Most people visit Mexico’s Mayan Riviera for its warm sunny climate and beautiful beaches but for those that explore beyond the beach during their stay, it’s the spectacles hidden underground – the cenotes and sunken rivers – that they dream about long after they’ve returned home.
There’s thought to be over 7,000 cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The whole area is essentially a limestone shelf where sunken river systems and caves (cenotes) have formed over time from fresh water collecting underneath its porous surface.
Despite the vast number of sunken cave systems in the area, Rio Secreto is unique. While most of the caves are fully submerged and require training in cave diving to explore them, Rio Secreto’s interconnected cave system is only partially-flooded allowing it to be explored by simply walking and swimming through its clear waters.
All that aside, THIS is the stuff I live for. An experience that takes me to an other-worldly location to explore sights and sounds that are foreign to my everyday life. Stalactites, stalagmites, crystal clear waters, swooping bats and a quietness that fills the darkness.
Who wouldn’t appreciate the opportunity to don a head lamp and climb down into a magical world that’s been hidden below us for thousands of years and only recently discovered?
Rio Secreto is a nature reserve that just started allowing the public to enter its unique cave system in 2007 through small, guided tours that protect its fragile environment.
On my recent visit to Rio Secreto, my small group started off our morning by first removing any jewellery, slipping into our wet suits and taking a cleansing shower before being led into the jungle to take part in a Mayan purification ceremony.
To the Mayans, cenotes and underground rivers are sacred places that represent an entrance to the underworld. To respect this, we each stood enveloped in the smoke of burning copal (an incense-like powder made from tree resin) while a prayer was recited by a Mayan shaman to purify our souls before entering the caves and to protect us during visit. Our guide then briefed us on how to navigate safely through the caves in a manner that would help to protect and preserve the sensitive environment we were about to enter (no touching!).
I hadn’t even entered the caves yet and I was already moved by all that I was experiencing. From the army of ants I watched scurry up the trees and along the ground just before the heavy rain started, to the scorpion that hovered nearby as I climbed into my wetsuit, I was intrigued by all that nature was putting on display. I had no idea that nature was saving the best for last.
Led by our head lamps, we slowly followed the path of the river and explored the caves by carefully stepping over the stalagmites that were reaching up from under our feet. I was grateful for the helmet as I found myself ducking under the delicate stalactites that jutted down over our heads like chandeliers from the ceiling. The waters were shallow and crystal clear in some parts and then turned turquoise blue or deepened in others which had us constantly changing from walking to floating and swimming as we turned and headed down each flooded corridor.
We turned our head lamps off at one point putting ourselves into complete darkness. With our sense of sight completely removed, we breathed in the cool air and listened for the sounds of the cave – water droplets dripping from the tips of stalactites and the occasional fluttering of bats as they soared over our heads.
I don’t think I’ve been so in awe of a place since I caught my first glimpse of Santorini and its magnificent cauldera at sunrise 8 years ago. Nature truly is the most ingenious artist.
This is why I travel. The hope of seeing and experiencing things I didn’t even know existed and couldn’t have imagined on my own drives my passion to see (to experience!) the world.
-All photos are courtesy of Rio Secreto.