There are numerous activities to enjoy while in Playa del Carmen. It has essentially been turned into a tourist playground of Mexico. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, ruins – you name it you can find a way to do it within close vicinity.
Rio Secreto is situated directly across the street from the massive eco-park Xcarat. Whereas Xcarat has transformed into a massive waterpark, Rio Secreto retains more of its natural charm. We found Rio Secreto to be a great balance between campy fun, and authentic experience.
With that being said, Xcarat is a completely awesome experience, and I highly recommend it. I have been there many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it will be far more crowded and developed – though still loads of fun.
Puerto Juárez, Km. 283.5, Carretera Federal Libre Chetumal, Ejido Sur, 77712 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
It’s hours and prices can differ by the season, and so you should check for you specific times at: www.riosecreto.com. However, it always operates at least:
Sunday – Monday: 9AM – 2PM
While we can’t say that Rio Secreto falls into the category of budget travel activities – it is still certainly on the cheaper side for the region. If you can, try to arrange for your own transportation to cut costs.
Rio Secreto speaks to the mystery of Riviera Maya. It was only discovered in 2006 when a landowner was chasing after a lizard and accidentally discovered the opening to a cave. What he discovered was a vast underground river and cenote complex.
Researchers and explorers then entered the caves and began mapping what would turn out to be an immense system. It was quickly developed into an ecological preserve and attraction. Tourists are able to visit about 10% (don’t worry, it’s huge!) of the cave complex, while the other 90% is preserved. All proceeds go towards further protection and understanding of the cenotes and underground rivers.
Rio Secreto is Spanish for “Secret River”, and it is exactly that. The whole of the Yucatan is made of very porous limestone and has no surface rivers. However, it is filled with thousands of cenotes, which are sinkholes that open to underground rivers.
In the native Mexica cultures, most notably the Maya and Aztec, the cenotes were the openings to the underworld – Xibalba. And here, you get to enter the underworld and explore the flooded rooms and rivers beneath the surface.
Our experience was pretty awesome. We were in Playa del Carmen for a family wedding, and we went with my parents, aunts, and uncles. It begins with the standard tourist fare type stuff. We checked in, had a video introduction that went over the basic history of the place, and then we were divided up into small groups for our guide.
A roughly twenty minute bus ride deep into the jungle brought us to the main entrance to the caves where we were then given the run down.
First thing, no sunscreen or lotion of any kind. This is important for the ecology of the river system. Lotions introduce chemicals to the environment and can damage the cave formations. Plus, you’re underground – so it’s totally unnecessary.
To ensure there are issues regarding this, you have to take a quick shower to rid your body of any chemicals and oils. The shower is water taken directly from the river which also gives you a quick feel for the temperature. It’s cold.
No worries though, you are provided with a wetsuit. The water is around 72F, so it’s certainly chilly. And the tour lasts about an hour and half underground so you will most likely want it. If you have your own wetsuit, you might as well bring it. My aunt had one, and doubled up, which allowed her to stay quite warm.
As for us, we were still chilled at the end. Our issue lies in the fact that we’re both pretty thin. Because of this, the wetsuits didn’t fit perfectly and allowed for cold water to get in. But, it still works.
You are also provided with water shoes – a must. And of course, a helmet with lights – another must. If you wish, you can also take a walking stick. I did not, but was one of the only ones who did not. If you are not comfortable with your balance, you should take the stick. However, it can be very nice to traverse the caves without carrying anything.
You can put all your stuff in a locker, and all of this comes complimentary with your tour ticket. So you don’t need to worry about paying extra for storage or gear.
Once we were fitted, we were led into the jungle and brought to the first stop. A local man, who spoke Mayan (Nahuatl) gave us a traditional Mayan blessing. The blessing is meant to provide safety for those who enter the underworld.
In the blessing, we were taught how to say good day, or rather “good sun” in Mayan. I forget what it is now, sadly. But the meaning is important to the Mayans, as the sun was an important deity.
The man then burned sap from a local tree that gave off a sweet fragrance and signaled that we had been blessed. Now, we were ready to enter Xibalba.
A short walk further into the jungle, and we arrived at what appeared to be a small depression in the ground. However, once stepping into the hole, it becomes apparent that the cave is much more than it appears.
The path winds down until it meets a slowly flowing body of water. Stalactites and stalagmites stretch down and up respectively and create an enticing invitation to the wonders within. Our guide, instructed us to turn on our headlights and enter the water.
Our guide expertly took us into the caves and gave a thorough tour. He explained the hydrology and ecology of the region as well as it’s historical importance.
An interesting, yet important thing he showed us was our impact on the environment. By simply being there, we did contaminate the region. This was demonstrated by rubbing our noses to get naturally occurring oils from our skin, and touching the water. Immediately, the limestone particles repelled away from where we touched, and altering the chemical makeup of the cave system.
It was explained that we would only interact with a small portion – less than 10% – of the cave system. The money brought in from the tourism, would help protect the greater water system and further fund research and conservation. An unfortunate price to pay to protect the system.
As we swam, floated, and waded through the caves, a photography took many pictures. We did not get any though, as the price is expensive. Unfortunately, this means that we couldn’t get any pictures while in the caves themselves.
Courtesy: The Mayan Gate
A highlight of our cave experience was a moment of zen. We were instructed to lay back in the water, staring at the ceiling, in a circle. All the lights were then extinguished and we were left in complete darkness, with nothing but the sound of the water. We laid here here for several minutes before coming back to ourselves.
At this point, we were all getting pretty cold. It was time to make our way back out. We exited via the way we came in, and the warmth of the jungle air was welcome. Upon exiting, we were given a taste of the local liquor, an anise flavored liquor to warm our bodies and spirits.
After changing back into our clothes, we then proceeded on to a complimentary lunch. It was nothing special, but better than I was expecting. Rice, beans, chicken, soup, tortillas, and a few sides were offered. While not amazing, it was hearty and satisfactory – and the hot sauce was certainly hot.
Once finished with our food, we pilled back into our van, and proceeded back to the entrance. All in all, a great excursion. We would certainly recommend this for anyone in the region looking for a little adventure, history, or nature. It’s great for adults, families, and kids. And while not budget, it is certainly a cheaper alternative to the more expensive options in region.