Slovakia has more than 4,000 dramatic caves and caverns under its mountains, 12 of which are open to the public. Most of the caves have spectacular stalagmites as large as tree trunks rising from the ground and massive stalactites hanging from above. Two caves have massive ice formations, and another is a rare aragonite cave. Only 3 aragonite caves in the world admit visitors!
UNESCO has bestowed World Heritage Site status to the Dobšinská Ice Cave near Slovak Paradise (Slovenský Raj) and the entire Slovak Karst region (close to the border with Hungary). In the Slovak Karst, you can explore 4 fabulous caves (noted below), including the unique Ochtinská aragonite cave. Karsts are areas covered by a thick layer of limestone or other porous bedrock, easily eroded by water, resulting in the formation of caves. Parts of the above-ground landscape of the Slovak Karst area are also worth seeing, including Zádielska dolina – a breathtaking 3-4 km long canyon 25 km east of Rožňava.
Caves have served to hide or shelter people from prehistoric times, through religious wars to the world wars of the last century. And in Slovakia, a land where much native wisdom that has proven its value to modern medicine, caves are used in the treatment of allergies and other respiratory disorders, particularly in children. This practice is called speleotherapy and involves extended stays in the caves to breathe the healing air.
Ochtinská Aragonite Cave
The most unusual of Slovakia’s caves is the Ochtinská cave. In the whole world, there are only 3 aragonite caves that are open to the public. Formed deep in the earth’s crust, aragonite is a mineral that is not stable at normal surface temperatures and pressures.
This cave was discovered in 1954, the blue limestone walls are decorated with bursts of white aragonite in dramatic shapes – needles, spirals, spikey clusters resembling masses of flowers.
Dobšinská Ice Cave
With a total length of nearly a mile, total ice volume of 360,892 cubic feet and maximum ice thickness of 86.94 feet, the sheer size of Dobšinská Ice Cave – essentially a vast frozen underground lake — is guaranteed to impress. Formed 7,000-9,000 years ago, the “Ice Hole”, as it was called, was long known to locals. In the 18th century bear bones were found there and believed to be dragon bones. In 1870 explorers officially discovered the cave, and it was opened to the public the following year. Dobsinska was the first cave in Europe illuminated by electric light. Best time to visit is spring or early summer. With all that ice, be sure to wear something warm and bring sturdy shoes/boots with non-skip soles.
Onion-shaped stalactites, pagoda-like stalagmites and 16 species of bats await you in this 4.5 km long Domica cave – with about 1/5 of it open to the public. The tour includes a boat ride on the underground River Styx, named for the mythical river the ancient Greeks believed encircled Hades, land of the dead. Archeological evidence shows that Neolithic inhabitants of the area found shelter here. It took modern man until 1926 to discover this marvel, which extends into Hungary.
With 10 feet long straw-like stalactites Gombasek Cave is the most visually impressive cave. The neighbouring village of Gombasek is the site of the largest Hungarian folk festival in Slovakia.
Worth visiting for the 17 bat species and lovely sinter waterfalls, drums, feather and pagoda-like stalagmites. But known more for the graffiti scrawled on the walls in 1452 by Czech Hussites (precursors to Martin Luther’s Protestant “heresy”), fleeing persecution by the Catholic Austrians. Jasovská cave was named after the monks of the Jasov Premonstratensian order, who built a beautiful complex here in the 12th century. Jasovská cave also contains archeological finds from Neolithic times and later eras.
A real River Styx may run through the Domica cave, but the Bystrianska cave is where you’ll find Hell. “Hell” is the name of one section of this 2km-long cave under the Low Tatra mountains. Currently, 550 m of winding corridors with beautiful curtain-shaped honeycomb-like decorations are open to the public.