Step aside Juan Ponce de León, the long-sought secret to longevity may not be a mysterious Florida spring, but a Chinese cave.
“First come the cancer patients, whose bodies have been ravaged by the disease,” reported a recent New York Times article. “Then the young men battling AIDS, the women cursing the heavens for robbing them of their hair, and children as young as 13 with coal miners’ coughs.”
The cave is called Baimo, or Hundred Devils Cave, and it is located in Bama County, in southern China, a region long known for longevity, and more recently known as a longevity tourism destination.
But Bama is not just about a cave, it is a way of life. One man who recently visited, 66-year-old Wu Weiying, described other aspects of the local longevity lifestyle: eating mushrooms said to possess divine powers, and drinking the life-prolonging waters of a special river. In town you can purchase exotic medicines and bottles of longevity water. Street vendors sell medicinal sprays that supposedly contain secretions from snakes and scorpions and can cure ailments like smelly feet, menstrual cramps and arthritis.
“This is my last hope,” 57 year old Li Ming, a retired postal worker with advanced liver cancer told the reporter. “If this doesn’t cure me, I’ll be forced to accept my death sentence.”
Presently, about two million people a year visit Bama. And the Chinese government, eyeing the popularity of the place, aims to make Bama even grander. “Developers are rapidly buying up land from villagers to build five-star hotels, resorts and luxury housing with names like ‘Secret Land,’” reported the New York Times article. Li Hongkang, a doctor that practices traditional medicine in Bama says his list of patients has grown to include actors, Communist Party officials, and billionaires.
The region’s clean air and lush rugged mountains are part of the draw, as is the cave, said to contain a high concentration of negatively charged ions, which help to purify the air. And these environmental factors may indeed be having a positive effect on the local populace. The area, with a population of just 270,000 people, has more than 80 centenarians, a demographic that is being studied by researchers.
What do folks, many of whom have traveled for hundreds if not thousands of miles do once they are lucky enough to enter Hundred Devils Cave? Basically, what humans these days do anywhere on earth. “They read spiritual texts, watch soap operas on their cellphones and ask each other whether they believe in the cave’s supposed healing powers,” said the Times article.
And of course, like any new hotspot destination, some locals are concerned that Bama’s fame may lead to its downfall. “If too many people come,” noted Sun Luyao, “the good oxygen will be sucked out.”
It’s not all eternal roses in Bama County. The experience of visiting can be devastating for some people. “Many are drawn by promises of miracles, only to confront setbacks,” stated the article. “Others fall victim to scams and doctors with fake credentials.”
But in the world of healing springs and caves and other longevity-linked locations, scams are nothing new. Take for example the famous Fountain of Youth, supposedly located deep in the lush semi-tropical forests of Florida, and apparently what 16th Century explorer Juan Ponce de León was looking for when he set sail from Cuba just about 500 years ago. Yet upon closer examination, the legend turns out to be pretty much entirely rubbish.
“The fountain likely provided little to no motivation for [the] voyage,” stated a 2013 History.com article. “In fact, no surviving documents from the time, including letters from Ponce de León himself, ever mention such a fountain.”
Although Native Americans of the Caribbean did believe in magic pools of water with healing properties, such as the Healing Hole, off the island of North Bimini, there is no proof that Ponce de León, who was responsible for helping to exterminate the region’s native tribes, was looking for it. “What Ponce is really looking for is islands that will become part of what he hopes will be a profitable new governorship,” historian J. Michael Francis explained in the History.com article. “From everything I can gather, he was not at all interested or believed that he would find some kind of miraculous spring or lake or body of water.”
Still, in Florida the myth has become a tourism-generating reality. Ponce has a statue in the central plaza of St. Augustine, Florida’s oldest city, and a nearby tourist attraction that purports to actually be the fountain of youth—“tens of thousands of visitors come every year to sample the sulfur-smelling well water,” the History.com article noted. Then there’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which features a Timucuan Indian burial site, a blacksmith exhibit, a recreated 16th century Spanish mission and of course, a springs. Ponce de León also has schools across Florida named after him. “My take,” said historian Ryan K. Smith, “is that no publicity is bad publicity. He’s a household name, and maybe in the end that’s what he was looking for.”
And of course, a little bit—or a lot of bit—of longevity is what we are all looking for. And have been looking for, for some time. During the 19th century wealthy Americans flocked to famous mineral spring locations in upstate New York, such as Clifton Springs, Saratoga Springs and Ballaston Spa. At least 50 New York towns, from Long Island to Lake Ontario, featured resorts and sanitariums containing mineral waters purported to have vast healing properties, reported a 2008 New York Times article. “Life at the springs,” one 1850s guidebook claimed, “is a perpetual festival.”
And the desire for longevity is certainly much older than that. The fifth chapter of the Gospel of John describes a pool—known as the Pool of Bethesda—in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate that is surrounded by five covered colonnades. “In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water,” reads the passage from John. “For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.”
Longevity, I imagine, is a longing that will never die.