Thousands of People Live in These Ancient Spanish Caves

Photograph by Tamara Merino
Caves cover the hills of Guadix, a southern Spanish region containing around 2,000 caves that have been used as homes for generations.

Caves have long provided shelter for people around the globe. In south Spain, the rocky formations first served as a sanctuary from wild storms and predatory animals. Later, they offered protection from religious and racial persecution. Now, the structures are home to unique and quietly proud communities who have eschewed modern life for the peaceful solitude of the mountains.

Piedad Mezco and Antonio Ortiz have lived all their lives in the caves of Guadix. They were both born inside a cave and raised in the hills. In the past, Antonio worked on a farm and Piedad made wood chairs.

Unique decor is common in the caves near Granada. Here, a resident has hung four pistols around an image of his niece at her first communion.

Tocuato Lopez was born in the caves of Guadix and has lived there all his life. When he married for the second time, he bought a new cave with his wife and their two children. His room is located deep in the formation and does not have any windows or natural light.

Children play in abandoned caves next to their own cave home. In the past, every cave was occupied, but there are now multiple empty residences in their village.

A priest leads a service in Nuestra Señora de Gracia, an underground Catholic Church in Guadix. An image of the "Patronness of the Caves" sits inside the sanctuary, which has existed since the 16th century.

Lights shine inside the cave where flamenco dancers perform every evening. A similar dance was a wedding tradition for the gitano community but was banned in the 16th century. Dancers continued performing in secret and the residents of the Sacromonte shaped the dance into the flamenco that's performed today.

Two women dance flamenco in the caves of Sacromonte. The traditional Spanish dance was born in the region more than 500 years ago and community members continue to perform every night in the caves.

Sergine Mourtalla Mbacke, a Senegalese immigrant, looks out over the city of Granada and the Alhambra palace, once the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Malik, a Senegalese immigrant, looks at an image he's hung on the wall of his cave in the hills of Sacromonte.

Mbacke, who lives in the caves for economic reasons, smokes tobacco inside his home.

Tap images for captions

For Chilean photographer Tamara Merino, who has been photographing cave-dwellers around the world, it’s the history and the raw relationship between the landscape and its inhabitants that interested her most. “I've always been fascinated by the way humans relate to the land and environment and how it impacts their lives,” says Merino.

In the second part of her ongoing project—the first of which took her to the Australian opal town of Coober Pedy—Merino spent a fortnight in Spain’s Andalucía region to document the stories of those living in its cave-studded countryside. “The most important thing was not to have any preconceptions,” she says. “I like to sit with people and hear their stories. I share my life with them as well.”

The sky darkens over the doorway of a cave home in Benalúa, a village in the mountains of southern Spain.

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Manuel Gonzales and Encarna Sanchez pose for a portrait in their living room. Their cave was Encarna’s family home, and she was born inside it. Manuel, who also grew up in the caves of Guadix, now lives with her and their dog in the cave where she was raised.

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Eric, a German immigrant, has lived in the caves of Sacromonte since 1998. To make a living, he performs classic rock in the streets of Granada.

In the province of Guadix, home to roughly 2,000 underground houses, she found residents continuing agricultural life as it existed 500 years ago. “They still live with the animals inside the caves,” says Merino.

Further along the valley, the Sacromonte, or Sacred Mount, caves are nestled above the sprawling city of Granada, where a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities coexist. The more isolated territory in the mountain’s upper region is mainly occupied by illegal squatters, many of whom are also undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, the lower portion is mostly home to legal residents drawn to cave life for environmental and cultural reasons, says Merino.

Judith, a 12-year-old girl who lives in Guadix, walks over the top of a cave dwelling. The region has been home to underground residents for hundreds of years.

Sacromonte is the birthplace of Spanish flamenco, a dance created by Spain’s gitano, or Romani, community. Many members of the community, like Henrique Amaya, continue to live in the caves as a way to honor their culture.

"I was born inside a cave with the animals and the beasts,” says Amaya, whose family has lived in the Sacromonte caves for six generations. His ancestors were the originators of the Zambra flamenco, first performed in those caves more than 500 years ago.

Amaya started dancing when he was just three years old. For him, performing flamenco and reciting gitano poetry on the site of so much personal history creates a powerful connection to his forefathers. “It feels pure and fresh,” he says. “It is like going to a waterfall at 4 a.m. and putting my head inside the water.”

Mbacke stands over the city of Granada from the space in front of his cave.

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Senegalese immigrants sit inside a cave in the upper portion of the hills. Though the Sacromonte caves are known as the home of a large gitano community, residents of the caves come from around the globe.

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Mbacke sits on his bed inside his home in Sacromonte, where he has lived for around two years.

Tocuato Lopez is also a lifelong cave resident; his family has been in the Guadix caves for four generations. The caves offer shelter from the unbearable summer heat but, more importantly, they provide a sense of deep-rooted community. Despite growing up in poverty—he and his sister used to walk for more than 2.5 miles to the neighboring town to beg for food—he has a strong affection for his home.

"I'm very proud of being from the cave and still living in the cave,” says the father of four. “I will die in the cave."

The front door of a cave protrudes slightly from a rocky wall in Sacromonte. Many of these caves exist in an unclear legal vacuum, allowing for easy and sometimes illegal occupation.

Tamara Merino is a photographer based in Chile. See more of her work on her website or by following her on Instagram. 

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