Caribbean caves: Going underground in Antigua and Barbuda

By: Sarah Woods

August 11, 2015

The waves have battered the rugged shoreline at Devils Bridge © Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority

The underground world of Antigua and Barbuda’s hidden caves and mysterious rocky caverns is steeped in myth and legend. Some caves are said to have fast-flowing rivers within them. Others are as tall as a cathedral, according to folklore tales. Many caves sit partially beneath ground level, offering visitors easy access. And one or two disappear into deep, dark sinkhole abyss. The beaches may be the most common calling card in these parts, but with so much subterranean scenery on offer, we’ve selected our favourite Caribbean caves to visit on your next trip.

The limestone bedrock of the Islands is characterised by natural subterranean caverns and caves formed by the cracks and crevices along the coast. Though some underground Caribbean caves are dark, dank and gloomy, many are warmed by sunlight that pours through deep skyward crevices. Some caves are also home to all sorts of cave-dwelling insects and creatures, while others merely provide occasional shelter to those that need it. Many are rarely visited at all.

Volcanic rocks and layers of thick, rich clay provide an unusual geological composition said to play a key part in the proliferation of Neolithic cave systems throughout Antigua and Barbuda. Formed by water erosion, tectonic forces and geological pressure, caves are common in limestone due to the porosity of the rocks – they simply dissolve over time. Seeping groundwater widens fissures and causes stalagmites, stalactites and flow stones. In Antigua and Barbuda, the many of the sea caves found along the shoreline were carved by the drumming of crashing waves against the cliffs. Passages, shafts, tunnels and gaping mouths are just some of the cave system’s many features.

In Antigua, the rocky shoreline in the north and east of the island offers a string of offshore isles punctuated by dozens of tiny caves. The island’s most famous cavern is the storied Bat Cave, where a seemingly endless underground corridor is rumoured to reach Guadeloupe – almost 100 kilometres away. A series of ragged fissures are layered with salt deposits and crusty seashells, with outer chambers worn smooth by the passage of sea and time. Local folklore suggests that the cave was once used as a hideout during potential colonial attack, but more recently, islanders have visited the cave to harvest the nutrient-laden bat guano to trade as plant fertiliser.

As the name suggests, Bat Cave is home to thousands of bats hanging from the 30-metre-high ceilings – visitors can access part of the cavern by appointment with guides from Antigua’s EAG (Environmental Awareness Group).

Caribbean caves: Going underground in Antigua and Barbuda
Some caves can only be accessed underwater © Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority

In Barbuda, a low-lying craggy island riddled with curious bat-filled caves and caverns, several of the larger caves are open to visitors. Caves, such as the easy-to-reach chasms along the island’s jutting sea cliffs, are rich in legends of Barbudan pirates, treasure troves and plunder. The locals have camped in the caves at Two Foot Bay for centuries, though it is the island’s bats, crabs and iguanas that call it home today. To journey through this air-cooled space, with chinks of light cutting through narrow crevices, is to venture deep into an otherworldly wonderland before emerging to breathe fresh sea air again overlooking beautiful rose-pink sands.

Caribbean caves: Going underground in Antigua and BarbudaHells Gate, in Antigua © Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority

Another of Barbuda’s famous caverns is Darby Cave, a spectacular 90-metre-wide sinkhole reached via a gruelling 45-minute slog uphill. The rewards for those that complete the trek are jaw-dropping views across a mighty gash in the landscape, characterised by stalactites and a forested overhang with a perilous 20-metre drop. Dark Cave, to the south, is a vast, lightless lake-filled cavern that is famous for the rare species of amphipod that thrives here. Several species of bat keep the blind shrimp company, together with some unusual subterranean foliage. As with all the caves in Barbuda, this subterranean waterhole is only accessible with a guide.

Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Antigua from London Heathrow, bringing you closer to these incredible Caribbean caves.

Sarah Woods

Sarah Woods

Award-winning travel writer, author & broadcaster Sarah Woods has lived, worked and travelled in The Caribbean since 1995. She has visited resort towns, villages and lesser-known islands where she has learned to cook run-down, sampled bush rum, traded coconuts, studied traditional medicine, climbed volcanoes and ridden horses in the sea. Sarah is currently working on a travel documentary about the history of Caribbean cruises.