A Secret Sanctuary

A recently discovered underground river makes a great new excursion

By: By Patricia Alisau

The Details

Rio Secreto Tours

Rio Secreto is located a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, and the tour is a good value for the money at $49 per person. But you must provide your own transportation to the highway entrance to the camp. Camp vans stop there to pick you up. There’s an extra charge if transportation is booked from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Following the tour, a light lunch of sandwiches, fruit and beverages is served by the Maya women of the community, who receive some of the proceeds of the excursion. The guides, collectively, speak five languages and are trained for medical emergencies.

The low-impact tour has four departures a day and books no more than 10 participants at a time. Clients must bring bathing suits. Parents are welcome to bring children as long as they are at least 6 years old, and the tour makes a great family outing. Rio Secreto is not for people with heart or mobility problems.

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One of the newest eco-adventures along the Riviera Maya is an excursion into a vast underground river that was swallowed by the jungle hundreds of years ago. Rio Secreto is an underground river along a stretch of coastline in the Riviera Maya that was known only to the ancient Maya before vacationers recently discovered it.


Unlike most cavern rivers, touring Rio Secreto doesn’t require any cave-diving experience. // © 2009 Rio Secreto

The region was discovered by a local campesino, or farmer, who rediscovered Rio Secreto last year.While clearing his land one day, he spotted an iguana and started chasing it, thinking it would make a tasty meal. The lizard scrambled into a nest of rocks, and the farmer began digging. As the iguana scurried deeper, so did he until he spied a cave entrance that led to the river. The area was later declared a nature reserve and speleologists began mapping it. A group of local environmentalists then formed Rio Secreto Tours.

The discovery of the river came as no surprise since the Yucatan Peninsula is known to have one of the biggest underground river systems in the world. Formed beneath a crust of limestone more than 250 million years ago, the rivers sometimes turn into cenotes when their roofs cave in. The Maya revered them, believing them to be the doorways to the underworld, where souls journeyed after death. Offerings to the gods of this underworld are commonly found by cavers exploring the caverns.

Unlike most cavern rivers in the Yucatan, this one doesn’t require special skills for touring. There are no cave-diving classes or air tanks needed because the water is shallow enough for wading most of the way through, when you’re not walking among rocky outcroppings or doing a short swim. So, this is a definite plus for your clients who are novice cave explorers.

Heading to the Rio Secreto base camp one early morning, we drove a couple miles off the highway down a rutted dirt road in the middle of scrubby tropical forest. After a brief orientation, we changed into bathing suits, then showered outdoors to wash off sunscreen, which is damaging to the river’s ecosystem. Next we donned blue wetsuits, snug rubber walking shoes, orange helmets with headlamps and life vests.

Once we were suited up, we hiked to the river where our guide, Fernando, gave us one last bit of advice as we prepared to step down into the river.

“Walk like a duck, heels down first,” he said, explaining that this was to prevent slipping on the spongy bottom.

So, we lumbered along like big blue water birds as we slipped into the cool water.

Our group waded, walked and swam through a labyrinth of caverns that counted as a drop in the bucket compared to the full size of the river. This took 1½ hours in a loop measuring about a third of a mile. We saw a gallery of stalactites and stalagmites carved into formidable shapes. It was easy enough to stop and admire the giant pillars, columns and drapery formations hanging down from caves big enough to fit a barn. Our headlamps bounced off walls of milky crystals as if we were gliding through a fairyland, while the transparent waters of the river showed us miniature catfish, snakes and crayfish — all sightless — living in perpetual darkness and trying to run away from human intruders. We saw marine fossils embedded in rocks and smooth, round, river stones looking like shiny prayer beads.

As a finale, our guide led us to one of the river’s white, sandy banks where we sat in darkness to reflect. It was an invigorating end as a silence enveloped us making the experience feel supernatural.

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