Incredible world: Marble Caves of Patagonia

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Labelled as the most stunning cave network in the world, Marble Caves (Cuevas de Marmol) is a 6,000-year-old sculpture hewn by the crashing waves washing up against calcium carbonate of Lake General Carrera of Patagonia in Southern Chile, a remote glacial lake that spans the Chile-Argentina border. Also called the Marble Cathedral, the intricate caverns are part of a peninsula made of solid marble surrounded by the glacial Lake General Carrera that spans the Chile-Argentina border. Over thousands of years, this mineral-rich glacier water also changed the color and shape of the Marble Cave formations to beautiful hues of blues, greens, blacks, and yellows. Instead of mining these unique marble rocks, the surrounding area protects them while permitting visitors to come and tour the Marble Caves.

The swirling outline on the cave interiors reflects the lake’s azure waters, which change in intensity and hue, depending on water levels and time of year. Located far from any road, the caves are accessible only by boat. Thirty-minute tours are operated by a local company, weather and water conditions permitting. Visitors are enamoured by the Marble Cave’s unique ability to constantly change its appearance. In early spring, the shallow waters are turquoise and create a crystalline shimmer against the caves’ swirling walls. The best time of the year to visit the Marble Caves is in the summer, roughly between September and February when the ice melts increasing the water levels and create a deep blue hue which gives the cave a particularly enchanting turquoise. In terms of hours, the best time to take a boat tour is early morning as the weather in the Patagonia region is much calmer. Plus, in the morning visitor can get some really awesome photos with the sun rising above General Carrera Lake illuminating these caves. 

General Carrera Lake (Chilean side) or Lake Buenos Aires (Argentine side) stands out as the biggest in Chile and also by its crystal-clear waters that surround a large part of the Chilean Patagonia. Out of the lake’s total surface area of 1850 km2, 970 km2 is found in the Aysen del General Carlos Ibanez del Campo region of Chile, whilst the remaining 880 km2 lies in the Argentinian province of Santa Cruz. It is the largest lake in Chile, and the fourth largest of Argentina. The lake’s shoreline is dotted with settlements like Puerto Guadal, Puerto Ingeniero Ibanez and Chile Chico on the Chilean part, and Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno on the Argentinian side.

The lake is located next to the Andes Mountains, but the immediately surrounding landscape is made up of dry and low bushes and small groups of poplars and willows. The area surrounding the lake has a generally cold and humid climate, but luckily the General Carrera Lake area has its own microclimate, which is much more pleasant, despite being a little windy. The region witnesses an abundance of rainfall, between 600 and 4000 mm each year. The water within the General Carrera Lake comes from melting glaciers in the Patagonian Andes. The melted ice leaves minute particles in the water. These particles refract the blue part of sunlight which creates the distinct blue colour of the lake.

The water levels are significantly affected by the freezing and melting of the surrounding glaciers. It is also from these glaciers where the lake takes the fine silt sediments that rest on the lakebed. It has had a major impact on the formation of the caves.  With the high-water levels, the marble dissolved faster at the water surface. Small amounts of seeping water came through the cracks in the marble enlarging the fractures. The cracks then became big enough to  allow the waves in and wash away the dissolved material. The water also smoothed and shaped the marble. Over the years, the process created the cave and the incredible formations inside it. The process of water erosion caused by the waves continuously splashing against the walls of the marble. Thus, in a few thousand years’ time (very short time for geological processes) the interaction of the marble and blue water of lake formed a place of bewildering beauty – countless caves, mazes, columns and tunnels in the marble.

The caves feature three main caverns: the Chapel (La Capilla), the Cathedral (El Catedral), and the Cave (La Cueva). The Marble Cathedral (Catedral de Mármol) located Northeast of Chile at the peninsula is the largest of the three. Closer to the northern coast, the Marble Chapel (Capilla de Mármol) got its name because of the church-like pillars formed in the monoliths.  If the water levels are low enough,  one can actually take a walk under the island, through a series of tunnels.

To get to the caves, one must embark on a long and difficult journey starting from a flight to the Chilean capital of Santiago. Visitors must then travel 800 miles on major highways to the next big city Coyhaique, followed by a 200-mile drive on rough dirt roads towards the lake. Finally, a boat or kayak excursion is needed to access the caves. There are ferries from Chile Chico that will take visitors to and through the Marble cave and its tunnels. Visitors can combine a visit to the Marble Caves with seeing the nearby San Rafael Glacier, a beautiful wall of ice hidden right in the middle of the rainforest. They can also travel from Puerto Tranquilo to the Exploradores Glacier to hike to a viewpoint, or ice hike on the glacier itself. The expansive, bright blue Lake General Carrera is an ideal setting for spacious lakeside lodges, often with their own boats and beaches, or bright terraces kept toasty with wood burners. Some of the waterfront hideaways can be found here, from the natural decor of El Mirador de Guadal, to the quirky individual rooms at Terra Luna Lodge. No matter where the guests end up, they can be sure of beautiful views and a very warm Patagonian welcome.

South America has no shortage of eye-popping natural attractions, but the Marble Caves are something else. Getting to the caves may be an adventure in itself, but the views and experience of seeing the caves is definitely worth it. These caves are a unique natural wonder that cannot be found anywhere else in Patagonia.

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