Ra Paulette's Hand-Carved Caves – La Madera, New Mexico - Atlas Obscura
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La Madera, New Mexico

Ra Paulette's Hand-Carved Caves

One man has carved a number of natural New Mexico caves into psychedelic sandstone temples. 

For over 25 years, New Mexico artist Ra Paulette has been creating natural crevasses in the New Mexico wilderness and painstakingly chiseling, digging, and carving intricate underground wonderlands before simply moving on and leaving them to their fate. 

In 14 different caves in the desert north of Santa Fe, Paulette has created an underground fantasy world using nothing but the power of his own hands. Sometimes using preexisting crevasses and sometimes simply tunneling into the soft sandstone cliffs, the artist creates singular subterranean spaces to which he ascribes a sort of spiritual power. No two of Paulette’s caves are alike, some featuring undersized doors or skylights that let the sun in, while others include benches carved right into the wall or deep niches for flickering candles. The walls of the caves are also decorated with carved designs ranging from flowers to abstract suns to purely emotive design flourishes; all look as though they formed naturally because they are etched into the cave walls themselves.

Paulette considers his creations more of a hobby or public service than a money-making venture and generally just leaves caves to be discovered by others when he is finished. He hopes that those that come after him can discover some peace or epiphany in his chambers. Paulette finds his joy in creating things, not necessarily the things’ finished states. Due to his fairly hands-off policy regarding the finished caves, they now vary in accessibility. Some are located on private land, while others are explorable by the public, and one is even being sold for over a million dollars. 

The caves all differ in size, composition, and design, but in each, Paulette’s spiritual devotion is on impressive display. His life and works were recently explored in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Cavedigger

Know Before You Go

There is a legal way to visit one of Ra Paulette's amazing sandstone sanctuaries. OriginNewMexico.com offers access to "Windows of the Earth", Ra's first commissioned work of art, completed in 1996. It is astounding and so gorgeous with 30-foot windows and smooth carved, graceful walls. Origin gives guided tours that include a nice catered meal and it requires a reservation to get into the private gated community and onto the ranch owned and operated by the owner of Origin, who also lives on site. According to the Origin New Mexico website, tickets are $87/adult and $40/child which includes the 2.5 hour tour and "gourmet snacks." All the other caves do sit on private land and the neighbors have all begun to prosecute trespassers and have installed doors on the caves. They were always "closed" to the public, but people were trespassing and vandalizing them.