Lying in an area of rugged, mountainous countryside between the Sierra de Líbar and the River Guadiaro, 17 kilometres from Ronda, Benaoján is in fact two separate villages: as well as the main part there is also Benaoján station next to the railway and the river.
The total population is less than 1,700, and agriculture, particularly meat products, remains one of the mainstays of the local economy. The village is well known for its cured pork industry, and products are exported all over the country and overseas.
There have been settlements in the area since prehistoric times; the Phoenician, Roman, Visigoth, Arab and Christian civilisations have all left their mark.The origins of the existing Benaoján are however firmly Moorish - a typical jumble of white washed houses and narrow streets.
The Moors gave the village the name ‘Ben-Oján’, which depending on which translation you trust, means either ‘sons of Oján (a Berber tribe) or ‘house of the baker.’
A Moorish tower still stands in front of the station, but Benaoján castle was destroyed by the Catholics in 1487; the village had surrendered to the Christian troops in 1485.
The Moors remained in the village, but were expelled from their lands after they joined the rebellion in the 16th century. Those who converted to Christianity, known as Moriscos, were eventually expelled in the second half of the 16th century following a failed uprising. The village and surrounding area were then repopulated by old Christian families from Castille.
The most notable building in Benaoján village is the 17th century Nuestra Señora del Rosario church, which underwent restoration work in the 18th century and again at the end of the 20th century.
But the most important site in the municipality is the La Pileta cave in the Sierra de Líbar, about three kilometres from the village, which was discovered in 1911 by the English archaeologist Verner. The prehistoric cave paintings found in the cave, which are mainly of animals, are held to be among the finest examples in Andalucía, and were declared a National Monument of Cave Art in 1924.
Pieces of pottery and various utensils have also been found in the cave, as well as a pendant representing a venus.
The cave, which is made up of a series of galleries – some as high as 15 metres – can be visited daily in groups of less than 20 people from 10am-1pm and from 4-6pm.
In fact Benaoján makes a great base for serious potholing enthusiasts. Just two kilometres from the village in the Grazalema Natural Park, the Cueva del Gato (so-called because the mouth of the cave resembles a cat’s face) is where the subterranean river Gaduares emerges.
The network of caves extends about four and a half kilometres and is one of the most complex in Andalucía. There are huge galleries and lots of pools, some of them extremely deep and icy cold, as well as colonies of bats.
At another entrance to the cave, known as the Boca de Hundidero, there is still evidence of electricity company Sevillana’s abandoned attempt in the 1920s to damn the water emerging from the cave. The project was a complete failure because within a few days the damned water drained away through karst clefts, and attempts to locate the swallow holes and close them with concrete did not work.
The caves should not be visited without official permission from the Gestora de Turismo Rural Cueva del Gato behind the station at Benaoján since they can flood when there are heavy rains, and over the years several people have been killed there. It should also be noted this is a site for experienced potholers and cavers only.
Another popular adventure sport in the area is rock climbing, particularly at the Peñon de Benaoján