Bucket List: Oaxaca's Cueva Cheve

The other day I was sitting comfortably by the wood stove when my lovely assistant Rich appeared brandishing a small slip of paper:

An admission ticket (listing cost of entry) for the hot spring Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca.


He flipped it over to show me the back, which bore the cryptic inscription:


Cueva Cheve

“Do you remember those guys we met at Hierve el Agua?” Rich prodded. “They told us about a cave we had to check out?” Suddenly it all came back t me. Rich, Gina, and I had been hiking around at Hierve el Agua, a thermal spring and “petrified waterfall” in the mountains of Oaxaca. While sliding down a narrow rock trail, we’d almost run headlong into a group of men who had the look of small town dignitaries. They wore crisp jeans, cowboy boots, and pressed dress shirts. The mustachioed leader, in mirrored aviators and a new cowboy hat, struck up a conversation with me, beginning, predictably:


After the usual niceties were exchanged about our exact home in the US, he spiraled off into a long and unbelievable sounding monologue about a cave we definitely needed to visit. (This being Mexico, nobody acted like it was weird that we, complete strangers, were having this lengthy conversation while our respective groups clung precariously to a steep mountain trail.) Aviators told me that the cave, the deepest in the Americas, hadn’t been discovered until the 1980s, that early explorers had died in the cave, and that the cave was full of artifacts. Also that it was located high in the mountains in a beautiful pine forest. Naturally, I was intrigued. Then we left Hierve el Agua to visit some local mezcal distilleries and forgot all about it.

The recent appearance of my lovely assistant with the slip of paper compelled me to look into it further. As it turns out, everything Aviators told us is true, and the Cheve Cave system sounds amazing!

According to the United States Deep Caving Team site, “In 1987 Cueva Cheve was first discovered by modern explorers at high elevation in the Sierra Juárez of northeastern Oaxaca, México. It is presently 1,484 meters deep and is the deepest known cavern in the Western Hemisphere and the world’s 11th deepest. The present limit of exploration in Cheve – at 9.3 kilometers from the nearest entrance – represents one of the most remote locations ever attained inside any cave on Earth. The logistics of reaching this point are enormous: more than two kilometers of rope need to be rigged and three underground camps established.”

Explorers swim underwater in cave

From USDCT.org


I also came across an awesome cave exploration journal at National Geographic. The dispatches cover a 2004 mission to explore the caves in the area. Fascinating reading. To whit:

“Pavo and Andi went down and then I was next. It was an impressive drop, free fall all the way with light rays penetrating down into the gloom. When I touched down, Tomek informed me that the cave had ended and that he and Pavo had explored a deeper chamber below where the rope landed. There was some apprehension among the survey party after Pavo pointed out the presence of some very large spiders at a number of locations on the wall, along with blue and yellow millipedes measuring upward of ten centimeters (four inches) in length. We proceeded across the floor of the pit and down into a fissure leading to a chamber some 70 feet (20 meters) lower.”

Further research reveals that James Tabor has written a book, Blind Descent, about Cheve Cave explorer Bill Stone. The book details one of the occurrences Aviators mentioned to us: the 1991 death of cave explorer Chris Yeager. You can read an excerpt at NPR.com. I also found some interesting information about the archeology of the cave system. OK, so as you may have noticed, this one slip of paper Rich found in his files led me into a Cheve Cave wormhole, or, perhaps, in caving terms, a sump. But the cave is definitely now on my bucket list and I would love to hear from anyone who has traveled in the area.

Note: Here are directions to the cave, which I found at Oaxaca-travel.com: “Concepción Pápalo: Is located 86 miles (138 kilometres) North of the City of Oaxaca via highway 190 to the Isthmus. Take the highway 131 detour at Telixtlahuaca. When you reach Cuicatlán, follow the Concepción Pápalo detour located at 14 miles (23 kilometres). Approximate travel time: [3:00]
To reach the Chevé Grotto from Concepcion Papalo, one must take a dirt road to Tlalixtac. One must take the detour to Santa Maria Papalo and in 9 to 12 miles (15 to 20 kilometres) we find a gap where we turn left (there is no road sign). We follow the gap down for approximately 2 miles (3 kilometres), and from there, we walk another mile (1.5 kilometres). We arrive at a basin of sorts surrounded by pine and oak trees and rocky walls. On one of those walls we can appreciate a valley with grazing cattle where speleologists usually make camp. We recommend hiring a guide (with a truck) in Concepcion Papalo.”