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Roughly half a mile from La Cueva picnic area, you’ll find the Hermit Cave of the Organ Mountains. More formally known as La Cueva Rock Shelter, this cave has a rich and intriguing history. That history extends back to 5,000 BC when the cave was inhabited by ancient peoples. It remained a home and shelter to travelers and wanderers until long after the arrival of early Europeans in the land that is now called the Organ Mountains in New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been found here to tell the unique stories of its inhabitants.

Credit- Flickr: Bureau of Land Management

Who Lived in La Cueva Rock Shelter?

The majority of the artifacts found in the 1970’s reveal the lives of the Apache tribesmen who used the cave during their travels in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the evidence also revealed occupation of the cave from as far back as 5,000 BC. There are also artifacts from the cave’s most famous resident, the Hermit of La Cueva.

Who Was the Hermit of La Cueva?

The Hermit of La Cueva was a man by the name of Giovanni Maria Agostini. He was known as “El Ermitano” or “the Hermit,” which is how the cave came to be known as the Hermit Cave. Legend tells that El Ermitano was responsible for the death of a cousin in his youth and that he could never recover from the guilt that this caused him. It’s said that he killed him in an argument and then spent the rest of his life trying to atone for the sin.

Organ Mountains
Credit – Conservation Lands Foundation: Lisa Mandelkern

The Hermit traveled far and wide, living in various caves and shelters in the wilderness, primarily in the mountains. He came to New Mexico in the early 1860’s, staying in a cave near Las Vegas, NM. In this area, he quickly developed a reputation as a holy man and healer. People came from miles around to seek the help of El Ermitano.

Was the Hermit Really Holy?

Although he served the poor, the sick, and the needy, Agostini’s ultimate goal was to attain the solitude that he desired more than anything else in life. This is what brought him to the mountain of El Cerro del Tecolote in the Organ Mountains. At the top of this mountain, he found a home in La Cueva. The mountain came to be known as Hermits Peak, and the cave became the Hermit Cave of the Organ Mountains.

This gave Agostini much needed privacy and peace in his elderly years. Still, he continued to receive visitors and help the needy. People were willing to climb up the steep face of the mountain just to see him and seek his blessing. Many called him a saint and asked him to heal themselves and their loved ones. These visitors helped to pay for his daily cornmeal by purchasing the crosses and trinkets that he carved by hand.

The best story about El Ermitano is one where he brought forth water from the dry ground. The villagers had come together to build a shelter for the Hermit because he was an old man, well respected and revered. They wished to do him this kindness in return for his holy works, and he allowed it, though it was to his strange specifications. It was a very small space with a low to the ground door with sharp spikes. During construction of this shelter, the villagers’ water ran out, so Agostini scratched the ground with his walking stick. The story is that this act called water to the surface and created a spring that still gurgles there today, the only water source in the area.

The Murder Mystery of El Ermitano

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Agostini’s story is the part where he was found murdered, without any obvious clues as to the killer. This is one of the oldest high profile murder mysteries in New Mexico. Who would wish death on such a well-respected man, considered holy by all who had heard of him? Villagers found his body in a cave in the Organ Mountains in the late 1860’s. The cause of death was stabbing.

Visit the Hermit Cave of the Organ Mountains

Credit – Flickr: uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs

To visit the Hermit Cave, you’ll want to travel to the Dripping Springs Natural Area. There, you’ll find a visitor center, several picnic sites, restrooms, and running water. Then, traverse to the La Cueva picnic area. You’ll have to pay $3 for the day, and you can’t camp in the area. From the La Cueva picnic area, there’s a short hike to a challenging trail. This trail will take you up the steep incline to the cave of El Ermitano. Let us know what you find there!

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