Saving the Spanish Caves

In Southern Spain, to the dismay of the three dozen people who live in the caves of San Miguel, police are conducting raids and filling in some of their homes with rocks and dirt. Officials claim the cave houses, some of which feature carpeting, solar power, windows and brick ovens, are dirty and unsafe, but the cave dwellers say the real goal is to profit off real estate or tourism, and they are organizing to save their neighborhood from destruction.

The caves of San Miguel are an integral part of the rich history of Sacromonte (Sacred Mountain), a hill overlooking the picturesque college town of Granada (population 250,000), about an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean Sea. The hundreds of caves carved out of the hilltop have been home to gypsies and others for more than a thousand years. Today, there are four main cave neighborhoods—but only San Miguel is in plain sight of the rest of the city.

“We don’t need electricity, we’ve got everything we need,” says Christina, a young woman in her 20s who moved to San Miguel from Northern Spain last year. She and her neighbors became activists the morning of January 19, when they were awakened by the rumbling engines of bulldozers just outside their doors. Under heavy police guard, construction workers filled in 12 caves that day. Most caves were unoccupied, but some had recently been renovated. Part of the Sacromonte culture involves working to improve not only your own, but surrounding uninhabited caves, so that the next arrival has a comfortable place to stay.

The land the caves are on is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Area, which limits development in the area, but the extent of those limits is unclear. The city says the goal is to “recover the original image of the zone”—a phrase that Christina says is code for creating a tourist attraction, bringing people to see floodlit and steel-reinforced caves where people “used to live.” UNESCO spokes-man Miguel Carrascosa avoided taking a position on whether the current residents should be allowed to stay. He does say he regrets that the city started filling caves without considering the housing needs of the would-be evictees.

The cave dwellers have challenged the eviction order and are attempting to form a neighborhood association. Hugo Alexander, who lived in a nearby cave for five years, says the move by the city runs counter to the heritage of the area. “The oldest houses in Granada are cave dwellings,” says Alexander, pointing out that even today, further down the hill, there are bars, restaurants and even a hotel and youth hostel built in caves—albeit with electricity and other basic services. “We’re just living different than the normal ways,” says Christina, “That’s why we’re having so many problems.”

To try and gain public support, the cave dwellers have created a website at, where they’ve posted videos of bulldozers “cleaning up” the area. “But time isn’t on our side, because we aren’t organized, and the other side is extremely organized,” says Alexander.