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For millennia, caves have provided shelter and served as habitats for billions of creatures on Earth, including early humans. Many caves hold entire ecosystems within their vast, dark depths that scientists are only beginning to uncover and understand. Today, caves of ice, rock, crystals, and minerals, each filled with its own ethereal beauty and mystery, lure visitors from all over the world. Inside these often damp and cool enclaves, pictographs share glimpses of ancient civilizations, stalactites hang like spear-shaped chandeliers, and massive gemstones glisten like treasure buried miles inside the earth. Here are 16 of the most striking cavernous sites to visit around the world.
Son Doong Cave, Vietnam
Three miles long and wide enough to accommodate a commercial airplane, the Son Doong cave is located in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, near the Laos-Vietnam border. It is the largest cave discovered thus far on the planet. Among its many splendors: a wide, fast-flowing river; a 200-foot-tall flowstone wall named the Great Wall of Vietnam; 200-foot tall stalagmites (some of the most massive ever seen); and cave pearls the size of baseballs. Large sinkholes, created where the ceiling collapsed, allow light to filter in and vegetation to grow inside the darkness of this monumental cave, making the setting and sight even more spectacular in person. Permits are limited and required to access the cave, which can be visited from February to August.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
Fittingly, the name Batu comes from the Malay word for rock. The historic Batu Caves are found in a limestone hill and house hundreds of species of flora and fauna, including trapdoor spiders and dozens of species of bats. Temple Cave, one of several in the Batu complex, is home to one of the most spectacular and popular Hindu shrines outside of India. Elsewhere, stalactites spike down from the caves’ ceiling and stalagmites jut upwards from the cave floor, creating magnificent formations that include cave curtains, flowstones, cave pearls, and scallops dating back thousands of years. To preserve these fragile ecosystems, tourist access is limited to certain areas, but the Malaysian Nature Society offers informative guided tours.
Mendenhall Glacier Cave, Alaska
Carved solely by melting ice, this luminous cave deep within the sprawling Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, is as fragile as they come, given the threat of global warming. As the light hits the frozen ice all around, the walls of the cave glisten and sparkle in all shades of blue, like a tremendous gemstone. Several conservation-minded local guides offer ice cave and glacier exploration packages.
Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
One unassuming insect sets the Waitomo Caves apart: the tiny, mighty glowworm, dangling by its silken thread from the cave ceilings. The glow of these insects serves to attract prey for food, but to visitors, the luminescence creates a fairytale-like atmosphere. Local tour companies educate travelers on the importance of environmental conservation of this fragile ecosystem and its famed inhabitants, and offer unforgettable black-water rafting adventures through the caves for thrill seekers, too. A system of walking trails provides another way to explore this spectacular underground world, and an on-site Discovery Center shares educational information about the main attraction, the glowworms.
Tham Lod Cave, Thailand
Located in northern Thailand, the Tham Lod Cave is traversed by the Nam Lang River and is known for its beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors can float through this ancient cave on bamboo rafts, under the fluttering sound of thousands of bats, straight through to the other side, where the jungle awaits Consider a visit at dusk, when countless bats swarm out of the mouth of the cave.
The Marble Caves, Chile
Skirting the General Carrera Lake in Patagonia, in southern Chile, the mesmerizing rock formations of the Marble Caves are over 6,000 years old. Formed by lake currents and fed by the melting, icy turquoise waters of three different glaciers, the smooth, swirled shapes and patterns of these visually arresting rock formations are unlike any other on Earth. Although difficult to reach — requiring a flight, a long drive through remote terrain, and a boat ride — a visit here is definitely worth the effort.
The Reed Flute Cave, China
In the heart of the Guangxi region bordering Vietnam, the Reed Flute Cave gets its name from the stalky plants sprouting from the mouth of this rock formation, which are harvested to be made into flutes. The cave was once thought to have been used as a hideaway over 1,000 years ago; visitors today come from far and wide to admire the massive array of stalagmites and stalactites in this limestone cavern. Illuminated by an impressive setup of neon lights of all colors, it makes for a surreal visual experience.
Shell Grotto, England
Discovered in 1835, the Shell Grotto in Kent is a mysterious underground passage lined with murals composed not of paint, but millions of meticulously arranged individual seashells — over four and a half million of them! The purpose of these subterranean works of hidden art, and their age, have perplexed locals, historians, and scientists alike. Some believe the site was once a temple, while others theorize that the grotto may have been a secret meeting point for a religious sect. Whatever the original intent or inspiration, the grotto is like no other, and worth a tour for that reason alone.
Blue Grotto, Italy
To fully capture the exquisite blue light held within this cavernous watery enclave in Capri, it’s recommended to visit the Blue Grotto at midday. The grotto once served as the bathing pool of Emperor Tiberius, but swimming through this dazzlingly blue cave is no longer permitted. Instead, tours are available by row boat. To pass through here, a skipper navigates visitors as they lay flat in small boats that carry a maximum of four tourists at once. Afterward, don’t miss the nearby Casa Rossa museum, where the four ancient Roman statues once displayed within the grotto are now on permanent exhibit, along with other local art.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is made up of many cave systems, including the longest cave in the world discovered thus far (which gives the park its name). Seemingly an entire lifetime could be spent exploring this dark underworld, which encompasses 400 miles of winding passages. Recognized as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, Mammoth Cave holds thousands of years of history within its massive, stony walls, and is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna. To help visitors make the most of their experience, cave and surrounding park tours from the National Park Service are available.
Puerto-Princesa Underground River, Philippines
Tourists come from all over the world to kayak down a mile of this ancient waterway, one of the longest natural underground tunnels on the planet. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Puerto-Princesa Underground River in Palawan is said to be over 30 million years old — the cave walls rising over it house bone fossils that are still visible to brave visitors. All around, the 250-foot-high ceilings lend a cathedral-like feeling to the experience of floating through here, while the surrounding park is notable for its endemic wildlife sightings.
Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa
Just an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, you’ll find one of the greatest collections of hominid fossils ever uncovered. These impressive caves, once inhabited by early humans, shed fascinating light on our ancestry, history, and evolution. If you visit, be sure to stop by the local museum for a comprehensive exhibit on human origins.
Sudwala Caves, South Africa
Over 240 million years old, the dolomite Sudwala Caves are full of noteworthy mineral formations. Stay for an hour, or, for the more adventurous explorers, join an intrepid 3.5-mile, four-hour sensory tour that will lead you to wade through chilly waters, scramble on hands and knees through tight, spine-tingling crawl-spaces, and scale cave walls to the Crystal Chamber, where your efforts will be rewarded by the sight of shimmering crystal-encrusted walls. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, a nearby fish spa, offering natural pedicures by fish in a rock tank, is a pleasant way to soak in the local scenery and unique setting.
Cave of Swimmers, Egypt
The dramatic Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara desert, near Egypt’s border with Libya, is known for its colorful Neolithic pictographs (rock paintings). On these walls, Ancient Egyptians impressed images of people, limbs bent as if they were swimming, along with drawings of native wildlife, including hippos and giraffes. The art dates back approximately 10,000 years, to a time when the surrounding environment was not dry and arid, but rather lush with vegetation and home to swimming holes and an abundance of freshwater. Unfortunately, vandalism, litter, and graffiti have decimated this historic, fragile relic, and tourists are urged to follow guided tours and take added care in helping to preserve the area when visiting.
Lascaux Cave, France
Discovered 80 years ago by a curious teenager, Lascaux’s storied cave complex contains more than 600 enormous, vivid pictographs of animals drawn over 20,000 years ago. The superb art lured legions of visitors from far and wide; the onslaught unfortunately brought destruction and changes in humidity and cave temperatures, spurring a punishing growth of fungi and algae that began to damage the images. The site, hailed as the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory,” was therefore closed to the public in the 1960s, but over the years, replicas have been created to continue bringing the experience and wonder of these epic caves to the public, while avoiding further damage.
The most recent effort, a new and improved replica called Lascaux IV, opened in 2016 to much acclaim. It features impressive recreations of both the historic art and the sensory experience of visiting the caves, including sounds, smells, and lighting. While you’re here, visit the neighboring Grand Roc Cave for a tour of the stunning mineral formations inside.
Magura Cave, Bulgaria
Magura Cave is a treasure trove of well-preserved, 10,000-year-old old art made of bat guano. Running a mile and a half deep, and accented by stalactites and stalagmites, this cave and its pictographs bring early human existence viscerally to life, through dancing and hunting scenes, images of people and plants, and even an early calendar. Holiday concerts are sometimes held in the largest cavernous chambers; the towering vaulted rock ceilings produce hauntingly beautiful acoustics.