It has been called the Crystal Cave of Giants and Cave of the Giant Crystals. The locals call it simply Cueva de los Cristales (Cave of the Crystals). There are actually three co-joined caves, one much larger than the others. This cathedral-sized cavern is home to vast fingers of selenite, rising in columns so tall that they dwarf the humans crawling amongst them.
The ghostly, transulent crystals have been measured up to 36 feet (11 meters) in height, weighing in at 55 tonnes. They make up the largest natural crystals ever discovered on Earth and therefore attract geologists and scientists in their hordes, as well as the tourists. However, no-one can stand to be in the cave for more than a few minutes, due to the crippling heat inside.
Cueva de los Cristales lies 1,200 feet (365.76 meters) below the surface. Beneath it is a pool of magma, rising up from the Earth's core. It is a very hot place. Temperatures of 150 F (65.6 C) have been recorded in the larger cave, while the smaller bakes in a mere 100 F (37.8 C).
The risks of entering are very real. Shortly after their discovery, an opportunist miner bypassed the protective iron door through a small tunnel. He took with him plastic bags filled with fresh air, in a bid to stay alive long enough to steal some of the precious crystals. He was found the next day, not only dead, but roasted too. This is the reason that visitors to the caves do so under strict supervision and with proper equipment.
Photograph by Richard D. Fisher
These gigantic crystals have been slowly growing over the past 500,000 years. They sit over a fault line. Around 2-3 miles (3-5 km) beneath the caverns is a giant pool of magma. As groundwater seeped down, through the porous limestone bedrock, the caverns became flooded over time. The waters were rich in gypsum minerals, oxygen and . The magma's heat worked like a hob on a cooker, maintaining this water at a simmering, steady 122 F (50 C), for half a million years. The gypsum in the water solidified into selenite crystals. However, unless the cave is flooded again, the crystals will stop slowly increasing in size and quantity now.
The caves are kept free of water by the mining company that owns them. Their pumps extract 22,000 gallons of water per minute from the system. This is an expensive operation and is likely to cease later this year.
Mining first began, in the area, in 1794. The local Tarahumara people had long known that there was gold and silver in the Naica Hills. They had extracted some of it through small-scale surface digging. However, there was also zinc and lead in the ground and, in 1900, this was more valuable. That's when the first large scale mining company was formed, tunneling deep into the earth.
The mine was about to close down, in 1912, when an exploratory burrowing discovered a wonder at 400ft (120m). This was the fabulous Cave of Swords (Cueva de las Espadas).
Much smaller than what was to come, it's still an impressive cavern. Some of the crystals have grown to around 6.6ft (2 meters), while others cloister together, covering whole walls. Some of these crystals were taken away as geological wonders, to be exhibited in museums around the world.
In 1922, the mine opened again, extracting gold, silver, zinc and lead, yet still occasionally finding small selenite crystals lying around. The miners moved steadily deeper and deeper, their progress only pausing for new levels to be drained, before they could dig on.
In April 2000, two brothers were working for Industrias Peñoles' Naica Mine. Juan and Pedro Sanchez had been given orders to drill a new tunnel into the previously unexplored depths of 984ft (300 meters). They broke through and stood staring. They had found the first of the truly awe-inpsiring caverns, the Crystals' Cave.
They called the engineer-in-charge, Roberto Gonzalez, who immediately contacted the mine's owners. It was now, within days of the discovery, that the protective door was added to the cavern's entrance.
However, this wasn't the end of the story. Shortly afterwards, two more employees of the mining company, also brothers, were sent to explore further into the cavern. Eloy and Francisco Javier Delgado worked in sweltering temperatures to bore a small passageway into the cavern beyond. The gap was tiny, but Francisco decided to squeeze through anyway. His Davy Lamp torch lit up the interior and Francisco cried out. He had become the first human being to behold a sight that has caused grown men to weep with the sheer majestic beauty.
Eloy quickly inched his way through the difficult passage to join him.
Both were in awe, it appeared that an eye was looking at them. They experienced something fantastic; a totally dark bubble inside the cave, which at first contact with the light shone like a diamond.
They had found the Queen's Eye Cave.
Yet there was still something even more breath-taking beyond. This is the cavern that geologist, Juan Manuel García-Ruiz (University of Granada), in an interview with 'National Geographical', called 'the Sistine Chapel of crystals'. Photographer and author, Richard D Fisher, describes his feelings there:
Momentarily, the penetrating heat is forgotten as the crystals pop into view on the other side of the newly named "Eye of the Queen". The entire panorama is now lighted and the cavern has a depth and impressive cathedral-like appearance that was not visible on earlier trips with just our headlamps.
When inside the great cathedral of crystals, the pressure of intense heat makes my feelings run up and down the emotional scale from sheer religious awe to outright panic... When I'm done working after three trips into the great cavern, my friends almost have to carry me out. We want to see more, but physically cannot. When the experience is over there is a great relief, but all we can think about is when can we go back in.
Crystal Cave of the Giants - Discovery of the Largest Crystals on Earth
This is the largest of the three caverns, the mystically stunning Candles Cave.
Selenite is named after the Greek Moon Goddess, Selene. The crystals' apparent magical properties, in seeming to glow from the inside, are reminiscent of moonlight. Selenite is used by some to calm the emotions and provide clarity of reflective thought. It has also been crushed and used in cosmetics.
Naica Mine is still an active worksite. It is possible for tourists to arrange supervised access to the upper caverns, but the lower ones are restricted to employees and scientists only. It's simply too dangerous at present, to expose tourists to the temperatures involved.