RIGA - Mystical walking tours in the Rizupes sand caves are among the wackiest of guided tours available in Latvia.
This experience is not for the claustrophobic. The bizarre system of caves gave me the sensation of walking through the interior of a giant and elaborate sand castle. Fortunately, the chalky walls are sturdier than my own sand castles ever were, and thus seemed unlikely to buckle and trap me in a sandy grave. However, the cave floor consists of a fine, soft sand, imprinted with human footprints.
The Rizupes sand caves are the longest underground cave system in Latvia, with a length of 460 meters. Unguided, guests could very easily get lost in the winding underground labyrinth, never again seeing the light of day. Thus, it is fortunate that candlelit guided tours are available.
I visited the Rizupes sand caves on a sunny autumn afternoon, after a visit to the world's longest waterfall, on the Venta River in nearby Kuldiga. After purchasing our tickets, for two lats each, we were directed down a wooden staircase toward the entrance. Here we met our mysterious tour guide.
To each of her 10 guests, the tour guide gave a lit candle and a beguiling madwoman's smile. Her glittering eyes shone with the maniacal fervor of a true mystic. As I stepped out of the afternoon sunlight into the cave, I felt an airless chill envelop my entire being. The only warmth came from the scalding candle wax that dripped intermittently onto my hand.
We followed our guide through the frigid caves, helplessly, like lambs to the slaughtering block. We had no choice but to continue though the winding underground path, which narrowed in places to less than 50 centimeters across. I knew that even if I turned back, I would risk getting lost in the caves. I had not thought ahead and brought a ball of yarn to mark my path!
The tour was not only informative, but also very mystical, blending Christian religiosity with pagan superstitions, as is typical in Latvia. The caves are a sacred place for many Latvians, who leave fresh flowers in the caverns to bring luck to their new marriages. The guide showed us special areas of the caves where young couples lie down together, as a fertility charm. I accidentally did something "auspicious" myself: I unwittingly stood in a corner of the cave which holds magical properties, and the guide declared that I would, as a result, be married within the year!
Farther into the bowels of the sand cave system, we came to an underground cistern, which was a relatively wide and open space. The guide instructed each of us to draw a circle in the sand with our feet. Inside this magic circle, she said, we would find three small stones and pick them up. Next, she instructed us to close our eyes and spin in a circle three times while wishing for what our heart desired most. "This is when the gypsies will empty our pockets," my companion muttered jokingly into my ear. And yet, in a way, the mystical fervor of the guide and the eerie magic of the caves themselves were somewhat contagious. I could not help making my own true wish.
I also learned something about the history of the Rizupes sand caves. In the times of the Duchy of Kuland, Duke Jacob used this site for the excavation of rich Venta river sands, which were exported by ship to foreign lands. In the period preceding World War I, the sand caves belonged to the Ozolnieks Glass Factory, Miners excavated sand from the caves for the production of fine glassware. In those days, the caves stretched a total of 2 kilometers, but segments have since collapsed.
Today, the caves are a privately owned heritage site, popular among tourists and locals with a love of the mysterious.
The Rizupes Sand Caves are located in Rumbas Pagasts, a ten-minute drive north from Kuldiga. To book a guided tour in advance, call 371 2926 7308 or 371 2955 5042.