Brazil’s Hidden Treasures
Stalagmites and stalactites are common calcium salt formations in caves. But have you ever heard of helictites? Needles of gypsum? Aragonitas? Bolas?
All of these underground formations can be found around the world, but Caverna da Torrinha is one of Brazil’s most complete limestone caves with a tremendous diversity of speleothems (cave formations), making it a fascinating place to visit. It is also one of the world’s largest caves.
Gruta da Torrinha, as it is also called, lies just north of Chapada da Diamantina National Park, 450 kilometers west of Salvador, Bahia. Until 1992, only one cave of the Caverna da Torrinha complex was known to the surrounding inhabitants.
Rock paintings near the entrance of that cave are testimony to indigenous people who once inhabited the area. When a French speleologist with Meanders Speleological Group investigated this chasm, she set down her lantern to take a rest. The flame flickered, betraying a current of air coming from a narrow passage between fallen blocks. It gave access to a much vaster underground area, of which only some 14,000 meters have thus far been mapped.
Today, by clambering over the same boulders as the French speleologist once did, and wriggling your way through the narrow passage, you can enter two adjacent caves. You must enter with a mandatory guide who will bring a lantern and provide you with a helmet.
The caving requires physical fitness and a moderate degree of limberness. The four-hour tour includes quite a bit of walking, often with bent heads for those taller than 1.70m (5’7” tall). It is most certainly no trip for claustrophobics.
One of the most impressive — if not somewhat terrifying — moments is when the guide asks you to sit down and be quiet for a minute. He turns down the gas lamp, and all of a sudden you feel how you are in the bowels of the Earth, cut off from any noise or light. It takes some effort not to panic. It’s best to focus on your breathing, relax your muscles, and allow the silence to penetrate your being. Soon the experience will no longer be scary. It’s perfectly beautiful.
In the region, more than 200 caves have been discovered, five of which are open to the public. Some are under scientific research, and it is assumed that many, if not all, caves are the remaining proof of a river that once flowed here. Nowadays most of the caves are dry, while some have underground lakes.
Ten meters (33 feet) under the Torrinha Cavern, a new underground river has been discovered. It may be that all of the caves are still connected, and it’s only a matter of finding the passages.
While the first cave is home to general stalagmite and stalactite formations, the true gems lie in the deeper hidden caves. Through the second cave meanders a 1,500-meter path, featuring an aragonite flower and gypsum needles. The third cave is a major hall of 100 by 200 meters, home to helicitite and an aragonite flower in a bola.
A helictite is a distorted form of stalactite. The cave formation changes its axis during its growth, defying gravity by the force of crystallization of the mineral, often growing in curving or angular forms (contrary to a stalactite, which hangs like an icicle from the roof, or a stalagmite, which rises as a column from the floor). It is still a mystery as to how helictites are generated, although there are several hypotheses, such as the formation of capillary forces, impurities in the deposited calcite, and/or air currents.
The aragonite flower is unique in the world. The world’s second largest aragonite flower grows in the Caverna da Torrinha. The formation of calcium carbonate resembles a flower, hence its name. This cave features a helictite with an aragonite flower on its tip, which has become the symbol of this cave, as well as of all other caverns in the region.
A bola (ball) is an uncommon, brittle structure of calcite that looks like an eggshell. In it grows an aragonite flower. One bola in this cave is still open, and the flower is visible; the second known bola is closed, and scientists speculate whether there is a flower inside it as well.
At the deepest point of the cave are needles of gypsum (calcium sulfate), which are thin blades of gypsum that look like needles that radiate from clusters on the floor of the cave. From a distance it looks as if somebody has strewn about narrow metal needles on some dry clay. The needles, straight and four inches long on average, would break almost immediately if you touched them. In Caverna Torrinha grow the world’s largest gypsum needles at 25 inches long.
To Arrive: There is no public transportion to visit the cave. You can rent a car in Lençois, drive to Iraquara, and ask for directions. The cave’s owner is Eduardo Figueiredo da Silva, and he can provide you with a guide. You could also email or call him beforehand (recommended when you want an English speaking guide). Tel. 75-364-2488 or email: email@example.com. You can book a guided tour with one of the travel agencies in Lençois (inside Chapada da Diamantina National Park). The maximum size of a group is six. The cave is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and the price depends on which caves you want to visit.
[This article was written by Karin-Marijke Vis for the Atlas Obscura website, which is run by the Obscura Society. All photos are by Coen Wubbels. It was edited by CIE.]