The road to this secret river is enfolded in jungle and time. El camino a Rio Secreto esta rodeado de selva y tiempo.
The Yucatan peninsula is one of the top destinations for travellers to Mexico. For the majority, it consists of a flight into Cancun International Airport, a short bus ride south along the 307, a quick check-in and complimentary strawberry daiquiris on the sun-drenched beach. In May, 2013, this was our plan. To be environmentally conscious, we offset our flights, and stayed at the Sandos Caracol Eco-Resort and Spa.
Over one thousand years earlier, the Yucatan peninsula was the stomping ground of the Maya, one of the largest and most advanced civilizations of its time. The Maya, as mighty as they once were, had a significant problem. A problem faced by millions of people even today: a lack of fresh water.
Despite its humid climate, a combination of geologic and geographic conditions limits the availability of fresh water in this area. Groundwater provides most of the peninsula’s water supply. The ancient Maya had to resort to drawing groundwater from cenotes and caves in the region.
Rio Secreto is one such cave system, partially submerged by water, which stretches for twelve kilometers underneath the peninsula. It is about as far away from the sun-drenched Mayan Riviera as you can get.
To get to Rio Secreto you must travel several kilometers into dense jungle. The bumpy, undeveloped road is barely 15 feet wide. To its edges lies thick jungle. It is only possible to see two feet into the jungle on either side of the road. Beyond two feet, however, all you are able to witness is a camouflage of green.
Only in 2007 was this mystical place opened to the public. In fact, thankfully 90% of the cave system remains off limits. The majority of the entry fee for access to Rio Secreto is used to maintain the ecological integrity of this secret river. It is a protected nature reserve and focus is placed on the fragility of this ecosystem and the impact of mass tourism. Before entering into the cave system, all loose items (jewelry, photographic equipment, etc.) must be removed, and a fresh-water shower is required to ensure that all perfumes, sunscreen and other foreign substances are removed before interacting with the water contained in the cave.
Before entering into the cave system, a traditional Mayan prayer is offered by a local Maya decedent. It is difficult now to imagine the Mayan civilization using this area to obtain life-sustaining water. Of course, the members of our small group are clad in wet suits and helmets, and our fresh water will come from a tap when we return to our hotel. We certainly do not look like the ancient Maya.
Following the prayer, we were led to one of the fifteen natural outlets of the cave, and our journey began. Due to its semi-sunken nature, the journey, over 100 feet below the peninsula, includes hiking, crouching and swimming. What initially struck me was the tranquility of the air, and the water. Nowhere is silence more silent, black more black, than in the depths of a cave.
According to the official web site, a journey through Rio Secreto is surreal, mystical and memorable. In fact, it is much more. The stalactites (that hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (that rise from the floor) were more majestic than any piece of man-made architecture. In several places, the sheer size of both had resulted in the two meeting to form one big column, ceiling to floor. The average growth time for a stalactite is 0.13mm (0.0051 inches) per year. A quick look around Rio Secreto reveals that some stalactites that are at least 20ft in length; some basic math suggests that these are at least 47,000 years old. This place has stood the test of time. Given that this is a nature reserve, with a focus on conservation, and only 10% able to be explored by the general public, I am hopeful that it might survive for another 47,000 years.
Caves, despite their isolation from the outside world, are not devoid of life. Rio Secreto is no exception. Even in the short time that we spent in the cave system, we saw several catfish that spend their entire life in the pitch black of the underworld. Bats and other mammals survive in this cave system, or depend on the water available in the cenotes at the outlets.
With only our headlamps to guide us, our small group filed into the cave system, each passing the “look out, rock to your right” message to the next person as we explored narrow passageways. Another message; “Watch your head!”, as the ceiling began to slope lower (or did we gain elevation?). Some paths seem to go no further and the only option is to dive into the fresh water that sustained the Maya, millennia ago. Sometimes we could touch the bottom, other times we would have to swim, but always, we were amazed at the beautiful natural structures surrounding us.
We would sit for a while; play with the submerged particles on the top of the guide’s flashlight, revealing that even this “unimpressive dust” was in fact countless minute crystals that revealed their true beauty only when penetrated by man-made light.
In one area of the cave system, the water deepened quite significantly. It was at this point that our instructions were to float, stay still, and turn off our lights. Ten of us, 100 feet underground, no external light, suspended between the ceiling and the floor, and silent. You could not see black for the black. You could not hear the quiet for the silence. It was a moment in my life that I will never forget. There, in that moment, each of us was completely at the mercy of nature. Alone and without light, there would have been no escaping this cave.
What you lose in vision, however, is regained by the heightened sense of sound, smell and touch. The water felt cold, and smooth. The dripping of water from stalactites echoed, crisp and pure. Bats, elusive to our eyes, were visible by sound. A damp, earth-like smell, filled the still, stale air. Complete peace, tranquility and a sense of powerlessness prevailed. We were at one with this secret river.
One person floated into another, “sorry”, then a leg kicked another persons’ leg. Who that person was, it was impossible to say. In fact, when we finally turned our headlamps on, we were nowhere close to the people that we were next to at that lights-out moment. There is a complete sense of loss of direction and bearings.
In the ceiling above, there was evidence of ancient life. Fossils. Various sea creatures have a legacy in this place. The bones of ancient humans have been found in these Yucatan caves. In places the ceiling required a deep stoop to negotiate. In other places, the ceiling seemed as high as any European gothic church, the stalagmites and stalactites creating the world’s biggest set of organ pipes.
This, in my opinion, is sustainable (or eco) tourism done well. The organization behind Rio Secreto appears to understand the importance of ecological and biological integrity, and uses these principles to appropriately expose this area to tourists. Its mission is to “transform our visitors through a unique journey deep inside the Earth”. On our trip, Rio Secreto certainly succeeded in doing that.
Rio Secreto has a personality. It is fragile but timeless. It is calm but intense. It is majestic but raw. When you have met this place, it responds, simply: Mi nombre es Rio Secreto.
Note: I was disappointed to be unable to capture my own images of this experience. I understand the conservation and safety concerns behind this requirement, but it is unfortunate that the cost of the images captured by the professional photographer that accompanies you on the journey (employed by Rio Secreto) is so high. I paid for the photographs, because the experience was so breathtaking. I bring this up, not as a complaint, per se, but because I feel that this justifies my use of those photographs in this post. I cannot claim the photographs for my own, but I feel it fair that I use them to expose this incredible place to the world. All images in this post were captured by photographers employed by Rio Secreto.