Marble Caves of Patagonia, Chile

Dubbed as the most beautiful cave network in the world, Cuevas de Marmol is a 6,000 year-old sculpture hewn by the crashing waves of Lake General Carrera of Patagonia in Southern Chile. 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. The swirling pattern on the cave interiors are a reflection of the lake’s azure waters, which change depending on the water levels dictated by weather and season.

Visitors are enamored by the Marble Cave’s unique ability to constantly change its appearance. In early spring, the shallow waters are turquoise and creates a crystalline shimmer against the caves’ swirling walls. Come summer, the water levels increase and create a deep blue hue which gives the cave a unique unearthly shade. The water levels are significantly affected by the freezing and melting of the surrounding glaciers. It’s also from these glaciers where the lake takes the fine silt sediments that rest on the lake bed.

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 an 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 is needed to access the caves. But though the journey is long and challenging, many agree the enchanting beauty of the caves is definitely worth the effort.
The Marble Caves is geological formation of unusual beauty. These caves have formed in a pure marble and are bathed in the deep blue water of General Carrera Lake.The enormous General Carrera Lake is fed by rivers coming from several glaciers of Patagonian Andes.

The ice of glaciers contains small particles and, when the ice melts, many particles remain suspended in the water. This gives an unusual effect – the glacial meltwater is slightly turbid and it refracts the blue part of sunlight. Due to this the water of General Carrera Lake has a distinct blue color.Near the small town Puerto Tranquilo cliffs of pure marble are rising from the lake water. Marble is exposed in peninsula some 5 km south-east from Puerto Tranquilo and in a group of islands (consisting of pure marble!) several kilometres north-east from the peninsula.

It has been calculated that the whole block of marble weighs 5 billion tons. The stone is in light grey color, with frequent darker striation.

This layer of marble was exposed by the movements of glacier during the Pleistocene epoch.

The geological history of Lake General Carrera is complex – lake has changed its outlet and multiple times has changed its level. Lake reached its present level some 6,200 years ago.Marble is sligthly soluble in water. Thus, when the lake reached its present level, the process of solution started at this level. The marble dissolved faster at the water surface – small seeps through the cracks in the marble made these fractures wider and waves washed away the dissolved material.

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.

Larger, more imposing structures are Marble Cathedral and Marble Chapel. Marble Cathedral (Catedral de Mármol) is a small island at the peninsula but Marble Chapel (Capilla de Mármol) is a small marble island closer to the northern coast. One can stop his boat at one such island and take a walk… under the island, through the mazes and tunnels.
Marble Caves are little known internationally but those tourists, who come here, are very impressed. Tourists can rent boats in Puerto Tranquilo and take a guided tour to the marble peninsulas and islands. In some places boats go under the ground, through marble tunnels. Naturally, in bad weather boats can not drive near the caves.

Throughout the year the lights and colors in the caves change. In early spring the water is low and the caves have more natural-looking color. But in summer, when the level in the lake rises, the caves are partly inundated and get their eerie blue color. This area has much sun – bad weather stays in the other side of Andes.

Hydroelectric plants

Developers of hydroelectric plants noticed the might of Patagonian glacial rivers long ago. Here and there and finally… everywhere are planned new hydroelectric plants which may deprive this region of its natural beauty permanently.

The area around General Carrera Lake is endangered by one such project, which is planned by the company “Hydroaisen”. This project plans a development of new dams on Baker and Pascua rivers. The transfer of the energy to the cities would require a construction of new high-tension power lines and one such line is planned exactly next to Marble Caves.

Thus – appreciate the beauty of Marble Caves now… and assist the movement against these dams. There should be better ways to obtain the energy.

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