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Navigating Chile’s Marble Caves

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Chris Hillary turned his back on advertising after a decade of creative frustration and late nights eating Vietnamese food at his desk. In 2014 he slipped away to South America to pursue a hunch that taking photos would make him happier. The hunch was good.

“We bounced across the lake in questionable, life-threatening conditions, in search of Chile’s greatest natural wonder.”Hillary recounts: “It was 6:13am and I had just hopped into an unmarked van with three suspicious men. The four of us drove in silence for four hours until we arrived at the ill-tempered Lake General Carrera. A lazy Google search will show you how impressive the area looks when the wind is dead. Today, it was alive. And apparently, rather angry. I popped on a vomit-reeking life jacket and fell into the small, leaky tin vessel with eight strangers. We bounced across the lake in questionable, life-threatening conditions, in search of Chile’s greatest natural wonder.

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“My mind was full of very specific images of archways etched in pristine marble and crystal clear sapphire water.”I’d been looking forward to this day for months. From what the internet had taught me, I could look forward to beautiful, smooth, sweeping rock formations. My mind was full of very specific images of archways etched in pristine marble and crystal clear sapphire water. I thought I was moments from experiencing psychedelic water carvings in magical underground caverns. What we fumbled our way through, however, was nothing like that. The Marble Caves were dark and uninviting. The ceiling was carved into jagged fangs. The water was hiding something, or perhaps someone. We’d spent five hours getting here and all of a minute in the disappointing hovel before the boat began ricocheting off the walls and reversing back. Surely this wasn’t it.

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“In some sections, the cracked patterns exposed the glacial lake’s ferocious temper.”As you’ve probably guessed, and as I probably would’ve known had I brushed up on mi Español, the caves were the free bread before the entrée before the main. I figured this out as we approached our second stop. If the caves had the bite of a wolf, The Marble Chapel had the skin of a lizard. It was rugged, but the details were far more intricate and fragile. In some sections, the cracked patterns exposed the glacial lake’s ferocious temper. In others, thousands of happy dimples smiled with satisfaction. I was beginning to lighten up. But I was still nervous I wouldn’t see the postcard money shot I’d printed in my mind.

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“It’s a twisted oil painting. A geological acid trip. A prehistoric Magic Eye.”Our final stop did not disappoint. It was one of the most magical natural wonders I’ve ever seen. It’s a twisted oil painting. A geological acid trip. A prehistoric Magic Eye. You could lose your mind staring into its abstract patterns. I could’ve floated through its tunnels for days and still found fascinating formations. Unfortunately, with the strong winds and jittery waves, I didn’t get to experience the marble marvel at its best. Apparently, when the lake is flat, the turquoise water provides a perfect reflection, enhancing the experience ten-thousand-fold. I learnt that it’s most rewarding to visit in Spring time, when the lake levels are lower and The Marble Cathedral’s midriff is exposed. And if you time it right, this incredible sculpture becomes even more vibrant with evening lighting conditions too. I guess I’ll have to start planning my next visit.”

All images © Chris Hillary