Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Deadliest place on Earth? Surviving Cueva de los Cristales - The Giant Crystal Cave

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First published: National Geographic June 2010

Summary: Filming in the Giant Crystal Cave, one of the deadliest places on the planet. For BBC series 'How Earth Made Us' & National Geographic Series 'How The Earth Changed History'.

A Deadly Cave

It's 50oC and has a humidity of 100%, less than a couple of hundred people have been inside and it's so deadly that even with respirators and suits of ice you can only survive for 20 minutes before your body starts to fail. It’s the nearest thing to visiting another planet – it’s going deep inside our own.

Probably the most incredible photograph of the cave ever taken. Photograph by Carsten Peter/Speleoresearch & Films. Published in National Geographic.

Highway to Hell

My director, Nigel Walk and I, arrived in the quiet town of Naica as the morning sun painted the Chihuuahua desert a golden hue - it was a serene moment of calm that wasn't to last long. Within minutes we were inside the mine complex tumbling and bumping our way downwards, deep into a subterranean world. The air became dusty, thick and heavy, my skin tingled as sweat exuded from every pore – deeper and deeper we went. If you were a miner in these unforgivable tunnels you might refer to this road as the highway to hell, but for the few outsiders who have made the journey it's a rite of passage to see one of the world’s most magnificent natural treasures.

1000 feet down, we arrived at the control room where conditions were already an exhausting 45oC and 55% humidity. Here we were greeted by Gonzalo Infante of Speleoresearch & Films, a larger than life character whose contagious passion for this inhospitable place had allowed us to come this far. For more than five years he has tirelessly worked to share the wonders of Naica with the world and to preserve them for future generations. It is his experience, and a 15 man team, that would keep us alive as we filmed this geological wonder.

The control room. An exhausted team member gets assessed in the medical area.

‘You think this is hot’ said Gonzalo gesturing towards a vaulted iron door ‘This is just a cool breeze compared to what you’ll feel like in there’… ‘ready to go?’ 

At this point I had expected to be stepping into an oversized bright orange ice-suit and putting on a huge respirator backpack. Everyone else seemed to be dressed like Ghostbusters, but Gonzalo insisted that our first visit should be a completely raw experience allowing us to physically and mentally prepare, just in case we should end up spending much longer inside than we had anticipated …anxiously we heaved open the door and entered.

Entering the Chasm

Nigel and I intrepidly stepped forwards – to say that the heat hit us like a wall would be an understatement. My glasses steamed up and their metal frames started to burn my skin - I had to leave them at the entrance. A slightly fuzzy view did not perturb my sense of awe. I was dumbstruck. A torrent of sweat streamed from my head, my energy was being sucked away, and my breathing became heavy. 

The view was enthralling, my eyes led me forwards but my body wanted to retreat. I was dwarfed by a forest of giant gypsum crystals, some up to 12 metres long - the largest crystals ever discovered, some estimated to weigh as much as 55 tonnes. It was something that had to be seen to be believed and I was doing just that... however within just five minutes I had gone from a reasonably fit 30 year old to an asthmatic 60 year old – it is the antithesis to the elixir of life!

Wearing the ice suite and cool air ventilator and feeling exhausted after almost 30 mins in the cave. Individually 50oC and 100% humidity are conditions that I have experienced working in tropical or desert environments, but it's the combination which makes this place so deadly. The coolest part in the cave is your lungs and so moist air starts to accumulate in them... leading to respiratory difficulties.


As the air became more oppressive I only hoped that I would last to tell the tale... could we do this place justice and film the ‘crown jewel’ of our series in just two days?

A clip from How Earth Made Us

Aborted relics

Cueva de los Cristales is the incarnation of our most awesome science fiction imaginations - Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Superman's Fortress of Solitude. At about the same time as humans first ventured out of Africa, these crystals began to slowly grow. For half a million years they remained protected and nurtured by a womb of hot hydrothermal fluids rich with minerals.

Undisturbed, one can only guess how big they may have eventually grown. Yet when mining began here over a hundred years ago, the water table was lowered and the cave drained. The crystals seemingly interminable development was frozen forever leaving them as relics of the deep earth. It wasn't until 2000 that miners, searching for lead, eventually penetrated the cave wall and brought it to light. 

The very act of discovering and witnessing them has triggered their slow decay and now no one knows what their fate will be. Once the mine ceases to operate it could be flooded by polluted mine water and abandoned forever and that's if ambitious mineral sellers don't get to them first and rip them out to sell around the world. 

My hope is that Gonzalo will prevail in his mission to secure funding and to preserve this site as a world heritage monument. To me they are a testament to the hidden forces of the planet, forces which operate on scales far beyond our own.

Who knows what other wonders lie hidden deep inside the earth.
 
This is me and one of Gonzalo's team right in the heart of the cave. The furthest and most difficult part to reach is just behind me - it takes 10 minutes just to get there.

 Trying to scramble over the jagged crystals whilst wearing an oversized jump suit stuffed with ice, and a large backpack, is no easy feat - especially when carrying a large professional camera. Photograph by Carsten Peter/Speleoresearch & Films Published in National Geographic.

It's such as task to get into the cave that by the time we were in position to film a shot the doctor was calling for us to get back out. Photograph by Carsten Peter/Speleoresearch & Films Published in National Geographic.

Read more about the Crystal Cave and view more images in this special article by National Geographic.

How Earth Made Us will be airing on BBC2 (UK) and National Geographic (USA) early in 2010.

Watch a preview of the Crystal Cave sequence here

100 comments:

  1. Wow! What an amazing place.

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  2. Neally every week is a dicovery,I knew these crystal caves existed but I have never seen them that huge.Fantastic photography.

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  3. Amazing stuff Paul. I hope you guys have some behind the scene footage from this place for your How earth made us.

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  4. Chris Butler02/12/2009 10:25

    Wow, Wow, WOW. Incredible - unbelievable!

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  5. Amazing! Let's hope the site can be preserved for posterity.

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  6. Oh my goodness. As someone who collects crystals this cave would be all my birthdays at once! Well, bar the heat - I'm not good with that :P.

    I saw a program about this on National Geographic a few weeks ago, and I'll definitely be watching this one when it airs!

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  7. Amazing. I predict a beer commercial will be filmed there within a year.

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  8. Looks like a movie set -- the home of Superman, son of Jerel. How many people passed out in there? You look so exhausted in that one shot, your face all flushed and sweaty.

    How can yanks see the show?

    Love the blog.

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  9. Hi, no one passed out in the cave - although we were absolutely exhausted after every single trip inside. The doctor always seemed to have a concerned expression on his face which didn't full us with much confidence! The longest I lasted inside was 30 minutes - I was tasked to go to the very deepest part of the cave to get some of the wide shots. I was pretty relieved when I eventually crawled back out. If I had the chance I would go back in an instance. It is such a uniquely beautiful place that the pain and hardship is a small price worth paying.

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  10. What are the crystals' composition?

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  11. You need robots !

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  12. Thanks for sharing this. Wonderful photography and story.

    Exactly what I was thinking as I opened this:
    "Who knows what other wonders lie hidden deep inside the earth."

    Hutch

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  13. If I didn't already now about the existence of the cave, my first thought would be that the images were Photoshopped (particularly the first shot). Great article and great pictures. I sincerely hope this will be preserved for all to enjoy.

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  14. Spectacular and almost unreal! Let's hope we can preserve it for as long as we possibly can. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. did they find superman in there?

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  16. Nick Owen-Jones13/12/2009 15:43

    Thanks for sharing this. Truly amazing pictures. I can't wait for the program to air.

    I believe Gypsum is also known as Selenite and is extremely delicate. If I remember rightly it dissolves in water.

    Let's hope something can be done to save this amazing cave.

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  17. This is so incredible... my question is HOW DID YOU LIGHT THOSE SHOTS? My sister worked in the Natural Bridge Caverns one summer, and I learned from her that lighting caves like this successfully miles below ground without damaging the structures is terribly difficult. My guess is that the first image (which is absolutely stunning) has been heavily photoshopped. (Note: if that is the case, it does NOT detract from the authenticity or magic of the image...sometimes in order to to justice to reality we have to bend what we get from photos, which are an imperfect medium!) I am just intrigued by the technical challenges of working photographically in such an extreme environment.

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  18. Also, (just out of curiosity) how did you know the crystals would support your weight as you walked along them!?!

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  19. Only 20 minuts to go death uhhhhhhhh

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  20. why some crystal shine and other dont? nice ambient light, its like the superman cave!

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  21. the correct name of the state is: Chihuahua, not 'Chihauhau'

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  22. Fantastic! Who know what lies under us indeed... the only I have to bitch about is the spelling of Chihuahua ;).

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  23. I have corrected the spelling of Chihuahua. Thanks for pointing this out and also thanks to everyone for all the comments.

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  24. Just a copy...

    http://www.naica.com.mx/internas/interna3_4.htm

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  25. I'm proud to be mexican, I was born near to La Cueva de los Cristales in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. VIVA MEXICO CABRONES!!!

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  26. LOL exhausted.

    50 c is just a normal summer day in Sri Lanka.

    People explore 100% humidity environments for hours with camera's. It's called water.

    Get some downsized scuba gear, and Sri Lankan scientists. No fat white guys like in the pic above.

    Perhaps they can also put an air conditioner in, get some circulation going in the cave. Turn it into a themed restaurant. Or perhaps keep in nice and hot market it as a quick weight loss spa all in commercial interests of course.

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  27. That is REALLY cool... so much we don't know yet about our own planet... and that's only 1k feet deep... and in one spot in the world lol

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  28. Hi Cat, All I can assume is that you have never experienced 50oC and 100% humidity constantly for more than a few minutes in a Sauna. Try working in a very hot and steamy sauna, carrying heavy camera equipment and scrambling over huge jagged crystals. Not only do you sweat buckets but water gathers on your lungs (as this is the coolest point in the cave) and your respiration quickly deteriorates. It is not a pleasant experience. I have worked in incredibly hot deserts and very humid rainforests and I can assure you that the conditions inside the Crystal Cave are something else completely. Thanks for reading this post - some interesting suggestions on how to preserve the cave! Best wishes, Paul

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  29. Amazing article and pictures, thanks so much for sharing, Paul. I can't wait to see the programme when it airs and I will be following your blog from now on - you do good work!

    Hannah x

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  30. Great article! Is that the Sony V1U you're using in the picture, or a different model? I can't believe you're not using some sort of housing! How did it hold up?

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  31. In the photo I'm using a Sony EX3. We also used various mini-cams and a full sized Varicam2700. All kit worked absolutely fine. To prevent condensation we put the cameras & lenses into sealed plastic bags and left them in the cave overnight. This allowed them to heat up to the same temperature as the cave, so there were no cool surfaces for water to condense onto. The only problem was that the cameras were sometimes too hot to operate!

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  32. Amazing place and amazing photos! Chihuahua is still misspelt though ;)

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  33. "To me they are a testament to the hidden forces of the planet, forces which operate on scales far beyond our own."

    scales far beyond our own, indeed. great story and great shots. our world never ceases to amaze me.

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  34. J Kimbrough18/12/2009 16:13

    Whats the deth of this cave-and are there-under ground lakes of any kind this location.

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  35. Just to let you know: the link to the National Geographic article is wrongly hyperlinked to the BBC site. Fantastic post though, thanks for sharing.

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  36. The cave is buried 300metres beneath the desert. Scientists believe that there is a cavern nearby that would dwarf this one. But it would be almost impossible to reach - Gonzalo is currently making a documentary about this exploration.

    There must be some water reserves in the area. Naturally the cavern would be beneath the water table but this has been lowered to allow mining.

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  37. The lighting looks like it was done with 'painting with light'. A well known technique where multiple flashes are fired over a long exposure period. Perhaps you had multiple flashes and did it all at once, but you can clearly see that there are multiple hot zones where the light is very bright -- the flash unit would be nearby.

    AWESOME photograph. As a former caver / surveyor -- well done!

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  38. I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

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  39. I saw a film on that cave this fall - not sure if it was yours, but WOW, what an incredible place. You're so lucky to have seen it/experienced it.

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  40. Absolutely incredible!! It looks surreal.

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  41. Who could imagine that such a place existed? So beautiful and awe- inspiring! Thanks for the story and pictures!

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  42. They should start mining this place for it's resources.

    That is true beauty.

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  43. WTF is 50°C? Why not post temperature in units somebody other than the French use?

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    1. Ignorant retard!!! Australia, Canada, and MEXICO (where these cave ARE) all measure in centigrade.

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  44. @Anonymous "WTF is 50 degrees C?"

    122 ºF

    For your information: Celsius is used by 300 million people in Europe. In other words: not just the French.

    Oh, did I mention that the Chinese use Celsius as well? That's another 1,000,000,000.

    (mutters: "Jeez, those yankees...")

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    1. Yes, us yankees...I've never heard of celsius before!
      I was under the impression Celsius is most commonly used for research, as it is standardized and all researchers will have common units of measurement. Some cultures have simply chosen to use Celsius as opposed to Farenheight.
      And @Anonymous: What rock are you living under? Do you know what a Kilometer is or does your whole distance measurement come down to only miles? *sigh* Not yankees - close minded people. Or, both of you.

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  45. hardly news lads, these mines were discovered in 1794 and mined since the early 1900's.

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  46. Celsius is the predominant temperature scale used in the world. The only places that still use Fahrenheit are the US and a small handful of other countries. Celsius (and Kelvin) is used in every scientific field, whereas Fahrenheit is used for non-scientific purposes only.

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  47. Ya this place is crazy! i think whoa when this place can kill for sweating!

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  48. This just blows my mind! Amazing!

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  49. In reference to the part of your post about protecting this place from the mineral sellers....I am absolutely disgusted by people who can look at a site as beautiful as this, or a forest of trees or a herd of buffalo, and only think of how they can somehow profit from it. We should all feel very grateful for people like Gonzalo.

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  50. You can now see a preview clip of thise sequence here: http://www.ironammonite.com/2010/01/video-deadliest-place-on-earth-giant.html The series starts on Jan 19th at 9pm on BBCTwo.

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  51. If it were a movie set depicting another planet, I would probably complain how phony and unrealistic the movie was.

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  52. Again....this is something new....something hidden from the outer world....man i wana be there now...awesome, you guys are lucky....wonder where i can watch the whole film and when it will be released outside US and UK

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  53. Another amazing example of the creative work of the Lord Jesus.
    He is the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is within them.

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  54. Hmm.. i wonder why it is not more famous ? The pic surely looks like another planet.

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  55. Simply unbelievable. Looks exactly like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Never seen anything like that. WOW!

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  56. I am worry that all this beautiful place will be destroyed by "ecoturists" and "scientists".
    Sadly money comes first than conservation of nature.
    Later "gringos" just come to Mexico to do what they cannot do in their country :-(

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  57. An amazing example of Celenite. question though, from beyond a scientific standpoint and answering more in the spiritual or energy side to crystals of this sort, when you entered into this opening did you notice any palpable energies emitted from there?

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  58. Doesn't sound too bad.. I mean, we Finnish people are used to spend up to 1-2 hours in the sauna with 80-100Celsius (or more, even) and 100% humidity drinking beer and having a laugh. What a bunch of sissies you are!

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  59. China and Russia put the blame on some screwed up experiments of US for the earthquake that happened in Haiti.
    Chinese and Russian Military scientists, these reports say, are concurring with Canadian researcher, and former Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief of Forbes Magazine, Benjamin Fulford, who in a very disturbing video released from his Japanese offices to the American public, details how the United States attacked China by the firing of a 90 Million Volt Shockwave from the Americans High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facilities in Alaska
    If we can recollect a previous news when US blamed Russia for the earthquake in Georgio. What do you guys think? Is it really possible to create an earthquake by humans?
    I came across this [url=http://universalages.com/hot-news/what-happened-in-haiti-is-it-related-to-haarp/]article about Haiti Earthquake[/url] in some blog it seems very interesting, but conspiracy theories have always been there.

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  60. Gosh, i just saw these on tv. The most crazy thing about them is you cant sweat! Your body can only take it for 30 mins or so down there..

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  61. awesome! i know I'm not gonna make it! but the place looks good
    thanks for sharing

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  62. apoorva rathore india24/08/2010 15:44

    amazing.......mindblowing stuff...unbelievable!!!!!!!!!! good job...:)

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  63. I really like your post you done a great jobs . Thanks for sharing valuable information.
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  64. If we can recollect a previous news when US blamed Russia for the earthquake in Georgio. What do you guys think? Is it really possible to create an earthquake by humans?
    external sliding doors

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  65. We put a foto of the "Cueva de las Espadas" as hommenage to this mine onto the cover of the recent "Directorio de la Industria Minera Mexicana 2010"

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  66. this is pretty amazing and will help me alot with am research
    thanx :)

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  67. HI I may be doing a documentary in these caves what video + sound equipment did you use and what problems did you encounter / i.e batteries,sound recording devices ??
    I would be hoping to use a hard disc recorder for the audio

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  68. Hi, we used various cameras but the main camera was the Panasonic P2 Varicam - tapeless. It got a little hot but still worked as good as usual. The key is to put all the kit into sealed plastic bags and leave them in the cave overnight. That way it has time to reach the same temperature as the cave so when you get the camera out of the bag and start using it it doesn't get condensation problems.

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  69. Yes, I just saw these on tv. These are just amazing. The thing that i find most intriguing is that it how so much humidity down there, that if your down to long you can die. Amazing research and article.

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  70. Incredible report, I loved it! the place is great and you guys did a fantastic and complete report as usual

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  71. Thank you for putting up with these conditions so we on much higher ground get to appreciate what nature is capable of.

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  72. Nice post, but one little suggestion: with such an amazing place (photos) wouldn't better that the background and other elements facilitate the viewing? - The background is too baroque perhaps in black.

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  73. Oh my god. I can't believe it. It's a magic.
    Realy realy I hope visit it in the futur.

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  74. Wow Wow !!! It is awesome !!!

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  75. Amazing, utterly unique destination.
    I would like to do chrystal meth whilst dancing naked with nipple tassels on.

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    1. Ha ha very funny. Although i think LSD might be better here. What an incredibley divine experience you could have here with acid or ecstasy.

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  76. Just a bit confused, is it 500 C or 50 C ???? Do you think these caves will ever be open to the public

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  77. Is it 50 C or 500 C? Will public ever be able to visit?

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  78. @anonymous think about what you're saying. Water evaporates at a 100 C. You cannot survive at 500 C with any equipment, what so ever.

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  79. It looks amazing! I'm sure the pictures are only just a glimpse into that world of larger than life crystals!

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  80. don't you think this is also a bit like in the movie "the core"

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  81. Truly amazing what nature creates - and we destroy. I hope that Cueva De Los Cristales can be preserved for generations to come.

    I suppose the temperatures should hopefully keep unwanted visitors away. But indeed, the temps cannot be at 500C, no human would be able to survive. Surely you mean 50C?

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  82. Truly an amazing sight. I hope that Cueva de los Cristales can be preserved for generations to come. The conditions in the cave should hopefully help to keep unwanted visitors out, but surely the temperatures cannot be up to 500C? No human could survive at those temps, I suppose you meant to say 50C?

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  83. Wonderful. I had worked on the American Orient Express train that went through the region in 2004. An image of the caverns was in an old tourism brochure. I inquired with our local guide to come back with friends on a separate journey to visit yet the caves had been closed and we were willing to negotiate to get in there. The guide said it was very very hot but I never imagined it to be that hot! WOW! After about a year of failed responses from the owner of the caverns we never got in to experience it. A friend of mine wanted to do some throat singing in the caverns and film it.
    Your images and story took me on the adventure I had dreamed of many years ago. Congratulations and thank you for sharing. I found your page from a friend sharing it on Facebook. Do you have more images posted somewhere of it? It is fascinating.
    Cheers! Eveline

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    1. Hi Eveline, I just wanted to know that because of your message I created a video slide-show. Hope you enojoy: http://www.ironammonite.com/2012/01/deadly-giant-crystal-cave-journey.html

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  84. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  85. I was really amazed by the immense size and variations of the crystals found in the cave. My question though is what kinds of life if any was found there as well?

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  86. That's awesome! I want to go there when I grow up.

    James

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  87. Neally every week is a dicovery,I knew these crystal caves existed but I have never seen them that huge.Fantastic photography.
    Funny Pictures

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