When you tell your friends you’re going spelunking this summer, you’re bound to get a few snickers. What is spelunking anyway? Lucky for you, the joke’s on them. Spelunking, otherwise known as caving, is one of the most unique adventures you can have abroad. Exploring labyrinthine passages, squeezing through small spaces, and rappelling into vertical caverns are all part of the thrilling experience that is exploring Earth’s underworld. Whether you’re fascinated by the natural forces that shaped huge caverns over millions of years or you just want to challenge yourself in a completely new environment, caving adventures let you explore all of the above on a much deeper level.
Pick any country and there are likely caves hidden among the trees, along coastlines, or within thick ice sheets. While caves are everywhere, chances are, you’re a novice spelunker and for safety reasons, it’s best to go where man has gone before. Some countries are considered superstars on the caving scene, because of their magnificent caverns, reflective pools, and varied speleothems, so these destinations are guaranteed to please.
Costa Rica is a mecca for outdoor adventures, so it’s no surprise that this Central American country is hiding stunning caves beneath its rainforest exterior. This small country of 4.5 million people is big on conservation and has received praise for protecting 25 percent of its land; this protection extends to its underground wonders, too. The Venado caves near Volcán Arenal boast stalagmites and stalactites in excess, marine fossils from ancient sea beds, and four different species of bats. Barra Honda National Park has over 40 caverns to explore, all accessed by vertical tunnels requiring climbing equipment. Sea caves are also ripe for exploration via kayak at Ballena National Marine Park.
On the other side of the world, New Zealand is the perfect location for cavers of all levels. This group of islands in the South Pacific has a distinct topography and rich biodiversity that makes underground explorations all the more exciting. The Waitomo caves on the North Island entice visitors with limestone karst formations and the famous Glowworm Grotto, where you can peer up at millions of glowworms, twinkling like stars in the night sky. The South Island also has several notable caves, including the deepest sinkhole in the Southern Hemisphere. At almost 600 feet deep, that’s one hole you don’t want to fall into!
For those more interested in history, Belize offers up geologic wonders alongside ancient artifacts. This Caribbean country highly values the environment, so both its forests and coastal reefs enjoy a large degree of protection. Belize is also brimming with archeological history dating back to the Mayan civilizations of 2500 BC. The country has the biggest cave in Central America, the Chiquibul Cave System, as well as the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, which houses stoneware relics and fossilized skeletons. Other caves in the country, such as the Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve, allow visitors to view Mayan paintings and search for eyeless cave fish.
Caving Adventures Abroad
As cool as caving tours sound, you probably don’t want to spend your entire vacation underground. Let’s face it, the dripping water, creepy crawlies, and freeze-dried meals would get old quickly. The beauty of exploring caves is that it’s easy to integrate your experience into a well-rounded, adventure-filled trip in whatever country you choose.
Many caving adventures are part of a predetermined itinerary, which you’ll experience with a group of fellow travelers. Programs especially for teenagers, gap year students, and college students, all incorporate caving as a way to explore the outdoors, get to know the country, and promote team-building. These caving adventures can last from ten days up to a whole semester and are usually highly-structured, with accommodations, transportation, and activities pre-arranged for you. In addition to caving during your time abroad, you’ll likely get to try out rafting, hiking, or climbing, among other outdoor adventures.
In other cases, caving tours can be arranged independently. If you’re studying in Spain or volunteering in China, for example, there are many opportunities to arrange a caving tour in your spare time. In situations such as these, be sure that you have researched the company or guide and trust that they are reputable. Caving can be serious business, and safety should be your number one priority.
Caving is an outdoor activity that you can do in any type of weather; nothing blocks wind, rain, or sun better than stone walls! Often times, caves are cooler than surface temperatures, which can be a relief in tropical climates, but may necessitate a jacket in cooler regions. In some cases, rivers flow through caves and rain can create dangerous flood conditions, so be sure to check in with your guide before departure.
Tips & Advice for Caving Tours
Exploring caves isn’t for everyone, but luckily there are different caves for various comfort levels. Some caving tours involve walking on paved pathways through large caverns with handrails and spotlights installed for ease of movement. Other caves can only be accessed by rappelling down into narrow tunnels, where flashlights and helmets are required. Whatever you choose to do, there are some key things to consider to ensure your trip goes smoothly.
Do your research. Learn the cave, how its tours work, and consider what is involved. Some people can feel claustrophobic when entering small spaces, and if you do too, an extreme spelunking tour probably isn’t the right choice. Ensure that your caving adventure is the right match for your physical and mental ability, and that the guide is dependable and safety-conscious.
Once you’ve assessed what kind of spelunking is best for you, determine what gear you’ll need. For a short stroll on easy terrain, you may only need a light jacket and tennis shoes. If you’ll be crawling around or using ropes and harnesses, you may need more substantial clothing that can withstand abrasion, as well as sturdy shoes. For caving adventures involving water, make sure everything you bring is waterproof, including your camera! Always check in with the tour operator to ensure you’re fully prepared for your spelunking experience.
Benefits & Challenges
Participating in a caving adventure overseas is an excellent opportunity to explore parts of the world that are rarely seen. Many caves have only been explored in recent centuries and contain remarkable geological and biological diversity. Others have been used by people for millennia and are a significant part of human history. Exploring caves is a way to learn more our planet and its people.
More adventurous caving tours are not for the faint of heart and involve a lot of preparation. You’ll need to be well-versed in ascending and descending ropes, tying various knots, and self-rescue techniques, as well as cave conservation methods. For those up to the challenge, completing an intense caving experience provides a huge confidence boost and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment.
That being said, remember that caving can be dangerous. You’re entering spaces that are difficult to access and accidents, such as rockfall, can happen. Most cave tours are perfectly safe, but always be aware of your surroundings and follow your guide’s instructions to minimize the chances of something going wrong.
Ready to explore the world from underground? Whether you’re snapping photos of rare cave salamanders, learning the difference between helictites and flowstones, or viewing the traces of ancient civilizations, caves are unique environments that are as varied as the countries in which they’re found. As you travel and explore the world, check out the caves around you. You’ll learn more the land on which you’re standing and gain an appreciation for what’s hidden deep below its surface, too.