm. During July and August its from 6.30 pm.
– The Discovery Tour
A visit to the La Torca and La Mina chambers which are not open to the general public. You’ll also see where the ‘discoverers’ of the Nerja Caves originally gained entry, (see the history of the discovery of the caves below). Also visited are the first excavations conducted in the cave. This is the area that has been inhabited for more time in prehistory, in use for over 25,000 years. The tour takes place on Saturdays at 5.00 pm, except for during July and August when its 6.30 pm. Wearing of comfortable shoes is recommended for this tour, and is probably not suitable for children under 10 years.
– The Night Tour
Not for the feint hearted this one, as you’ll only be given a head lamp to guide your way! You’ll find out what it was like for the original discoverers of the cave as you are guided around around in total darkness. This special tour takes place on Saturdays at 6.00 pm, except for during July and August when its 7.30 pm.
Opening times and location
Despite being called the Caves of Nerja, they are actually situated 4 kilometres away from Nerja, next to the village of Maro.
Caves of Nerja opening times
Open every day except January 1st and May 15th.
July – August: From 10.00 am to 7.30 pm
September – June: From 10.00 am to 3.00 pm
Caves of Nerja Festival in July: From 10.00 am to 6.00 pm
To drive there, follow the N340 towards Maro, and take the signs to the caves. There is a large car park (with a small charge) in the grounds.
There are regular buses to the caves from Nerja. Ask at the Tourist Information Office Nerja for more information.
The special tourist ‘train’, the ‘Cueva Tren’ (photo left) also commutes between Nerja and the caves. This can be quite a treat if you have kids. It is a hop-on/hop-off vehicle and has four stops: Nerja Caves, Maro Square, Parque Verano Azul, and the Nerja Museum. The ticket is valid all day and includes entry into the Museum and the Nerja Caves. You can get on and off the train as many times as desired in their operating hours. The journey time between Nerja and Maro is about 10 to 15 minutes.
Standard visit: Adults – €10.00; children 6 to 12 – €6.00; children under 6 – FREE
Special tours: €15.00
Nerja Caves & ‘Cueva Tren’: The €15.00 cost includes the entrance price to the caves and the Nerja Museum.
Nerja Caves & Nerja History Museum visit combined: Adults: €12.00; children aged 6 years to 12 years: €8; Children under 6 years: FREE
Booking: Admission is made every half hour, with a prior screening and a guided tour. Note these details are a guide only. To confirm prices, opening hours, and for booking and ticket sales check with the tourist office in Nerja or at the Caves of Nerja telephone +34 952 52 95 20 or visit their website.
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The Nerja Caves Festival
The festival, usually held in July, has become very famous, in fact the Queen of Spain once attended. Notable performers have been Montserrat Cabelle, Kiri de Kanawa and José Carreras.
Prices vary widely. In the interior of the cave you can expect to pay €55.00 (starting price) this year, whereas the concerts in the gardens are €20.00, and the one in the Plaza de España is free.
However, if you can manage to afford the ticket to one of the cave concerts it is an unmissable experience – certainly unlike any other venue where you might go for such a concert!
Tickets for the festival can be purchased online via the official Nerja caves website or in person at the Nerja Museum in Plaza de Espana.
Caves of Nerja Festival 2018
The 59th International Festival of Music and Dance takes place between June 16th and July 19th 2018 and will feature concerts by soprano Barbara Hendricks, Manuel Líñan, Málaga Symphony Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera and pianist Javier Perianes.
16th June in the Nerja Caves: Barbara Hendricks. The Road to Freedom. Mathias Algotsson, piano and Hammond organ; Ulf Englund, guitar.
29th June in the gardens outside the caves: Compañía Flamenca de Manuel Liñán.
5th July in the Plaza de España, Nerja: Orquesta Sinfónica de Málaga. Beethoven Concierto no. 5, Dvorák New World Symphony. Piano: Antonio Ortiz
13th July in the gardens outside the caves: Paquito D’Rivera. 70 years of ‘música Mágica’
19th July in the Nerja cave. Debussy and deFalla. Javier Perianes, piano.
The Caves of Nerja discovery - the official story...
1959 – Five boys searching for treasure
In January 1959 a group of five boys from the village of Maro, near Nerja, were exploring the area when they discovered a small opening on the side of the hill, leading to a cave. For years local people had known about small underground tunnels in the foot of the mountains at Maro, which they called ‘la mina del cementerio’ (the cemetery mine), but no one realised the enormity of the cave system lying below their feet.
There were local legends that when the Moors had fled from Nerja they had left behind their treasures in caves near the coast and children would often wander amongst the hills hoping to discover it. Yet in 1959, when the boys first ventured into the caves in the hopes of finding some hidden artefact, little did they realise that it was the caves themselves that would become Nerja’s greatest treasure.
The boys decided to follow a flock of bats emerging from a narrow crack in the wall, which led them to a narrow passage, and eventually into one of the large main chambers. As the boys bravely explored in the dark cavern they could not believe the wonders that met their eyes, followed by a sense of terror as they discovered the remains of some human skeletons. On their return to the village the boys told their school about their amazing discovery, and a few days later returned to the cave accompanied by two of the teachers.
The Caves of Nerja opens to the world
On April 19th of that year, a new expedition was organised to the Caves of Nerja. The subsequent publication of photos taken in the caves by a Málaga newspaper aroused the interest of the scientific community and the media at large. Various investigations were carried out to determine a more viable access route for the public to see this great natural gem, as the passages used by the discoverers would be difficult to negotiate. Explosives and stonemasons were eventually utilised to create an accessible entrance, and in June 1960 the cave was opened to the tourists.
On June 12th, 1960, a Festival of Music and Dance was put on at the Caves of Nerja, opening with the ballet ‘Le tour de Paris’ accompanied by the Málaga Symphony Orchestra. Since then the Caves of Nerja Festival of Music and Dance has become one of the cultural highlights of the year in the Málaga region.
For decades Caves of Nerja has been one of the most visited monuments in the country, with about 500,000 visitors annually. Also, the money received from entrance ticket sales has been used in part by the Nerja Cave Foundation to sponsor, support, fund and publish many of the archaeological studies that have taken place in the caves over the years. It has also been a nice little earner for the Nerja council, helping it to elevate the area from a small fishing village to a world famous tourist resort.
The Caves of Nerja discovery - as told by Señor Ayo...
Francisco Ortega Olaya, better known as Ayo, was born in Nerja some 63 years ago to a family that earned their living from making esparto ropes.
Francisco speaks to us at the chiringuito he owns on Burriana beach called ‘Ayo’s’ (named after himself!). Though it does have to be said that he serves some of the best paellas in the area!
Nerja’s dark cave
“When I was in my early 20’s, young people in the area were fond of going on excursions to a cave in Frigiliana known as the dark cave. One of my friends, Jose Padial, who was a photographer from Nerja, suggested going to the dark cave to take some photos. A second friend who now lives in the USA told us about a cave in Nerja but he said it was very difficult to enter.
It was 1959, we were enthusiastic, strong, young men so we began preparing the ropes and the material we would need to get into it. I had already been to another impressive cave. La Cueva de las Maravilla in Aracena where many films have been shot. So we made our way to Nerja’s dark cave.”
In the Room of Ghosts we found three skeletons
“We had taken torches to illuminate the cave though we didn’t know what we would find if we continued going down, we were more anxious to discover the hidden wonders that were waiting for us more than anything in the world. The same day we found all the rooms of the cave that are visited nowadays.
And we also named them with the current names. In the ‘Room of the Ghosts’ we found three skeletons that were later dated to 7000 years old. We took part of them with us and continued walking down the cave until we found a place where there were nearly 200 more skeletons, which had been thrown in there without being buried. We took some of those too.
When we returned to Nerja later that same day the Guardia Civil took the bones to the cemetery. Someone told me that the remains belongs to the ‘maquis’, (rebel guerilla fighters against the Franco regime), who had hidden in the mountains.
On the following day Padial displayed the photos he had taken of the Caves of Nerja in the window of his small photo shop in Calle Granada, and it caused a real stir. Everyone wanted to see the photos including a journalist from the local newspaper, Diario Sur. He interviewed us, and the cave and the skeletons were front page news in the province by the following day. On the third day it was covered in the national press, and a day later it was a worldwide news story.”
The world becomes interested
“The news was mainly interesting because of the archaeological remains rather than the cave itself. A week later, speleologists from all over the world began arriving in Nerja. The first one came from Australia.
The Mayor asked Padial and I to enter the cave with him so that he could see the place where the remains had been found.
Then, someone else came from the USA and a month later Professor Luis Pellecir arrived from the University of Barcelona who told our Mayor that he had seen many caves all around the world but very few like this. [Photo right and below from the Fundacion Cueva de Nerja YouTube video about the Nerja caves – here. N.b. This video is in Spanish, for the version in English see here].
The council realised that it would be a good tourist attraction and they began to consider the possibilities of opening a door. The entrance we used at that time was a sort of tunnel which began at about 15 metres deep and its walls were made of limestone. Blasting the stone was not a good idea because the whole cave could collapse. We had found a pine root on the ceiling of one of the tunnels so we speculated that the surface might not be far.
One day, some technicians from Málaga came and we all entered the cave once more. When I reached the pine root I hit on the area and they heard me from above. It was just thirty centimetres from the surface and it was the first gateway to the cave to be opened.
By this time we had just entered the new galleries where there were large cave paintings, and many stalactites and stalagmites still in formation. I remember we used to put the torches on top of them to admire the splendour of the rooms.
Then a group of archaeologists from Málaga began coming on weekends. So, on hearing their conversation we began to learn a lot regarding the different stages in earth development, the Neolithic Period, Upper Palaeolithic, the Man of Cro-Magnon…
A boy like me with no studies at all, who had always worked in manual work had the unique opportunity of getting to know in practise what others had learned from books. Every day when I had finished making the esparto ropes I ran to the caves and I didn’t get out until 10.00 or 11.00 at night. I was young, strong, an amateur athlete full of passion… I was living the best time of my life.
Everybody who wanted to visit the caves of Nerja asked any of us: Jose Padial the photographer, my friend Chano, Luis Corté, or me to accompany them. Getting in or out was very difficult and new visitors used to get very nervous. There was a narrow long, almost vertical tunnel like a pit, full of bats and they began flapping on our faces.
Despite difficulties, every afternoon I used to take a different group to the caves and there were many turns on Sundays. I started my day at 7.00 and when we got to the surface it was about 11.00, where there was a second group waiting to be guided into the cave. After a year the cave was illuminated and the paths were built so that everybody could get in on their own and I began losing interest in the cave.”
Ayo and the hit TV series ‘Verano Azul’
While Ayo is speaking I think of this still good looking man who told me before that he has been married twice. First to a “beautiful Swedish woman who had to learn Spanish to communicate with me since I’ve always been terribly clumsy at languages”. From that marriage he has a 22 year old daughter. Then seven years ago he had a second child with a French woman who also learnt Spanish.
It was precisely the image of this beautiful Swedish woman together with the wooden chiringuito on the beach covered in a colourful bourgainvillea and this sun tanned and quaint pony tailed character leaning on a huge paella pan that caught the attention of Antonio Mercero, a TV director who in 1979 was looking for settings for a series along the Mediterranean.
That was how Ayo became part of the production of one of the best known TV series in Spain ‘Verano Azul’ which was shot in Nerja at the beginning of the 1980’s.
Ayo, riding his white mare, appeared as an improvised actor in two chapters of the series.
“When they proposed it to me I naively asked how much I had to pay. None they said, rather you’ll be paid for it. So, as the series was a real success in many Spanish speaking countries I’ve been receiving a cheque for myself and the mare for many years.”
From an article by Betty Luna, originally published in Insight Magazine, July 2002.