Inside the ‘cuevas’ of Granada*

At 1h30 in the morning Elionai and Philipe start an argument which almost become a fight. All because a misunderstanding about who would open a nearby cave to the one they live in, now locked for more than two years. Philipe, a 20 year-old Canadian, asked in English if someone would break it in the next day. It was enough to Elionai to have a disproportionate reaction and to the discussion warm the stone-wall room.

We are in Granada. Town in the heart of Andalusia, southern Spain, known for its flamenco, the Sierra Nevada, its historic center and especially for housing the wonderful Alhambra, and also for presenting an unusual human diversity in a city of just over 200,000 people . In addition to the inhabitants and the 3 million tourists who visit the city every year, punks, hippies, artists, travelers, “perro-flautas” (that typical wanderer always accompanied by a dog and a flute) and gypsies spread through the City; many of them living in the Sacromonte neighborhood.

The white city with the Sierra Nevada in the background

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. From the thirteenth century, the so-called ‘Catholic Kings’ began the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian peninsula, culminating in the invasion of Granada in 1492. It was that year that officially the Spanish found America, and that the Sacromonte becomes stage of new christian rituals, and home to gypsies of Indian origin — former slaves of the Islamic aristocracy. Zenna, a Norwegian who has been for 3 weeks in Granada now, explains that in the 70s, after a heavy rains and floods season, the state had built homes for the gypsies of Sacromonte and Monte San José neighborhoods that had their caves ruined. These would remain empty until the 1990s, when a new flow of alternative migrants begun to recover and inhabit those caves. People like Elionai, Philipe and Zenna.

The precarious structure of “cueva Chakana”

The three live with three other people in one of the most precarious caves in the neighborhood. They call it Cueva Chakana: It is an ancient tradition to name the caves; all, from the most touristy hostel or flamenco house to the simpliest, have names. And Chakana is quite simple. It was named by Chaman, a peruvian who lhas been living there for a year and a half. Chaman like to do mystery about his real name, history and age; and to speak with authority. For being the oldest, about 50 years-old, and the one living longest in the cave, he is considered the leader. And while explaining to me the daily operation of the cave, Chaman was creating a statute with rules and conditions for living on Cueva Chakana.

The Statute

The rules for conviviality began to be needed after the arrival of the 3 ‘guiris’ (derogatory term used in Spain to designate Germans, English, Slavs… generally any blonde, white and light eyes person) to the cave. With the arrival of Philipe, Zenna and Pablo within two-weeks, the population doubled, and small conflicts began to appear. Disagreements are aggravated by the communication issues: except for one or another word, none of the three new residents speak spanish, and none of the old ones speak english. Elionai explains that communication is usually done by signals. But how to live with someone you cannot chat properly? “Sometimes a mismatch happens… like last night.”

Two of the older residents prepare coffee

A meeting was scheduled for the following morning to discuss the good relationship between not only the residents of Chakana, but also the surrounding caves inhabitants and cleaning the space, roughly a common square to a couple of caves. The amount of litter accumulated in it is not little.

At the meeting, after explained the new rules of “Multicultural Sheltering Center Chakana Ltd.” and start the clean-up, Francis, one of the older residents, mocks Chaman: “He’s crazy… this guy can’t be serious. Look at this! ‘One can’t bring new visitors, unless it’s a women’. Or this: ‘Shall be allowed only man-woman or woman-woman couples’. He can’t be serious. If we knew what it would involve, I bet none of us would sign this!”

Migrants and Travelers

None of the six residents of the Cueva Chakana knew each other before coming to Granada. Elionai is the only Spanish. The others are a great example of this attraction power and multiculturalism of Granada. Francis, for example, is Mexican. He entered Europe through London, where they gave him a 6 month tourist visa. He passed through the English countryside, Paris and finally Granada, 4 months ago. With expired visa, he avoids the police and is one of thousands of ‘sin-papeles’ in Spain. Despite playing with fact hiding from the camera and laughing when asked where he is from with the typical answer, “I am from the world,” he confess he’s so worried that it troubles him at sleep. ”I make my money playing music, people dance, have fun… but if the police come and ask me for documents, they will send me back home, that simple”, he tells.

Zenna and the ‘hidden’ Francis

The three guiris don’t have jobs. All are young travelers between 18 and 20 years-old of different nationalities who also met by chance in Granada and enjoy the free hosting the caves offer, and the meal the city offers in municipal eaters. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Zenna is from Oslo and already quite used to this way of life. After leaving the parents’ home one year ago, she lived in a squat, in downtown. Squats are buildings, often public, occupied by several people in a scheme Community. The term can be applied to any land or building occupied without permission, but today the word refers more to the movements of young punks and skinheads. He speaks with conviction out of her 19 years, “I don’t accumulate books anymore; after I went living in squats, I have nowhere to keep them. In a certain way, it is quite liberating not summing books or anything!” She is in Granada, living the cave, since two weeks ago, with no plans to where or when moving forward in her trip.

In all less structured homes in the neighborhood prevails, besides a large sharing sense, recycling. Far beyond the usual understanding of the word, recycling here is to collect from a “capitalist“ trash can anything useful. Even yogurt, bread or vegetables can be recycled to feed all. It takes a dose of detachment to enjoy the cuisine of the cave.

Bed and bath

The tapas served in Granada are probably the best in Spain. For 1,50 Euro you get a small draft beer cup always accompanied with a snack, that may be bread with ‘jamon’, a portion of shrimp, a mini-cheeseburger, potato salad. The menu is wide and the rule four tourists is not to drink (and eat) more than 2 beers at the same bar, just to taste as many places as possible. The origin of the ‘tapas’ is old, back to when the taverns used to cover (to cover means ‘tapar’, in spanish, hence the word ‘tapas’) with plates the costumers’ beer glasses to avoid attracting flies. If there’s a plate there, why not to add some snack?

However, the diet in the caves is limited to what is recycled and ingredients that do not require refrigeration. Some more structured caves, such as those where you can stay for an average price of 90 euros/day, have electricity, fireplaces and kitchens. But they are not exactly the rule; most of them have makeshift kitchens with just a fire mande on the floor, near the entrance, to provide some heat and irretrievably, an eternal smell of wood smoke to the cave. Without running water or electricity, the bathroom is the bush; and the bath, sporadic. Each one finds a way and takes the opportunities to maintain cleanliness. You can’t say that the residents of Chakana were fragrant.

Tourism was established by reforming and giving more comfort to ancient caves

To relief a little this lack of common facilities already available in homes of the 19th century, Sacromonte and Monte San José certainly have the most beautiful view of Granada, with the Alhambra in the foreground, the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background and the arab wall built in the 12th century separating one neighborhood from another. It is certainly a point of view that most tourists don’t get to enjoy.

Alhambra seen from Sacromonte at night

This lack of luxuries perhaps helps to explain the irritation Elionai felt for not being remembered for the opening of the nearby cave with white limestone walls, concrete floor and closed with a door; and Chaman’s joy to announce that he has found a real house to live in. “It will take a lot of work in; there’s a lot of trash and debris inside, but it’s a house”, he says, beaming. He would exchange the privileged view at the mythical hill for better facilities. His age doesn’t allows him to live stacked that way, says Chaman, who expected the arrival of his wife one week later.

The area is mythical because the amount of stories about it. Such as that the Moors who occupied the city in the 8th century have hidden their treasures in the hills before leaving the city. And that their black slaves had dug the first cave seeking those treasures. But the most mythical perhaps is the power this small area has to concentrate people, history, stories, ideas and different origins under its roofs without windows. Or how these people, who have little, and accumulates less, can be generous to a mere curious traveler.

*This is the translated version from the portuguese original text “Nas cuevas de Granada”

The city of Granada at the foot of Sacromonte and Monte San Jose

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