The Miraculous Bat Cave
By Adam Williams
While most of the allure of Bocas del Toro is found underwater, one of the archipelago’s most sacred sites is surprisingly located underground.
Several kilometers inland on Isla Colón lies La Gruta, a deep, mystic cave replete with tales of chance findings and perceived miracles. According to Ernesto Díaz, the lone cave maintenance employee and guide for over 20 years, La Gruta was discovered in the 1930s when an oil company drilling in the hills unexpectedly created a portal into the cavernous gash in the earth. Around 10 years later, locals reported finding two images of the Virgin Mary within the cave, forever marking the site as sacred religious ground.
Today La Gruta, also known as La Gruta de La Virgen, serves triple duty as a tourist attraction, archaeological/geological laboratory, and religious holy ground. People visit the site daily to bathe in the cool stream water pouring from the mouth of the cave, pray before the two statues of the Virgin Mary, or bravely walk the interior of the bat infested tunnel. According to Díaz, there are seven different species of bats in the cave. During daylight hours, massive communities of bats can be seen huddled and sleeping among the stalactite rafters. At night, they swarm within the grotto, and buzz through nearby trees in search of fruits or insects.
“Some of the bats are small, about the size of mice or chipmunks. Some are much bigger, I’d say about the size of cats,” said Díaz with a smile, showing off some of his missing teeth. “But they are harmless. No one has ever been bitten or had any problems with them. These bats like sweet things; and fruits are sweeter than people.”
Though there is always a steady flow of people visiting La Gruta, the Sunday after July 16 is the day that draws hundreds for the island’s annual Catholic pilgrimage, or romería. A candlelight vigil is held in honor of Día de la Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of Bocas del Toro, and throngs of believers walk from downtown Colón to attend a mass held near the statues at the entrance of the cave. Some visitors choose to walk through the cave to the exit on the opposite side of the hill. Díaz says the hike through the cave, which involves wading in a stream several feet deep, takes around 30 minutes.
“A lot of people consider it to be a spiritual metaphor to cross the cave,” Díaz said. “At some point in life, we are all scared and moving our way through the dark. If you believe in the patron saint, eventually she will guide you back into the light.”