Playa Del Carmen, even the name suggests hosts of activities for adventurists. Right near the Riviera Maya where snorkeling, scuba diving are second to none. Many who visit take tours to see Chitzen Itza or Lamanai ruins, but may I humbly suggest that you enter the caverns that the Mayans used to help supply their cities with water?
The Rio Secreto (or secret river) is eight miles long with fifteen natural outlets. It was through one of these outlets that Mr. Don Cleofás, a local landowner had been hunting an Iguana and quite literally stumbled into it.
The Importance of the River to the Mayans:
After an unceremonious cleansing in the chilly waters to remove any lotion, makeup, sunscreen and jewelry that may contaminate the river. I donned my wetsuit and helmet and filed into the line that would lead us through the ancient jungle.
Winding through the palms, and ferns of this jungle I imagined what it would be like to be a Mayan during this time. Did they run these same paths? Did they run barefoot? What did they like to hunt? Where did they get their water? These and many other questions jumped through my mind like rabbits in a field.
We came into a clearing and were greeted by a local Mayan Shaman. These men are highly revered in the surrounding communities for their healing and spirituality. The Mayan’s believed and still revere this underground semi-sunken river as a place of spirituality, and sacred place where the rain God, Chaac visits.
Despite being in a thick vegetation, it has always been difficult for the people in this city and surrounding area to get clean fresh water. These waters are what they use to sustain life, and largely do not carry disease or animals that can contaminate it. It makes sense why the ancient culture would treat these waters as sacred, the waters are pure, and anything pure is sacred. Other historians believe that the skeletons represented human sacrifices due to the Mayan people believing these areas were inherently connected to the underworld. I like to think of the caverns as a connection to the rain God myself, seems less creepy to me.
There have been several artifacts and human skeletons discovered within the caverns, some dating back nearly 13,000 years. Caritas, or little faces, have been found carved into several of the natural entrances into these caverns, along with small piles of stones piled near the entrances as a way to both mark and adorn the entrances to the sacred river.
It wasn’t just the Caritas they found though, at one entrance, a vessel was found. Believed to be used as a water collection reservoir, dating back to 1000 AD, it is considered to be the best-preserved relic of that period. (It is now located at the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History).
One of the most impressive finds Don Cleofás made during his initial descent into Rio Secreto was a vessel believed to date back to the post-Classic period of Mayan history (1000-1697 AD).
Descending into the Dark:
After understanding how important this river was to the culture, and the history of the people. The Shaman further cleansed us with incense and a blessing before we descended into the dark.
Making our way down into the cavern via the slippery stairs, it became increasingly dark. Our small group of six turned on their headlamps, revealing the caverns of the rain God. Mystery enveloped us all and a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth, ‘I’m the real Indian Jones’, I thought.
After receiving final safety instructions and how to best preserve the caverns beauty. We filed into a buddy system and entered the sacred halls of Mother Earth.
The stalagmites and stalactites, collections of minerals forming into pointed columns over the last 2.5 million years adorned the ceilings and floors. We stepped into the river itself, carefully stepping in places where our guide advised us to – helping to preserve this space for future generations. The reverence and respect that our guide had for this place, bled into me, and I felt I was truly witnessing something majestic.
My headlamp illuminated the blue-tinted waters below me, each step producing a puff of mineral like clouds. Was I walking on earth, or in some other world? Fascinated by what I was seeing, my heart and soul drank in my surroundings…..I felt connected to the Earth and to the best parts of my soul.
I have seen stalactites and stalagmites before, these massive mineral arms are eternally reaching towards their counterpart. Formed when water seeps through the earth, drawing minerals with it, then when reaching the cavern drip from the ceiling. Over millions of years, the columns gradually stretch towards the ground, where another column forms reaching up to the ceiling. Eventually, these two arms reach each other, clasp hands and form grand columns, caverns that creates a palace fit for the Gods.
It is imperative that you only walk where the guide asks you to step and walk; because of the damage that can happen not just to you but to these ancient formations. If you rub up against the sides of the walls, the sharp limestone and calcium carbonate columns can cause open wounds and lead to infections.
Fun Fact: Calcium Carbonate is the same chemical component that you find in Tums, a supplement used for heartburn for decades.
We penetrated the caverns further and further until we were swimming in blue, mineral-rich lukewarm waters. The minerals made my skin feel so soft, the warmth provided by the wet suit with the surrounding coolness of the caverns and waters made for a relaxing and exhilarating adventure.
There were a few points where we had to hang onto our partner’s ankles, floating on our backs while our guide towed us across gaps where we couldn’t walk or swim. Each juncture our guide would stop, provide instruction, ensure our safety and provide educational information about the cave system itself, and how the water supply is still used today.
My favorite part was swimming through tiny arches, hard hat on, doggie paddling to a new visual feast. I was, in essence, the next Laura Croft in the making — THIS is what I live for, unique adventures! There is nothing more fulfilling to my soul than seeing natural wonders that are nearly untouched by man or machines. They are becoming the rarest thing humans are able to witness on this earth.
A Greater Understanding of the Sacred River:
Our guide gathered us into a cluster in the middle of a pool we were unable to touch the bottom of, carefully keeping his flashlight underwater and asking us to turn our headlamps off. He told us how important respecting nature is, how we as humans have the sacred responsibility to preserve these things that mother nature has provided for us. I would typically classify these types of talks and conversations as ‘hippie dippie’; but there was something in his manner and gentle way of talking that made me believe this was something more.
He went on to explain that our lives are often filled with money, tasks, things to see and do…..but we forget the most calming thing is often the most natural, slow and easy experiences. He brought his flashlight up out of the water and as the light illuminated my surroundings, my breath caught at the beauty. We were in a massive cavern with stalactites surrounding us like chandeliers in a great ballroom. Another light was turned on behind the adjoining cavern, and a smile took over my face. Wonder blossomed in my heart and my mind knew I was witness to something intensely special.
A few minutes passed and he then asked us to link arms in a circle, where we would be facing outwards. Then asked us to lay back into the water, letting ourselves float while looking up at the ceiling. He turned off the light, and everyone was silent. The darkness enveloped us, the water took away all sound and cradled us in its arms — a sensory deprivation experience like none other. He let us stay like that for some time. My mind ebbed and flowed like the water surrounding me, lazy, relaxed while being infused with goodness from this sacred river.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
The light lit the grand cavern like an unwelcome torch, and I reluctantly brought myself erect in the water. A calmness and serenity had settled over the group, the quiet calm and silence persisted……we were all feeling it……the earthly sacrament we had just partaken of. As we wandered through the last part of our journey, I felt intensely grateful for this experience. My friend that was traveling with me, kept saying how she wished her children could experience this. We shared our feelings and perceptions of the journey through the Rio Secreto and understood why it is protected so intensely by the locals.
A dim light ahead signaled the end of our journey. I was grateful to be headed above ground but felt a tugging to stay. We headed back towards to base camp and were brought to a buffet like meal after spending an hour or two in the caverns. We talked amongst ourselves and shared our experiences with the other group that had been taken through another portion of the cavern. Despite our time down there, I discovered that only 10% of the caverns are utilized for tours. What other wonders lay down in those otherworldly caverns?
If you find yourself near Playa Del Carmen, Cancun or Rivera Maya….I highly recommend taking this journey through the rain God’s palace. It is an experience like none other and will leave you with a new perspective and whole new respect for mother earth and her treasures.
For Tours, Transportation, Meals, and Pricing visit Rio Secreto Website for more information.
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Janiel Green is a Travel Guru with 21 years of National travel experience in the USA, and 17 years of International Travel experience. She is a highly educated, courageous, driven and dedicated individual to both her professional and personal life. She is the Founder of Culture Trekking LLC, and is dedicated to bringing a celebratory passion for humanity into her writing to make meaningful, useful, and heartfelt recommendations for a culturally enriched travel experience. For inquires please contact her at email@example.com