As a child, growing up as I did during the golden age of comic books in the later 1950’s and 1960’s, I was deeply fascinated with many of the aspects of the DC and MARVEL worlds. (some ‘nerd’ showing here) But probably the most impressive thing for me was Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Could you imagine standing in a cave made of larger than life Crystals? Beautifully formed, clear sparkling Crystals. Of course, such a place could only exist in fantasy.. or so I thought..
Well, not true. Such a place does exist!!! It’s called Naica. And I had the unimaginable privilege of visiting it a few years back.
In the state of Chihuahua in north central Mexico, there is a lead, zinc and silver mine operated by Industrias Peñoles, Mexico’s largest lead producer. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but at a depth of about 300 meters, they found something magical. During the normal process of blasting rock, they came upon a large cavern that was full of water. In fact, much of the mine is under the water table, and they have had to pump out the water as they went. They have pumped out so much water over the course of the mine, that they have created a lake in the middle of the dessert that supports a small town and a small agricultural community. (pictured to the right).
However, when they began to pump out this particular cavern, they must have thought they had entered a new dimension, for there before them, lie a cave of wonders. The floors and ceilings were lined with crystals that were huge in their own right, but still dwarfed by the large crystals that criss crossed the cave in front of them. So massive, some measured more than an meter in diameter and over 10 meters long!
The picture below might give you a small hint at the scale. That little guy in the middle of the picture is me standing among some of the crystals. And, remember, I’m 6’3″ tall!!
I can’t really describe the sensation of entering the cave. It almost defies description. We had to pass a short Physical exam to ensure we were in good health before they even considered taking us down to the cave. Then, we had to drive down the access tunnels which were big enough for a 15 passenger mini-van to drive down. It probably took 15 minutes to get to the depth, although it seemed longer. When we arrived, and got out of the van, the heat and humidity of the mine hit us, but this was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
The cave itself was closed off and a large steel door cemented over the entrance. They had to do this because people were trying to get into the cave to steal some of the crystals at night. A dangerous thing, because the temperature in the cave ranged between 50 and 58 degrees Celsius (122 to 136 degrees Fahrenheit) with 99.5% humidity! People aren’t supposed to be in there for more than 15 minutes or it can be life threatening. Our bodies are at 37 degrees, and cooler than the air, so the water in the air actually condenses inside our lungs and you can drown. People tried some crazy things to counter this, even bringing down large garbage bags full of air to breathe while they were in the cave. Unfortunately some people did die in the attempt, so they put the locked doors there.
As we passed through the doors into the dark tunnel that led to the cave, the temperature probably jumped 10 degree. My glasses instantly fogged up and water started to condense on my skin, and we still hadn’t even entered the cave itself. Instead we came to the sealed plexiglass enclosure that they built for people to see inside the cave from. Normally, they don’t allow people to actually enter the cave without special permission and this was as far as they could go. We were fortunate to have obtained that permission and in we went.
As soon as they opened the plexiglass door the temperature and humidity again jumped and my glasses fogged up. For almost 25 minutes, we were able to walk and climb our way through the cave. It was so surreal. They have 4 or 5 large spot lights in the cave, just enough to illuminate the main hall. The light danced between the crystals. But along the edges where we walked, we could make out other smaller caves filled with crystals in the darkness, teasing us to go deeper. We wanted to, but our guide wouldn’t let us. We could go, he said, but the chances of making it back out wasn’t good. Our time was up and we headed out of the cave. It’s a memory that I won’t forget. Amazing.
I have learned since, that exposure to the air and the wear and tear of visitors was starting to have an effect on the crystals, so the mine owners have chosen to seal up the cave and allow it to flood again. So, for the time being, it is no longer accessible. If you want to get a better impression of it, look up “Naica, Crystal Cave” on youtube. Or you can see the raw footage we ‘professionals’ took of some of our visit here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ov_K676oRo ….It was crazy…