Virtually unknown, this site is ranked of equal importance with the famous cave art of Lascaux in France
The smiley faces at Las Caritas are completely different from the rock paintings I finally locate in a cave at La Toma, just outside San Cristobal, on my way back to Santo Domingo.
Although the cave, called El Pomier, is a government-protected archeological reserve, no signs point the way to the site. After riding around for a half-hour in a futile search for the caves, I stop for directions.
A teenagers tells me it would be easier to guide me there on his motorbike, and he's right. I would never have found the caves, hidden on the side of a mountain several kilometers in the middle of nowhere, without his assistance.
The caretaker of the cave is surprised to have a visitor, which after my journey is understandable. He takes my admission fee and then rides off on a motorbike to find the guide. He never returns but the guide, carrying two flashlights, soon appears.
It's fortunate I've brought my own light since one of his doesn't work--after the first few feet inside the cave I can't see anything without a light.
But I can hear the rustle of the bats on the ceiling and in the natural rock chimneys that tunnel to the surface. I suspect the hard-packed, sometimes slick brown floor of the cave consists of countless bat droppings deposited since the beginning of time.
There are thousands of paintings in the caves of El Pomier, though like the rest of the public I am allowed only in the main one; even so, it contains some 590 drawings. Virtually unknown, the site is ranked of equal importance with the famous cave art of Lascaux in France.
Still, El Pomier is a gloomy, cheerless place. The darkness is so palpable and the confines so claustrophobic that I'm amazed they ever managed enough light ever to paint the neatly made figures. I see no smudge from fires or torches or anything else.
The several petroglyphs just inside the cave entrance appear the opposite of the smiley faces at Las Caritas. Instead, these El Pomier carvings remind me of grotesque, suffering expressions of those usually pictured in hell.
The figures, representing men and animals and especially a long-necked, goose-like bird, all are painted in black. I also notice many geometric designs, the symmetrical motifs that to the Taino represent the cosmic tissues that unite the universe.
Since the geometric designs were visible only to Taino caciques (rulers) and shamans during hallucinogenic sessions that brought them in touch with the supernatural world, the cave must have been a very sacred place.
Only by contacting the supernatural world with sacred substances like cohoba (a psychoactive powder made from the seeds of native trees) could shaman heal the sick and rulers communicate with zemies, the spirits and ancestors.
For the Taino, illness bad crops and hurricanes were created by destructive evil spirits.
I think of Dulce Maria and the brujos of Barahona. Despite today's lip service to the god of the conquering Spanish, in 500 years it seems some things in the Dominican southwest haven't really changed all that much.