Caving (more properly referred to as spelunking) sits at the fringes of the tourism industry. Bad-boy eco-tourists, hard-core adventurers, and fearless curiosity-seekers can be found exploring the cramped, lightless corners of the underground world. Little-explored subterranean landscapes are one of the final frontiers for these adventure-seekers and Indiana Jones emulators.
Luckily, visitors without any desire to go spelunking can still appreciate some of the world's most amazing cave-scapes. Some of the most famous caves in the world have become tourist hot spots, complete with paths with handrails and lights that illuminate their most interesting formations and fossils. Of course, there are caves around the world that offer various levels of accessibility, meaning that people can choose their destination based on their tolerance for adventure and their willingness to crawl through tight spaces.
Here are nine of the world's most attractive and unusual cave destinations.
Puerto-Princesa Underground River
Most people unfamiliar with caves and spelunking imagine that underground landscapes are dominated by rock, not water. However, one of the most interesting cave destinations, the Puerto-Princesa Underground River in the Palawan, Philippines, is, as its name suggests, a subterranean waterway. Tour boats bring sightseers into this craggy, stalactite-filled world. The amazing rock and mineral formations of the Underground River, which is actually a section of the much longer Cabayugan River, have earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site label and the title of one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The cave is surrounded by the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a wildlife-filled area that is an interesting eco-attraction in its own right.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave
Mountainous New Zealand has more than its share of underground attractions. One that truly stands out, because of its unique inhabitants, is the Waitomo Glow-worm Cave. In this subterranean space, tiny organisms, native to New Zealand, create light patterns with their luminescent bodies. Cave guides lead guests through Waitomo's cathedral-like chambers, where the worms hang from the walls. A boat trip through the “grotto” chamber provides an up-close look at this unique and natural light show. This is not a cave for spelunking enthusiasts or people who want to crawl their way into little-visited chambers, but it is certainly high on the list for anyone interested in unique underground sights.
Barton Creek Cave
Photo: Deanna Keahey/Flickr
Another underground waterway that makes it on to many tourists' itineraries is the Barton Creek Cave in the Central American nation of Belize. This cave was considered the “underworld” by the ancient Mayans who inhabited the area and was used as a burial place. Human remains can still be found inside the cave. It is this unique history and Barton's amazing rock formations that make it one of the more interesting of all of Central America’s underground attractions. Barton is located in the Cayo District, a region of Belize known for its eco-tourism. Tour companies offer guided canoe cruises through the cave. Truly adventurous travelers can swim in the cave's waters. The unusual nature of these underground waterways makes Barton an attractive caving option, but it is the cave's spectacular domed chambers that earn it a place alongside the world's best cave destinations.
Harrison’s Cave is a major attraction on the Caribbean Island of Barbados. Some people may find this place is a bit more “touristy” that the other underground destinations in this article, but it certainly does have an impressive set of attributes. Harrison's chambers, reachable by a tramway, were hewn out of the limestone rock by water erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. This natural process has created many large tunnels and chambers filled with smooth, colorful rocks. Stalactites and stalagmites in whimsical shapes add to the ambiance, as does the water that runs through the cave, creating glasslike underground pools. The easy accessibility of this cave makes it a great stop for caving novices or anyone who doesn't want to strap on a hard hat and headlamp before descending underground.
Phong Nha Cave
Photo: Vo Thanh Lam/Flickr
Phong Nha Cave sits in the northern part of central Vietnam. It is the second largest cave in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Phong Nha is surrounded by Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. The park has nearly 300 caves, though only a fraction of these have been surveyed in any detail. Despite the existence of such a vast underground network, tourists are allowed only in the first mile or so of Phong Nha's tunnels. The limestone rocks are interspersed with other types of rock, making this an interesting place for anyone with a knowledge of geology. However, specialized knowledge is not required to enjoy the domed grottos and rock formations that make the accessible section of the cave such as stunning place to explore.
Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, is one of the most impressive and accessible underground destinations in the U.S. It is the longest cave in the world, stretching for almost 350 miles. Features like translucent blind cave fish and endless miles of tunnels and chambers make this one of the best overall choices for novice cavers, casual tourists, and curiosity seekers. Tours for novice explorers provide young visitors with a safe, relatively nonstrenuous introduction to cave exploration and spelunking. For others, regular ranger-guided tours provide access to various sections of the cave.
Photo: Donovan Rivera Photography/Flickr
Carlsbad Caverns is another popular U.S. cave system. It is located in the Guadeloupe Mountains in southern New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of years of erosion has created stunning, almost cartoon-like rock formations throughout the caverns. The aptly dubbed Big Room is one of the world’s biggest underground chambers. It is nearly 4,000 feet from end to end, and the ceiling reaches over 250 feet at its highest point. The Carlsbad complex has other named "rooms," each with distinctive rock formations. In addition to guide-led tours, Carlsbad offers visitors a chance to take a self-guided hike through sections of the cave.
Gunung Mulu National Park
Deep in Borneo's jungle sits Gunung Mulu National Park. Best reached by air from other cities in Borneo, this park in the Malaysian state of Sarawak has four “show caves” that people can visit as part of a regular guided tour. More adventurous caving expeditions for experienced spelunkers include a trek to the relatively recently discovered Sarawak Chamber, thought to be the only such chamber that dwarfs Carlsbad's Big Room. In keeping with Malaysia's strict eco-tourism and conservation guidelines, guides and permits are required for anyone who plans on exploring the cave in depth. The trek to the Sarawak Chamber itself, which is part of Gua Nasib Bagus (Good Luck Cave), is among the most strenuous and demanding of all Gunung Mulu's underground tours.
Cango Caves, in the Western Cape region of South Africa, is one of the more accessible and impressive underground attractions on the continent. This subterranean destination features towering stalagmites that sit in large chambers. The pathways of this cave complex are illuminated for a safer, easier trip through the caverns. Cango also has “adventure tours” for people who want to see more of the cave and are willing to do some climbing and crawling. Cango has become a popular itinerary addition for tourists visiting the Western Cape, so booking in advance is all but required for anyone who wants to get inside.
Caving can be the center of an eco-tourism adventure for people with climbing or spelunking experience, but some of the world's most interesting cave destinations are actually some of the most accessible. Yes, hard-core spelunkers might call some of these underground destinations a bit touristy. At the same time, it is hard to deny that they are stunning and a unique addition to any tourist's itinerary.
Also on MNN:
- See photos of 9 jaw-dropping caves
- Want to explore? See our database of destinations for the green-minded traveler
MNN tease photo of cave: kalyot/Flickr