In 2011, bat researcher Leonel Ayala told me about a cave at the eastern end of Lake Chapala near Jamay.
Since all the caves I’d ever seen near the lake were barely big enough to take shelter in, I didn’t expect to see much, but Leonel had brought along special equipment for observing bats in the dark and that, at least, seemed interesting.
To my surprise, a climb up a steeply inclined natural fissure led us to a big room in total darkness, eight meters high, with tunnels heading off left and right. By the time we left what was probably a combination cave and mine, we had found 118 meters of passages which took us hours to survey.
Although I am probably the first person to publish a detailed map of La Cueva de Toscano, I had no idea who the cave was named for until a few days ago, when I was contacted by Ignacio Moreno Nava, a researcher whose doctoral thesis is about Martín Toscano. Moreno explained to me that Toscano was the leader of a gang of bandits who were active between 1785 and 1795, principally along the southern shore of Lake Chapala. Although many legends focus on Toscano’s treasure and where it’s hidden, Moreno’s ten years of research suggested that Toscano was something more than just another bandido. Previously, other researchers have written on the subject, such as Ernesto Méndez Ruiz and Alvaro Ochoa Serrano.
Toscano was born in Atoyac, Jalisco on November 13, 1754, Moreno told me. “When he was around 30 he began to dabble in banditry. In time he became the captain of a gavilla, a group of men that carried out attacks and robberies, usually against Spaniards. Most typically, they would rob the Spaniards’ haciendas and, it is said, would then share their spoils with the poor, like Robin Hood. This is mentioned in some versions of the legend and lives on in oral versions to this very day, but so far has not been documented. On the other hand, from our research, it doesn’t look like Toscano’s gavilla was your typical ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells, but was well organized along military lines with officers and enlisted men. The documents we’ve uncovered suggest they were, in fact, a team training for a war they knew was coming: Mexico’s War of Independence.”
So it is that Toscano could be called the precursor of independence hero Miguel Hidalgo. He roamed all around southern Jalisco and part of Michoacán, but his main theater of operations was along the south side of Lake Chapala.
“Here we find numerous Cuevas de Toscano and we have identified over 120 Toscano incidents and hideouts,” Moreno said. “Some were caves, but most were just campsites. To get data about all this, we went to archives in Spain and Mexico City as well as here in Guadalajara and we are preparing academic publications on our findings.”
The most common legend about Toscano’s treasure is one that I, as a cave explorer, have heard dozens of times. If you want to find this immeasurable wealth, it is said, you must go off to the most remote place in the mountains all by yourself and at three in the morning shout out the name of Martín Toscano three times. If you do this, his ghost will appear right in front of you and tell you exactly where the cave is. Be careful, however, not to look the ghost right in the eye because if you do, you will go crazy. Now, having found the entrance, you walk into the cave and you find bags and bags of gold coins. How lucky I am, you say to yourself, but then a voice booms through the cave: “Todo o nada!” it says. You must carry out all the gold or you get nothing. If you leave behind any of it at all, you will fall under a curse which will cause the youngest member of your family to die.
Other legends abound on how Toscano and his men hid their treasure.
"Some of the documents we consulted say they would first follow a set of rituals,” Moreno told me. “They would, for example, bury their loot, murder one or two men and throw their bodies on top of the spot while reciting an incantation. In this ceremony they would use a bottle of sherry or a deck of Spanish playing cards as well as various rituals of what seems like black magic. Because the members of the gavilla included black slaves, Indians, meztizos and
deserters, it was a multicultural group, which favored this sort of interchange of beliefs.”
On top of all this, the legends also say that Toscano and his captains worked out a set of symbols – a sort of code – which they would scratch on the cave wall indicating some place nearby where they had hidden their loot. There is, to this day, a kind of Toscano fan club which spends a lot of time trying to figure out the inscriptions in order to find the treasure ... but would you believe they might come here all the way from Greece?
“It’s true,” Moreno said. “Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas brought a Greek to Jiquilpan, Michoacan, a certain Theodoro Pappatheodorou, to teach local people to use silkworms and some of Pappatheodorou’s countrymen heard the legend of Toscano’s treasure and came to Mexico from Greece in 1934 to look for it, which delighted local rancheros no end.”
So, dear reader, if you have spare time on your hands, dust off your metal detector and join in the hunt ... and may the ghost of Toscano guide you to untold riches — just remember not to look him in the eye!