Extraordinary Caves You Can Snorkel, Dive, and Hike in Around the World
The captain of the 14-passenger speed boat expertly navigated the choppy Caribbean Sea, avoiding sizable waves and instead riding the calmer currents.
As we approached a trio of dramatic, slate-colored rocks guarded by black-and-white masked boobies and frigates, we quickly strapped on our dive equipment and plunged in the sea.
Before beginning our descent, we swam along part of a 50-foot cave carved into the mammoth rock formations. The ebbing current made us rise and fall as we passed through the cave.
This trip to Honduras piqued my interest in crawling, swimming, and diving through caves all around the world — from those that shelter nesting animals to ones filled with thousand-year-old calcifications. Still others contain luminous pools, or glittering channels of ice. Some can be reached by foot, while others require boat rides, or diving equipment.
“Cave diving is [one] of the few forms of true exploration that remain for everyday people,” Karl Shreeves, a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) technical development executive told Travel + Leisure. “If you commit yourself to it, eventually you can even explore a virgin cave.”
Because cave diving involves specialized training, there also many other ways to explore both land as well as sea caves. Travelers can spot endangered and rare marine life, like glow worms in Auckland and butterfly bats in Cuba. And if you don't mind getting wet, you can do so in the coastal sea caves of Wales, or while trying paddleboard yoga in a tranquil Park City cave.
From the American southwest to the South Pacific, these extraordinary caves are unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Conservationists will appreciate a trip to the Punta Sal National Park (a one hour boat ride from Tela, Honduras), as it's home to the highest density of critically endangered elkhorn coral in the Caribbean. Also inside the Punta Sal are three 118-foot-deep volcanic rock formations called farallones that house underwater caves. Visitors can follow the ocean currents and swim through them, while divers may even spot hammerhead sharks.
Rumored to have been used as a shelter by Native Americans and early settlers, the Smallin Civil War Cave in Missouri has the largest cave opening in the state. A guide takes guests off-trail through 54-degree water, over rimstone dams and through areas of the cave that are beautiful but difficult to access. Spot the eerie mushroom formation made of calcium carbonate, and watch for rare bristly cave crayfish and blind salamanders. The Civil War Lantern Tour includes a dinner of beans and cornbread while guests sit around a campfire to hear history tales, followed by a tour of the cave.
For the truly adventurous, the Aventuras Mayas tour company leads guests on a snorkeling excursion through a 100,000-year-old cave has an underground river with crystal clear waters. Peer below the surface and see stalagmites rising up from the cave floor, while icicle-like stalactites cling to the cave ceiling overhead. Nearby, a massive network of underwater caves has recently been discovered — and the rooms are filled with ancient Mayan artifacts.
Inside the Longyear Glacier, travelers can embark on a frosty trek through corridors and channels carved by rushing water through the ice. Using a headlamp to illuminate the passages, you'll walk (and occasionally crawl) through the wintry realm.
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