Light in the Tunnel

Photos by Sabrina Suppers

In 1960, a group of local historians and archeologists hired a lighting technician in Arrecife to install a generator and various light bulbs in the Cueva de los Verdes, so that they could explore the cave in search of ancient relics. The technician, Jesús Soto, did his job so well that the members of the island’s Cabildo who visited the cave were stunned by the magical beauty they saw.

This happened at a time when Spain and Lanzarote were starting to focus on tourism. In the next few years, Lanzarote was transformed with the arrival of the desalination plant, the first big hotels and airport extensions, but Soto’s work at the Cueva also lit a light in the mind of local politicians.

In 1964, after further work by Soto, the Cueva de los Verdes was officially opened as a tourist attraction. César Manrique was still in New York then, and Soto, along with the Cabildo’s President Pepín Ramírez, urged him to return to his native island to take charge of future projects. Lanzarote’s future had been born in a pitch-black cave. Read more...

 

Today, the cave is increasingly recognised as a scientific marvel, as well as a tourist attraction. It’s part of the longest lava tunnel in Europe, which extends from the Volcan de la Corona through Jameos del Agua and then underwater for several kilometres into the sea as the Túnel de Atlántida.

But the Cueva de los Verdes is also a place of local legend – the refuge for islanders who were fleeing from raiders who plundered the island. The historian Viera y Clavijo wrote that in 1618, Turkish and Berber raiders walled up the cave to force more than 900 islanders to surrender or starve. However, the locals knew a secret exit and managed to sneak supplies in until one, named Amado, was caught, tortured and gave up the secret on the condition that his family were spared. Instead, Amado, his family and 900 others were taken as slaves.

A Day in the Life of Cueva de los Verdes

The Cueva de los Verdes was Lanzarote’s first official tourist centre, a place where the island’s volcanic origins, its turbulent history of piracy and its future as a tourist destination all came together.

Between 7 or 8 am in the morning, the first workers arrive at the cave to clean, with the rest of the staff arriving later at around 9.30. This is when the first coaches will start to arrive, and the ticket office officially opens at 10 am.

For the rest of the day, until 6pm in the summer and 5 pm in off-season, guides lead groups of tourists through the maze of underground tunnels and caves, where they see bizarre rock formations, a specially-adapted concert hall and an unforgettable optical illusion.

Apart from the touches added by Jesús Soto and César Manrique, the cave is still a wild, natural place where tourists must be supervised at all times. There are no bars or restaurants here, and many tourists will move on to the nearby Jameos de Agua to wander freely and enjoy a drink or a meal.

However, the Cueva de los Verdes is unmissable – a glimpse of Lanzarote’s remarkable subterranean world, and the place where modern Lanzarote can be said to have been born.

The Official Guide
Cruz María Fernández has been working as an official guide at the Cueva de los Verdes since 2015, descending into the volcanic tunnel several times daily at the head of groups of up to 50 tourists, informing them, warning them of hazards and staging the famous optical illusion in Spanish and English.

Where are you from, Cruz?
I’m local. I studied geography at Tenerife before returning to Lanzarote and taking the official exam as a tourist guide. I live in Arrieta now, so it’s just a five minute journey to work each day.

How many groups do you guide on an average day?
It depends on how many tourists come. In summer we can have up to 30 groups entering the tunnel on any given day. I’ll usually lead between four to six tours a day, each of which takes around an hour.

You’re leading fairly large groups through a place that can be dangerous. Is it hard work?
The route is always the same, but every group is different. It can be a job rounding everyone up at times, but I always try to have empathy for for the tourists I’m leading. I like to travel myself and never forget that I’m a tourist too.

Earlier on we saw two French tourists turn back immediately when they saw the narrow descent into the cave. Is that normal?
Yes, people lose their nerve and realise it’s not for them almost every day, but fortunately this usually happens at the beginning. It’s a psychological thing, of course. I recently met a woman who’d come her with her children twice and turned back because she felt frightened and worried for them. When she came alone, she did the whole tour and loved it.

Are there any accidents?
Yes. I often get people bumping their head on the low roofs, and once we had a heart attack and had to call firemen to extract the victim. This is not a naturally safe place, so it’s my job to warn visitors of the risks and deal with any problems that arise.

The Director
José Trujillo is the general director of the Cueva de los Verdes, in charge of 18 staff who ensure the facilities at the cave work smoothly day by day.

Are you the first to arrive at the cave each day?
No. Normally the cleaners are first – they’ll clean the public toilets and common areas and a worker always checks that the cave is safe and the lights are working.

I imagine a power cut could be alarming for scores of tourists in a volcanic cave. Has it ever happened?
No. We’ve got a generator and emergency system that starts up automatically if there’s a mains failure.

Nevertheless, the cave is a potentially dangerous place, with low ceilings and some dangerous drops. How is the centre prepared for accidents?
There are two defibrillators here, and along the guided route there are ten First Aid stations with vital supplies and a telephone. All guides are also trained in First Aid. Almost all the accidents are minor, though – bangs on the head, the odd stumble.

How many tourists come here a year?
It ranges from 400,000 to half a million. On some days, 2,000 visitors will pass through the cave – always accompanied by a guide. That’s not just our decision – it’s the law.

This isn’t only a tourist attraction, though, is it?
No, we also have scientists working here. There are seismologists from the Casa de los Volcanes who pass through the cave all the time; we’ve recently hosted visits for an international scientific symposium on water systems in caves and last year we had astronauts from the European Space Agency who were exploring the similarities between cave systems here and those on the moon and Mars.

Are there still archeological remains here?
Before it was a tourist centre, the cave was used as a place to keep goats by a family named Verde – that’s where the name comes from: But before that it was a place where islanders hid when pirates attacked the island in search of slaves. There are still trenches here with strange piles of stones, which may have been used to throw at invaders – the ancient islanders had few other weapons.

Is yours a desk job, or do you ever get into the cave yourself?
(Laughs) I do a bit of everything. Mainly I’m in charge of sorting out staff, organizing shifts, ordering supplies, but I do a bit of everything if we’re short-handed. I’ll guide groups, work in the ticket office, help out in the carpark, whatever’s needed.