|CAVES OF THE CUETZALAN REGION, Puebla, Mexico.|
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|HISTORY OF CAVE EXPLORATION IN THE CUETZALAN
Tim Allen & Paz Vale
The Cuetzalan area was first explored by the American, Nevin Davis in 1972-73. Travelling the area with his wife and occasionally a friend, most of the caves he reported were explored for only a short distance and left still going. Much of his exploration took place further to the west than the area we now call Cuetzalan but he did visit Atepolihuit de San Miguel, Coahuatichan and the Octimaxal caves. His efforts were well reported in an early AMCS publication.
In 1976 the British caver, Pete Lord, moved to Mexico City to work. He wanted to find a caving area close enough to the city to make weekend trips possible preferably with caves which required minimal equipment. The North Americans showed him the Nevin Davis report and he made the first of many trips to the area that year. On his first weekend trip he was shown 25 entrances, including Chichicaseapan, Atischalla and Resistol, three of the main entrances which now make up the Cuetzalan system. In fact the some of the caves that were shown to him that day are still being explored, 20 years later.
Between 1977 and 1980 there was much activity in the area as cavers from Texas, California, Canada, Mexico and Britain joined in. The Chichi, Resistol and Atischalla streamways were linked together to form the Cuetzalan system which approached 20km in length. Atepolihuit de San Miguel was pushed to a "nick point" taking a large quantity of water 6km into the cave. Some exploration took place in Zoquiapan and San Andres as well as a number of lesser caves. During this time all the entrances were linked together by a surface survey and the explorers began to understand the size of the drainage system beneath them. However a much sort after resurgence for the system was never found. Most disappointingly the exploration over these years was never fully reported nor a survey published.
In 1980 and '81 a Belgium group visited Cuetzalan and made some significant discoveries. They broke through a 500m long choke in downstream Chichi and explored a further kilometre to a "low passage, hands and knees in water". They also pushed the wet passage in San Miguel to a sump. Unfortunately they were unable to follow up these leads due to an accident and they remain unpushed today.
Despite being reported as "one of the finest and most going cave systems in the world" interest in the area fizzled out after the Belgian's departed. The reasons for this are speculative but three factors seem to have contributed. Firstly, the exploration had been undertaken by several loosely co-ordinated groups and surveys were often duplicated or impossible to tie in. Although some resurveying was attempted it must have been very difficult to know who had done what and where. Secondly, there seems to have been some break up in the relationships of the key players which no doubt led to further mix ups with the survey data. And thirdly, other great caving areas were being opened up in other parts of Mexico which were undoubtedly more appealling than sorting out the mess in Cuetzalan.
During the rest of the eighties no further new exploration was attempted, although a number of Mexican groups made tourist trips into various known caves. Late in the decade a few cavers from the Northern Cave Club of Great Britain visited the area with Mexican caver Ramon Espinasa and members of the SMES. Over two visits Huayateno cave was resurveyed and the potential of the area confirmed. Many attempts on both sides of the Atlantic were made to obtain detailed information on the caves but little of use could be found. In the end it was decided to start again from scratch and the first expedition of NCC and SMES cavers was planned for Christmas 1991.
Ten British cavers and half a dozen Mexicans turned up for various periods of time over
the Christmas and New Year month. Low cloud and drizzle persisted without respite for the
first two weeks and this hampered initial efforts to locate entrances and correct routes
into the caves. Rumour had it that Cruz Verde had been connected to the Cuetzalen System
and offered a short cut to the farthest reaches. A lot of time and effort was wasted
proving this rumour false. Most of the main routes in Cruz Verde were surveyed, however,
and the downstream leads pushed to a conclusion. In total 12.5km of the Cuetzalen System
was surveyed including some virgin passage. However, the known connections between
Chichicaseapan, Resistol and the Atischallas remained elusive. Exploration in Chichi was
halted half way through the Belgium Boulder Choke in what seemed a hopeless route. In the
huge fossil passage above, the Bockstiegel connection, which reportedly connected with
downstream Resistol, was somehow missed. Resistol, itself, proved a hard entrance to find
and it was the tail enders of the team which eventually pushed it down to the pitch at
Bob's Folly. Over a kilometre of new fossil passage was discovered above this pitch. In
Atischalla Norte the end choke was penetrated for quite some distance before the way on
became too obscure, and Atischalla Sud was abandoned at a very tight bedding. In the
Cuetzalan catchment area several other caves were rediscovered including Cueva Sin Nombre
and Octimaxal 1and 2. Further east new discoveries were made including Sima Talcomitl,
Sima Grande and Sima Zoquita. Only the latter was fully explored ending in sumps both up
and down stream. Sima Talcomitl and Grande were both left going with a number of main
leads. A large previously unknown resurgence was discovered below the village of Tonalix
bubbling up from the dry river bed. In the wet weather an incredible volume of water rose
here but alas there was no enterable cave, however, it proved the depth potential to be
around 900m. With around 19km surveyed on the trip and a good insight made into the area a
return was inevitable.
No major expedition was mounted during 1992 although Mexican cavers led by Ramon
Espanasa made a few weekend trips to the area in April & May and made a significant
find in Chichi. Toward the end of the year a small British team visited the area and
along with the Mexicans did some exploration in San Miguel.
During March and April '93. Thirteen Brits from the NCC and Army Caving Association
spent mostly a month in the area. We were joined by four members of the SMES for as much
time as they could manage. The Atischallas, Resistol and Chichicaseapsan were finally
reconnected and all the original passages resurveyed (we think). The Belgium Choke was
busted and the way on left wide open beyond a second choke at the head of a very wet
pitch. The survey reached over 21km with a depth of 464m, less than the Americans quoted
figures but with more cave surveyed! The San Andres System was stumbled upon via a 55m
shaft known locally as Sima Ixtahuata, but by us as Alum Pot. Several entrances were found
upstream and linked together. Downstream another huge choke was found which took several
attempts to pass. Beyond the passage kept going and going until we ran out of time. Our
first brush with flash flooding occurred on one of these trips when two members were
trapped by flood water between an impassable pitch and a sumped off low section. Water
rose over 10m and the trapped party was extremely lucky to find an escape route up into a
roof passage. In all over 8km was surveyed in this system. Sima Chapultepec was discovered
just outside Cuetzalen town. The entrance, located in the side of a choked shakehole, led
to a series of four tight pitches before gradually opening up. After 2.5km this entered a
much larger rubbish strewn passage which we immediately recognised as Zoquiapan. Although
no one had been down this cave it was one of the few well documented by the previous
explorers. High above the San Miguel sink Cueva Tasalopan was rediscovered in the upper
limestone. Also in the upper limestone Cueva de la Providentia was found. This horizontal
cave is often visited by Mexican tourists. A number of other smaller caves were found
including Cueva Grotbag and Bat in the Face cave none of which were very pleasant. The
resurgence below the village of Tonalix was revisited. In the drier weather no sign of the
resurging water seen last year could be found and the river bed remained dry for several
kilometres downstream. On the last day of the trip Cueva de Alpazat was shown to us.
Located down in the Toxan valley it appeared to be the flood overflow for much of the
area. Beautifully decorated it was explored for only a kilometre although the size of the
draught indicated much more to come. After the Brits had left the Mexicans surveyed nearly
2km leaving the way on wide open at a major stream junction. Over 24km was surveyed on the
In December '93 the Army Caving Association cavers who had been on the previous trip launched there own expedition to the area. They resurveyed Atepolihuit de San Miguel as far as the "nick point" and discovered some new inlet passages nearer the entrance. Sima Zoquiapan and Cueva Pilostoc were also resurveyed and both were connected up with Sima Chapultepec to form a system over 6km long. Again the flash flooding struck and a team was forced to spend an night underground as flood water prevented them from ascending the 75m entrance pitch to Sima Zoquiapan. Cueva Cuichat and Sima Bagshawe were discovered on the small hill above Cuetzalan. Although both end prematurely, the size of the passages show that they must have once been part of one of the main systems of the area. Archaeological remains in the main passage of Cuichat suggest that the cave has been used by the locals for quite some time. Cuevas Chapultepec and Scorpio were also new discoveries located near Zoquiapan in the upper limestones. The most significant discoveries of the trip were made in Chichi. Near the main entrance the Jawbone series was re-entered and extended through a duck, altogether giving access to nearly 3km of passage. And via the Chichi entrance the left-hand choke at the bottom of Resistol was revisited, this time a route through was found and a small tunnel entered which was left at the top of a pitch after 1.5km. When the survey was drawn the pitch was found to be almost directly over the main passage in San Miguel. Unfortunately the team had run out of time. Around 20km was surveyed on the trip.
A few months later over Easter '94 another NCC expedition visited the area. This was
the largest yet with 17 Brits and 6 Mexicans. The Cuetzalan system was connected to San
Miguel via the open pitch left from the Christmas expedition. This increased the length to
over 34km and the depth to 658m. Elsewhere in the cave only minor extensions were made.
Several attempts to push downstream of the Belgium choke all ended in failure mainly due
to flooding paranoia. The San Andres system was pushed downstream for several kilometres
to within a short distance of the fast expanding Alpazat. Unfortunately this ended in a
choke just downstream from the entry of a major inlet. As this was being investigated the
five man team was hit by a flash flood cutting off their escape. At the height of the
flood the team were left with only 5m of airspace in a passage 30m high and wide. Cueva
Alpazat was rapidly extended mainly by the Mexican contingent. Two major leads were left
heading up into the hill. A semi-active passage pointed south-east towards San Andres,
whilst the main streamway snaked its way south-west towards San Miguel. Above Sima
Talcomitl a new shaft was located which descended to a streamway. This was followed for
several kilometres both upstream (which became too narrow) and downstream to a connection
with the Sima. In Cueva Tasalopan a few small extensions were made. At the same level
further up the valley Cueva Coyoxochit was explored. Other minor caves were explored
including Cueva Tarantula, Cueva Dragfold and Sima Tres Simas. A total of 11km was
surveyed on the expedition.
In January 95 a smaller expedition was launched. The main aim of this trip was to
connect Alpazat to San Miguel and San Andres. To overcome the fear of flooding a telephone
line was installed in Alpazat. This worked successfully as an early warning system as the
expedition was again hampered by flooding. The route towards San Andres ended in a very
large, complicated boulder choke with a large stream present. The streamway route towards
San Miguel ended in a large sump pool. However, well over a kilometre of dry complex
fossil passage was explored in this area and the expedition ran out of time before these
could be fully explored. Two new stream caves were connected to Sima Talcomitl adding two
and a half kilometres to the length but no significant progress could be made downstream.
Over to the east a new resurgence was located near to the village of Tepetzala. A
total of 7km was surveyed.
In January 1996 another small expedition visited the area. The main aim was the
continued exploration of Alpazat, however, as Mexican cavers were not represented on the
expedition, the team had to abandon this objective. The team instead concentrated
there efforts on the area to the east between the Talcomitl and Sima Grande systems.
Main exploration concentrated on a newly discovered entrance, Sima Castor, which led after
a series of crawls and short pitches to a large fossil passage. The southern section
of this passage led to an active streamway, El Presidente Streamway, which appeared to be
very close to surface. A second streamway, Cholera Streamway, was pushed to a
connection with Sima Grande. The northern section of the fossil passage was
investigated but most leads led to nothing with the exception of a pitch, located at the
end of the expedition, which appeared to drop to a large streamway. The resurgence
located the previous year near the village of Tepetzala was also investigated but found to
choke just beyond the limit of daylight. However, another entrance, Naciemento
Tepetzala, was located just above river level approximately 1km downstream from the
resurgence. A dry entrance passage led to an intersection with a streamway.
Downstream was explored to a second entrance located in the river bed. The upstream
lead was pushed to a large chamber, Pink Comb Chamber with a possible continuation visible
high in the roof. Elsewhere, some small extensions were made to the upstream section
of San Andres and in Quichat. Around 4.5km was surveyed.
In January 1998, a large team visited the area. Their initial explorations concentrated on Sima Castor, primarily the lead down the pitch located in 1996. Unfortunately, the passage at the base of the pitch terminated in a sump almost immediately. The team spent considerable effort in both Sima Castor and Sima Grande and although some minor extensions were made no significant leads were discovered. To the east of Sima Grande, a minor active cave, Sima De Los Renegades was discovered and a number of blind surface shafts investigated. In Naciemento Tepetzala a significant extension was made just downstream from Pink Comb Chamber, with the discovery of a large fossil passage leading to a second major streamway. However, as is usually the case in Cuetzalan, the weather, which had been unstable throughout the expedition, deteriorated to the extent that paranoia levels rocketed, and it wasn't until the last day of the expedition that a return visit was made and the passage was left still going. Elsewhere, an attempt on Alpazat was abandoned due to the unstable weather, and a large area to the north-west of the town of San Miguel was investigated, unsuccessfully, in the hope of finding entrances which may connect to the lower reaches of the San Miguel system. To the south of Cuetzalan the Xocoloyo system was resurveyed and an investigation made of the surrounding area. A total of 3.5km was surveyed.
In February 1999, a small team mounted an investigation of the area to the north of Alpazat cave. The lower Tozan river and the Malocoyatan rivers were investigated in an attempt to locate entrances that may connect to the furthest reaches of Alpazat. A number of small entrances were located between the villages of Tonalix and Xaltipan, these were mainly small, immature resurgences although a resurgence cave was located to the south of Tonalix. A detailed investigation was made of the Zempoala river valley upstream from the Tozan inflow and two major resurgence areas located. The first of these was located near Reyes de Vallartra, 11km to the north and 850m below Cuetzalan with an outflow of 1.5 to 2 cumecs measured in low water conditions. The second area, 6km upriver, was of a similar size and a small, cave was discovered but not pushed. Comparisons with Mike Boons line survey of the area, published in the late 70's, and conversations with Boon suggest that this second site is the location of a resurgence cave located by the Americans in the 1970's. The cliff above the this resurgence area has been subject to recent collapse, particularly at the point of largest outflow and it seems likely that this original entrance is now blocked. During this expedition a reconnaissance was made of an adjacent (and hydrologicaly separate) area, 11km to the west of Cuetzalan., and cave entrances were discovered near the town of Atlequizayan, above and to the west of the Zempoala canyon.
February 2000, saw a large CSCA expedition visit the area. The principle
objective was to push Alpazat beyond its known limits in the hope of connecting the cave
to San Andres and San Miguel. Exploration was hampered in the first week of the
expedition as, following the first trips into the cave, the cave flooded and closed the
entrance for the best part of a week. Exploration of Alpazat impossible, and
investigation of adjacent cave entrances fruitless, team members then concentrated their
attention on other leads, mainly in Chichicasapan and in the Resistol/Atischalla area.
A new entrance to Atischalla was discovered and as a result, the Atischalla West
entrance was rediscovered from below. In Chichicasapan, attempts were made to push
the Belgian Boulder Choke but, unfortunately, a route through the lower reaches of the
choke could not be found. Once water levels dropped and the Alpazat entrance opened,
the majority of the team concentrated their efforts pushing the cave. A route was
discovered heading toward San Andres, and this was surveyed to a point that places this
section almost directly above the end of San Andres. This passage was explored for
around 150m beyond the survey point and a connection seemed imminent. However, the
Cuetzalan weather struck again, and wet weather sumped the entrance passage before the
team could re-enter the cave. In frustration at having such a promising lead
suddenly placed out of reach, the upper Malacoyatan and Tixapan valleys were again
investigated in the hope of finding another entrance. Cave entrances located in 1999
were 'rediscovered' and one, the resurgence located to the south of Tonalix - 'Cueva
Ostonocapan', was (strangely given the weather) found to be open and surveyed for 120m.
November 2000, saw a brief visit by a small team during which a major extension was made to Naciemento Tepetzala. The main downstream lead was pushed to a large streamway which was followed in walking size passage for over 2 hours to large chamber where no obvious continuation could be found. Regrettably, this team did not survey their discoveries and it is impossible to speculate how this find relates to the other caves in the area, in particular known leads in Sima Grande and the resurgence area . Given the burden placed on the first NCC and CSCA expeditions in having to resurvey earlier discoveries, and the constraints placed on the ability of future expeditions to concentrate on pushing into virgin territory, it is hoped that this practice does not become the norm.