A visit to the Mylodon’s Cave in Chilean Patagonia is often billed as a way to break up the long overland journey from Punta Arenas airport to Torres del Paine National Park. The shallow cave was the site of the 1895 discovery of a large piece of what turned out to be giant sloth, or mylodon, skin. Today, the cave is preserved as a monument to the discovery of the mylodon but since most of the remains are no longer within the cave itself, is it really worth the visit? And rather than thinking of the cave as a stop-off on the way to Torres del Paine, does it deserve to be seen as an attraction in its own right? We went to find out, and the answer was a resounding yes!
The cave complex looms unexpectedly out of the yellow grasslands about 24 kilometres (15 miles) outside of hiker hub Puerto Natales. As with anywhere in Chile
, the geological violence of the land is on full display, giving rise to strange rock formations like the Silla del Diablo
, the Devil’s Chair.
On the approach to the Mylodon’s Cave you take a well-maintained path through lenga and ñirre trees, which are both kinds of Nothofagus trees native to southern South America. Draped in Old Man’s Beard lichen, the wood has an enchanted feel that makes it even more bizarre when you see the silhouette of a giant sloth, dwarf horse and saber-toothed cat peeking between the tree trunks. Fortunately, the silhouettes are just life-sized representations designed to give visitors an idea of scale.
As you reach the top of the gently sloping path, there are all-embracing views across the landscape that provide a great first taste of Chilean Patagonia. At a glance, the eye takes in open yellow meadows, distant blue mountains with snowy peaks and a vast stretch of glassy water. Although it looks like a large lake, this is actually the Last Hope Sound, named by Spanish explorer Juan Ladrillero in 1558. Ladrillero was searching for an entrance to the Magellan Strait when he began to run low on food and provisions. This particular inlet was Ladrillero’s last hope to find the Strait, although he ultimately discovered that it too reaches a dead end.
The Mylodon's Cave has a gaping mouth, filled with toothy stalactites at the entrance. It’s hard to imagine today, but the cave was once a blank face of rock at the far extreme of a glacial lake. As Patagonia’s wicked winds whipped up waves across the lake’s surface, they battered the sandstone cliff and gradually gouged out the cave.
Today only the cave remains, standing 30 metres (98 feet) high, 80 metres (262 feet) wide and reaching 200 metres (656 feet) deep. Although the lake may be gone, the evidence of those fierce winds remains. On closer inspection, you can see that all of the knobbly stalactites are slanted towards the inside of the cave since the mineral rich water from which they form is constantly blown inwards by the wind.
As you wind your way into the cave on a marked trail other rocks provide more clues to the region’s geologically violent past. Along the floor of the cave, large conglomerate rocks - composed of different kinds of pebbles cemented together - stick out from the sandy floor. These rocks were carried and compressed by giant glaciers that once covered and shaped the whole area, many thousands of years ago.
Since the first discovery of the mylodon skin in 1895, the remains of ancient humans have been found in the cave along with the bones of many animals that are now extinct, such as sabre-toothed cats, dwarf horses and litopternas (a kind of hoofed mammal). There are so many bones and remains in the cave that it has been theorised that early humans used the cave as a natural trap, herding wild animals inside so they could be easily killed and eaten.
These days, the cave is frequented by bats who come to feed on insects and there is also a den belonging to a pair of red Culpeo foxes.
The first part of the mylodon to be discovered was a portion of it’s hairy skin, which was found by German explorer Hermann Eberhard towards the end of the 19th Century. Taking the skin with him on his travels, questions soon arose about what sort of animal it could have come from, which piqued the interest of Otto Nordenskjöld who further explored the cave.
The skin was so remarkably preserved by the cold conditions in the cave that at its discovery some people hypothesised that the mylodon must have been killed recently. Expeditions were sent out across Patagonia
looking for a live mylodon, however none was ever found and modern carbon dating techniques later placed the skin at anywhere from 10,200 to 13,560 years old.
Eventually, more preserved skin was found along with bones, claws and dung, and a picture of the mylodon emerged. The giant sloth was around 3 metres (10 feet) tall when standing on its hind legs. It had a bear-like body, with a head resembling a horse and a long, strong tail like a kangaroo. Although the mylodon had sharp claws, it was a herbivore that spent much of its time grazing the Patagonian plains, walking on its knuckles like an gorilla.
Nobody’s quite sure what happened to the mylodon or why it eventually disappeared. It could be that, like so many other species, it was hunted to extinction by humans. Or it could simply be that natural changes in the climate caused many of the plants it lived off to die out, leaving it without food. But one thing’s for sure, these days the closest you can get to a mylodon is visiting the Mylodon’s Cave!
- Take mosquito spray. Biting bugs like to linger in the cool entrance to the cave, even during cold weather.
- Take photographs of yourself with the amusing model mylodon.
- Look at the exhibits in the glass cabinets by the cave entrance.
- Stray from the marked path; parts of the cave are still being searched for more remains.
- Assume there’s nothing interesting about an empty cave!