For millennia, mankind took shelter in caves, so perhaps it’s no accident that we continue to be drawn to these dark, silent spaces. Underground caverns offer a foreboding and mysterious beauty. From major attractions to truly offbeat adventures, here’s our round-up of bucket list caves.
Matyeshegy Caves, Budapest, Hungary
Millions of years ago, a sea flowed beneath the Hungarian capital, creating a vast network of underground caverns. In Buda, split from Pest by the mighty Danube, it is possible to explore these caves, protected by overalls and guided by a gas-lamp helmet. The Matyeshegy Caves were used as a bomb shelter for citizens in World War II, and while closed to the general public, a company named Barlangaszhat Budapest does take tourists deep into the system. With no wooden boardwalks and few large caverns, prepare to get dirty as you slip through the cracks, and crawl through insanely tight passages. Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.
Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, Belize
This jungle lodge offers thrilling caving tours beneath and around its 50,000-acre property, sitting atop a foundation of soft limestone perfect for spelunkers. Mayan artefacts have been found deep in the system, and evidence suggests they have been used for centuries. Guests can choose from a variety of caves to explore. The Big Hole lets you abseil 200ft into a sinkhole where you can camp overnight. I opted for the Waterfall Cave, which involves a one-hour hike through stunning caverns to a series of underground waterfalls. Here you can take rock jumping to a whole new subterranean level. Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.
Cango Caves, South Africa
Only about a quarter of Africa’s best-known show cave is open to tourists, but that’s more than enough. You can choose a Standard tour, or the more challenging Adventure tour, with an exit just under 30cm high. Some of the caverns are massive, eerily lit up with gel spotlights. Expect to encounter spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Walk through the Grand Hall, along The Avenue into Lumbago Alley, which stretches 85m. As in many show caves, names have been given to the most striking rooms and formations, such as Lots Chamber and King Arthur’s Throne. The Cango Caves are located 29km from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region. Don’t miss out on the crocodile cage diving nearby.
Any visit to the Yucatan Peninsula should take in the cenotes, the spectacular crystal clear cave pools found outside the colonial city of Merida. Sparklingly clean, the cenotes offer amazing swimming, snorkelling and rock jumping. Tour operators offer daily trips to several caves, located about an hour’s drive outside town. At one cenote, a wooden platform lets you dive into blue water with colour as bright as paint. I swam in three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from trees above descend through the limestone. One cave has a small opening for a thrilling 12m-rock jump into the dark water below.
Rimarua, Cook Islands
The Burial Cave of Rimarua, on the island of Atiu, is unusual for a number of reasons. Firstly, Atiu is one of the Cook Islands – a postcard perfect island paradise in the South Pacific more associated with honeymoons, hammocks and dreamy turquoise water. Second, Rimarua contains the bones and skulls of dozens of ancient Maori warriors, dumped into the ground, only to rediscovered many years later, and now curiously gazed upon by tourists. Although it has never been formerly excavated, landowners have given permission for Marshall Humphries, a local operator, to lead small groups into to explore the dark, spooky caves. Here you can literally tread on the skeletons of the past while minding your head on the sharp overhangs. Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines
It takes a few hours to drive the potholed road from the city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, to the Subterranean River National Park. A rich ecosystem packed with birds, flora and fauna, the park is one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is also home to the world’s longest navigable underground river, an 8.2km waterway that creeps into a limestone cave. Tourists don hard hats and flashlights, rowing the first kilometre to enjoy the bats and various cave formations. As the cave mouth slowly disappeared, the acrid smell of guano accompanied a sensation that a beast, complete with rows of stalagmite teeth, was swallowing me. I reached the cut-off point and gladly turned the boat around. Caves are fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
The Batu Caves contain a sacred Hindu temple in a large limestone cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. It is guarded by an enormous golden statue of Murugan, the second son of Shiva, which happens to be the largest freestanding Hindu statue in the world. Every year, during the festival of Thaipoosam, up to a million people come here to make personal vows of devotion. Climbing up the 272 steps, past curious monkeys, I entered the cave to the sound of Hindi music and the smell of incense. Once inside, I stood beneath a massive ceiling of rock with a round opening towards the back. The sun was directly overhead, beaming its light through the hole like a spotlight in a theatre.
Abismo Anhumas, Brazil
Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which offers a spectacular cave excursion from the region’s adventure capital, Bonito. Tourists must first prove they can physically partake in the activity since they’ll be required to manually climb up a 72m high cave shaft on the way out. Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. Spectacular stalactites drip from above, and some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall. Using a belay device, it’s tough work climbing out, but totally worth it.
Medieval troglodytes carved churches alongside their homes into the soft tufi rock of central Turkey’s Cappadocia, and ducking into a few rooms, I could smell they carved out toilets too. It’s fascinating to explore the Kaymakli underground city, originally used by the Hittites 2000 years ago, and later by persecuted Christians in the Dark Ages. I was sceptical about the word “city”, but then I found out that 5000 people lived underground in these vast, man-made caverns. There were eight levels, with at least one room for every family, linked by low, narrow tunnels and carved out steps. As a museum, only a small portion is open to the public, but it’s fascinating stepping into the dark, and into the past.
Waitomo, New Zealand
I’m deep in a cave, floating on a rubber tube, my headlamp turned off. A milky way of glowworms covers the rocks above my head. It is quiet save for the soft patter of water. Legs linked in a chain of human doughnuts, we float down the underground river. Located about an hour from Rotorua, the Waitomo region has over 300 caves, and Blackwater rafting is its most popular guided commercial offering. Lighting up the dark tunnels, floating beneath thousands of twinkling, green glowworms is one of the most romantic sights I’ve ever seen. It’s life in space, deep in the earth. Then it was time to leave my tube for the next explorer, climb up the narrow waterfalls, squeeze through the rocky gaps, and experience a rebirth into the light of the day.