Planet Earth is full of remarkable places worthy of any gap year. But have you considered venturing beneath its surface into the deep, dark world of caves?
These fascinating crevices and cavities are more than just holes in the ground – some of them are quite extraordinary. From giant crystals to luminous worms, you can find all sorts of weird and wonderful things in the seven caves I’ve outlined below...
Cave of Crystals in Mexico
This cave in Mexico, which is often referred to as "the Sistine Chapel of crystals," is home to some of the world’s largest known natural crystals, with some as long as 12 metres. These translucent beams of gypsum have been growing for tens of thousands of years, but scientists have only recently discovered what’s inside them – over sixty samples from tiny fluid pockets that are currently unknown to science – exciting stuff!
The Cave of Crystals is a horseshoe-shaped cavity in limestone rock approximately 30 feet wide, 90 feet long and a whopping 950 feet deep. It’s definitely worth checking out, but be aware that you can only visit it under direct professional supervision.
Mulu Caves in Borneo
Deep in Sarawak’s Gunung Mulu National Park, you’ll find spectacular caves of mind-boggling proportions, which happen to be the largest in the world. Although there are many of these caves, only some are accessible by visitors, which are known as the show caves. Of these, the most visited is the enormous Gua Payau, which translates as ‘Deer Cave’ and is home to millions of bats, who fly out at night to look for food.
Some cave tours and treks, especially the longer, more difficult ones are booked out well in advance, so be sure to reserve your spot right away if you’re planning to go here. As part of The Leap’s 10-week volunteering placement in Borneo, you’ll get to spend three days in the national park, where you can meander through the caves by river boat or high up on a canopy skywalk.
Eisriesenwelt Cave in Austria
Eisriesenwelt is a wondrous underground world, which contains natural ice sculptures and formations and is over 30 miles long, making it the biggest ice cave in the world. However, tourists are only able to access the first mile of the cave, which is also the only part that’s covered in ice – the rest is formed of limestone.
Due to its remote location in the mountains, Eisriesenwelt was not discovered until the end of the 19th century, but is now one of the Austria’s greatest natural tourist attractions. It’s open all year long, meaning that in winter, cold winds blow in and freeze the snow inside and in summer, the wind blows towards the entrance and prevents the formations from melting.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand
As the name suggests, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are home to thousands of glowworms that are unique to New Zealand, and which shine like tiny stars in the darkness. Visitors can take a boat ride through the caves to see the glowworms, as well as the incredible limestone structures, stalactites and stalagmites.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try the blackwater rafting, which entails crawling, swimming and floating through the caves on a rubber tube, or alternatively you can go zip wiring into the darkness. Expert guides will provide informative commentary on the historical and geological significance of this inspiring natural wonder.
Cave of Guacharo in Venezuela
The Cave of Guacharo in northeastern Venezuela, a limestone cavern over 10 metres long, was designated as Venezuela’s first national monument back in 1949. It’s home to thousands of oilbirds, which only venture out at dusk, when they leave the cave en masse and take to the skies.
As well as the birds, you’ll come across fish, frogs, crabs, bats and several other animals, which inhabit these parts, and some remarkable rock formations. Take part in The Leap’s 10-week volunteering placement in Venezuela, and you’ll get to spend two weeks in Guacharo Cave National Park, where you’ll help the park rangers protect the birds and take part in deforestation and tree-planting projects.
The Blue Grotto in Italy
On the island of Capri sits the Blue Grotto, a natural sea cave composed of several enclosures, the largest of which is known as Duomo Azzurro or 'Blue Cathedral'. The water here is a mesmerising crystal blue, caused by sunlight filtering through an opening near the water’s surface, which illuminates the entire cavern.
I’d recommend going between the hours of midday and 2pm on a bright, sunny day, when the light is at its strongest, but bear in mind that if the sea is a little rough, you won’t be able to enter, as the entrance is just one metre high. For this reason, visitors have to go in to the cave on small rowing boats with no more than three other passengers.
Ice Cavern in Iceland
The Ice Cavern, which is located on a frozen lagoon, is one of the most famous glacier caves in the world. The ice that comes down the slopes via Svínafellsjökull Glacier has metamorphosed into highly pressurised glacier ice containing virtually no air bubbles, meaning it absorbs almost all visible light and turns blue.
To reach the cave, visitors must pass through a 22-foot entrance on the shoreline of Skaftafell and, since ice caves are known to collapse easily, you probably want to plan your trip here over winter, when the ice will be fully hardened – best to be safe rather than sorry!
Have you been to any caves that we’ve missed off the list? Let us know – just pop their names in the comments box below.
on 11 / 08 / 2015