Rio Secreto: Meaningful Ecotourism in Playa del Carmen
by Meghan Crawford
Playa del Carmen is a popular tourist destination on Mexico’s East Coast, known for a number of luxury resorts. While lounging by the pool for hours is as good a way as any to spend a vacation, the area has much more to offer than just swim-up bars. A number of excursion options are available to resort-goers and it can be difficult to decide where to spend your money and time. My vote goes to Rio Secreto.
What Is Rio Secreto?
Rio Secreto is a locally owned ecotourism company, just a short shuttle ride outside of the resort hub of Cancun and Riviera Maya. The tours, which are aptly marketed as a trip to the underworld, take guests down into an underground fluvian system (a series of caves and rainwater reservoirs). Rather than focusing on just the caves themselves, they also delve into the history and culture behind them. The result feels incredibly authentic and not touristy at all, which is exactly my style. In addition to a respectful approach to the Mayan culture in which Rio Secreto is steeped, the company makes significant environmental preservation efforts. Because the fluvian system is the main source of clean drinking water for that part of the Yucatan, only 10% of the caves are currently in use for guest tours. The profits are then used to fund the preservation of the other 90%.
A Little History
According to our charismatic tour guide, Tomas – who was part storyteller, part conservationist expert – the caves were considered sacred by the Ancient Mayans. Viewed as the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan spirit world, they were often used for rituals involving symbolic cleansing and rebirth. Of course, this was all thousands of years ago. The caves were recently rediscovered by a man hunting an iguana on his property. Apparently, while iguana meat is certainly no delicacy in the region, it is considered acceptable fare.
While scrambling through the brush after the lizard, the man stumbled upon a cenote. Cenotes are areas where the earth has collapsed to reveal a cave underneath. They are often filled with water, however, this particular cenote was dry and in fact one of several entrances to the fluvian system. Once the caves were explored, which took some time as there are over six miles of caves to navigate, the project to introduce tourists to the underground beauty of Rio Secreto began.
Why Is It Worth It?
There are, of course, a number of ecotourism opportunities in the Riviera Maya/Cancun area. In a market that feels almost oversaturated, however, Rio Secreto stands out. Intimately small tour sizes, truly enthusiastic staff, and less than exorbitant prices definitely help. Plus, the caves are just insanely cool!
What Is Included?
Rio Secreto’s website boasts three different package deals, each of which includes options for transportation. I personally bought the medium package, but all of the deals include some variation of time spent in the cave system and a buffet lunch at the end of the day. The food alone is worth at least half of the price of admission. Far surpassing anything I’d eaten at the all-inclusive resort I’d booked, the hearty, traditional Mexican fare – including nopales, a surprisingly delicious cactus dish – was exactly what I needed after spending a day in the underworld.
My Journey through the Underworld
And So It Begins…
After garbing ourselves in the wet suits and water shoes that we were given, Tomas directed us to a set of outdoor shower spigots. We rinsed in frigid water – a necessary evil, he assured us, to preserve the ecosystem of the caves and underground water as much as we could. On our way to the cave entrance, we stopped for a blessing to bring us safely out of Xibalba. Tomas taught us about the flora and fauna of the jungle as we walked – a mixture of solid biological facts and Ancient Mayan legends – in a breezy, conversational manner that put us at ease.
Down, Down, Down.
The temperature difference between the surface and the inside of the caves was immediately noticeable. I began to be glad of the wetsuit I wore. If the air was this cool, how would the water feel? The answer is freezing. But it was hard to focus on that small discomfort while surrounded by the staggering beauty of the caves: stalactites and stalagmites formed thick columns around us, cauliflower-shaped structures seemed to grow from the walls, and the rock looked like rippling water. Tomas filled us in on the names and qualities of the formations and explained how they were integral to the filtration of the rain water we were wading through.
Because of the seclusion from the surface and the lack of light, there really wasn’t much life in the water. I saw a few blind fish, one or two translucent cave crickets, and a small colony of bats. At one point, we stopped and were all instructed to turn off our headlamps. Then, in complete darkness and silence, we lay hand-in-hand in the water. Tomas had told us that Xibalba was also considered the Womb of the Earth, and it certainly felt womb-like, that deep silence and darkness so profound that opening my eyes made no difference. I could have floated there for hours, it was so peaceful. To my knowledge, this is a part of every tour, to truly experience the natural state of the cave.
Back to the Surface
We emerged from the caves to an explosion of sound, light, and smell. After being underground for so long, the jungle seemed that much more alive. In the midst of all this vibrancy, we biked to the next cave entrance where we rappelled down. For anyone who has never rappelled (such as myself), this is probably the best way to experience it for the first time. The entrance to the cave was about five feet in diameter and forty feet up from cave floor, which seemed incredibly far but actually felt like nothing. We stayed in this cave just long enough for everyone to rappel down before climbing back out into the sunshine.
We biked back to the main building where the buffet awaited us. After a much-needed shower – the wetsuits were smelling a little rank after all that biking – we went to look at the pictures taken of us during the tour. Unfortunately, personal photography is not allowed inside the caves to protect both the guests and the fragile cave structures. But the photographer we had following us that day, Carolina, was fantastic. I bought my set of photos, even though I look ridiculous in the too big wetsuit, sloshy shoes, and bright yellow spelunking helmet, complete with headlamp. Oh, well.
Before sitting down for lunch, Tomas met us all for shots of X’tabentun. The local honey and anise liqueur tasted like someone had distilled the afternoon sunlight: heady and syrupy and deliciously warm. This isn’t included in the official price of the tour, but Tomas is the best in the business (he told me to write that).
If You’re Ever in Playa del Carmen…
I know that Rio Secreto is not ideal for every traveler. After all, a week spent lying poolside could be someone’s idea of the perfect getaway. But if you are interested in authentic experiences, adventure, environmentally conscious travel, natural beauty, and companies that give back to the local community, then Rio Secreto is a perfect addition to your itinerary.