Caves of Pomier: An almost-lost world
Taíno petroglyphs in the Pomier caves
Photo: Ministerio de Cultura
In Las Cuevas de Pomier (the Caves of Pomier) in San Cristobal, you'll step into a natural cave system that dates back to pre-Columbian times, when the indigenous Taíno people depicted their way of life and cosmology in carbon drawings on the walls of sacred caves.
When visiting major destinations in the Dominican Republic, you'll see many exhibitions of its Taíno ancestry and way of life in Museums like Centro León in Santiago - but a tour of Las Cuevas de Pomier gives you the chance to see some of the most compelling Taíno artifacts in sight.
These caves were originally named "Pommier", meaning apple tree, by the first French explorers of La Hispaniola for the abundance of the reddish mamón fruit that grows nearby, which they compared to apples (French: pomme). It was German explorer Sir Robert Schomburgk, however, who was credited in 1851 with being the first white explorer to “discover” the Pomier cave system. Today, you can still see where Schomburgk and his crew left their names engraved in the rock.
Today, these caves still resonate with the spirit of the Taíno people and their way of life, a civilized culture of artisans living in harmony with nature.
Taíno petroglyphs, Pomier caves
Photo: Jon G. Fuller/VWPics / Alamy
The cave system
Las Cuevas de Pomier can be found about 4 miles north of the city of San Cristobal. San Cristobal has been widely referred to as "The Pre-historic Capital of the Antilles".
Elevating itself up to 1200 feet above sea level, and then descending 3,300 feet below, the Caves of Pomier were formed by a subterranean river thousands of years ago, during the Miocene Era when dinosaurs still roamed the island. A system of 55 interconnected caves spanning over 4000 square miles, five different caves are open for public access. Experts have compared Pomier to the Valley of Kings in Egypt, and if you make the journey underground, you’ll see why - standing on the cavern floor, huge hall-like cavities and grottoes can be seen crossing upwards and sideways throughout the extensive levels inside.
What you’ll see inside
Anthropologists estimate that these caves were inhabited up to 2000 years ago, with traces of Igneri and Carib peoples as well as the more recent Taíno. The archeological record tells us that indigenous inhabitants created a series of “micro basins” in its lower levels to store rain water, which they used for agriculture.
Inside, over 4,000 prehistoric paintings and 500 cave drawings have been found, with even more currently being uncovered by the Cuevas de Pomier Foundation. If you make the trip, you’ll see how indigenous artists created pictographs of human figures and the many gods and deities of their cosmology as well as native birds, fish, reptiles, including some of Hispaniola’s unique and precious wildlife, like the endangered solenodon and hutia, rhino iguanas, and red-tailed hawks. Your tour guide will explain how artists used a mixture of vegetal carbon, natural pigments, and even manatee fat!
The Cuevas de Pomier Foundation has a team of over 30 expert guides who will explain further details about Pomier's history, and accompany you through its four most magnificent cave sections and halls:
Taíno petroglyphs, Pomier caves
Photo: Jon G. Fuller/VWPics / Alamy
Grandes Edentados (Toothless) Section:
In this section, exhibits show how a 1976 excavation uncovered fossils of great prehistoric herbivores, including toothless jawbones that belonged to a species of giant sloths of the Parocnus and Mesocnus family.
This cave was dedicated to the Taíno god of rain. Pictographs show where the Taíno believed the god would fill and transform the caves with his tears.
In this section, hundreds of drawings show how the indigenous performed a spiritual ritual called the Cohoba. A rite of passage, a member of the tribe would have to spend days without food, and then enter the cave, where they would sniff a hallucinogenic powder that would make them one with their gods and ancestors.
Great Blocks section:
Here, huge slabs and blocks of limestone that have fallen from the cave ceiling due to erosion over time, are spread out across the floor. Definitely the section to be most cautious with.
And there is so much more left to uncover in Pomier - every year scientists discover new passages and underwater canals. But the site is not without tension - limestone and marble quarrying nearby has damaged many of the less famous caves and continues to pose a risk to the caves and the invaluable art inside them. Local guides have fought to protect the site, but its future remains uncertain.
By visiting the caves, you can help send a message that the caves are a drawcard for tourists, further incentivising the government to extend current protections that cover only the most prominent caves.
The Caves of Pomier are located about 4 miles north of the city of San Cristobal, which is itself about an hour’s drive southwest of Santo Domingo, toward the small city of Baní. To get there, you won’t need a 4WD, but if you’re driving a rental, be prepared for the stretch of dirt road at the end.
The Cuevas de Pomier Foundation runs tours from 8am to 6pm every day of the week. Tours can last anywhere from 30 minutes up to a full day, depending on your level of interest. Entrance to the site costs just 100 Dominican Pesos (about US $2). To enter any of the caves a guided tour is obligatory and will cost another 300-600 pesos (about US $10) per site, and unfortunately tours are only available in Spanish. You can ask for a brochure in English though, or bring along a translator to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Caves 1 and 2 are the most physically accessible. You’ll be provided with flashlights, but if you have a good one it’s a good idea to bring your own. Expect to meet lots of spiders, frogs and bats!
Written by Omar Guzman.
Published July 2020
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