Río Secreto: Eco-Friendly Cave Exploration in the Yucatán

By Re

My body laid adrift in unparalleled darkness. The sun-swathed afternoon, occulted by crystal. It was so black, floating felt like astral projection. And the quiet was deafening.

It’s not every day you’re blessed by Mayan gods to explore speleothems a half a mile into a semi-sunken cave 32 feet below a Mexican jungle, but on the days that you find yourself doing just that—those are good days.

On a recent trip to IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Paraiso in Riviera Maya, Mexico, I spent some time navigating thousands of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites at Río Secreto, an underground “secret river” located just a few miles from Playa del Carmen.

Prior to 2007, just one man had stepped foot inside. A local Mayan hunter was after an iguana in 2006 when it scurried off into a shroud of trees and made a splash. That’s when he discovered this crystal cave.

Today, the local man still owns the land but rents it to the Río Secreto company. The river is a coveted nature reserve and its tours are renowned in the Yucatán.

I’m far from a tour aficionado—especially those that meddle with the planet. The more I travel, the more I strive to associate only with travel and tourism companies (and seldom tourism companies at all) that promote sustainability. Unfortunately, such companies are few and far between. This, I can confidently concede, is one of those tours.

The region’s biodiversity and natural resources depend on the locals’ commitment to nourish the land that sustains them—and this is an entirely Mexican owned and operated company.

Venturing inside Río Secreto is not without rules—we were required to shower to rinse off any lotions or oils on our skin that could disturb the fresh rain water inside. As our guide exemplified, oils will sit atop the water’s surface; even just touching your nose, an inevitably greasy part of your face, can affect it.

Likewise, touching crystals outside of the water is prohibited; guests can only grab on to the subaqueous formations—and only when necessary—as their growth is already stunted. Walking sticks for those who need the extra balance are provided.

Cameras and any other technology are also not allowed inside the cave. We were to be with ourselves and nature, and that’s the kind of tour with which I’m quite alright.

Admittedly, I’m mildly claustrophobic and the mere idea of cave exploration was somewhat anxiety-inducing prior to our arrival. But once inside, I was so entranced by the Mexican magic, fixating on fear proved futile.

There was virtually no wildlife inside, aside from a sometimes-spotted catfish, bats and spiders (and allegedly that iguana), which palliated my phobia of swimming in dark waters. Besides, the water was an inimitable cyan made evermore pellucid by headlight.

And when we did turn those headlights off to float in a blinding abyss, with no concept of space or time, Río Secreto was nothing short of mesmerizing—an incomparable meditation and a transformative experience I’ll never forget.