Having enjoyed a romantic vacation in Mexico’s Riviera Maya several years before we tied the knot, it came as no surprise when my husband Josh suggested we revisit the area with our young children.
Situated on the incredible Mexican Caribbean coastline occupying the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, and home to vast Mayan archaeological sites and a selection of exciting eco-parks, I needed little persuasion.
Once we arrived in our beloved Mexico, we made it our mission to explore at least three new places that we had never visited before, as well as taking our sons David and Joseph back to some of our favourite holiday haunts.
Upon revealing our plans to Gabriella, the extremely helpful manager of the private villa we had rented in Playa Del Carmen, she suggested we inject a little adventure into our trip by taking an excursion to Rio Secreto, a secret river buried deep below the earth.
According to Gabriella, who had visited Rio Secreto with her husband, the site offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites that date back millions of years. After listening to her adventurous tale of explorations in the extensive network of slippery, dark underground tunnels, I couldn’t have been more excited and booked my family onto the first tour available.
Five days later, with some trepidation, we climbed into our taxi at dawn and after a bumpy journey to the meeting point, we met our guide, Rafa. His passion for the natural wonders of the cave was evident from the moment we met.
Rafa informed us that Rio Secreto, which was once known as Pool Tunich, is an extensive system of caves carved out over centuries by an underground river. According to him, the entire region is in fact peppered with underground caves, many of which require specialist training in cave diving is you want to explore them. The caves of Rio Secreto, however, are only semi-submerged, which means many are possible to explore through a mixture of hiking, swimming and simply floating.
After stowing away our belongings in the lockers, it was time for a quick shower before we were allowed to descend into the yawning depths of the entrance. Rafa explained that the caves are home to an extremely fragile eco-system, so it is important to try and prevent any outside toxins from damaging the natural balance of the environment… hence the shower. After donning a wetsuit, life vest, special shoes and a hardhat, we were all ready to go.
Deep on down
The descent into the caves was an experience in itself, and once we had arrived at the bottom I was overwhelmed by the weight of the silence surrounding us. As soon as we started exploring I lost my sense of direction as Rafa led us through the sprawling labyrinth of what the Mayans called “cenotes”. Being the least fit member of our small party, the hike was physically challenging for me at times, but with Rafa setting a slow pace at the front and calling out words of encouragement as we picked our way forward, there were no real problems.
Once we had adjusted to the dim light emitted by the head torches on our hard hats, it was possible to make out the wondrous rock formations, fossils and Mayan archaeological remains that surrounded us. Even though we had seen some photographs before we entered the caves, they had not prepared me for how spectacular the setting would be. The kids were enchanted, especially as we were lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of bats, spider crabs, catfish and shrimp before they darted out of the rays of life we cast from our head torches.
The highlight of the whole Rio Secreto experience for me came when we paused for a few minutes in some shallow water and Rafa told us to switch off our head torches. The cool darkness of the underwater cavern we were in was as overwhelming as the deep silence that insulated the cave like a thick blanket of wool.
The total tranquility lasted until Joseph, who is only seven and a half (children aged four-years-old and above are allowed on the tour) started whimpering that he was afraid of the dark. Even after such a short time; re-focusng on reality was a chore. A little like dragging yourself awake after a short sleep.
Into the Light
All too soon, our underground adventure came to an end with us blinking and squinting as we tried to accustom ourselves to the light of day. None of us could believe that we had spent three hours exploring the network of cenotes. Any thoughts of tiredness soon disappeared when Rafa led us to a quaint outdoor picnic area adorned with hammocks, where we feasted on beans, vegetables, juicy taquitos and some glorious tropical flavoured tea.
All too soon, our return taxi roused us from the post-food, hammock-induced haze to take us back to our villa. As we waved goodbye to Rafa, I vowed that for our next summer holiday we would arrive armed with our own PADI diving licenses – ready to tackle the challenge of cave diving at Dos Ojos.
Tips for the Trip
A trip to Rio Secreto feels a little like you have accidentally walked onto the set of a fantasy film, but a few practical considerations are essential to enjoy the experience.
- Wear comfortable loose clothes with your swimming gear underneath. After all, you never know where a day in Rio Secreto will take you.
- Take some extra cash with you to purchase one of the souvenir photographs of you and your companions exploring the cave.
- Bring a change of clothes, after three hours of hiking and swimming in the cool, damp surroundings, you will be glad to be warm and dry.
- Get a good night’s sleep before the tour. Even three and a half hours can be a physically taxing experience for some people, so it is best to tackle the adventure feeling your best.
- Take heed of your guide’s advice and respect the natural wonder of the Rio Secreto’s finely balanced ecosystem, which is quickly becoming known as one of Mexico’s most splendid natural treasures. Guides like Rafa do a lot of work to promote sustainable, eco-friendly tourism.