Rio Secreto: Exploring Mexico’s Underground Rivers & Caves

Rio Secreto Mexico
Rio Secreto Underground River
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Hiking in waist-deep water through dark caves at Rio Secreto, we turned a corner to discover a massive cavern decorated with incredible stalactites all over the ceiling.

Spelunking, or exploring caves, is one of my favorite adventure travel activities. I’ve hiked and crawled through natural underground passageways in South Africa, Guatemala, Iceland, and more.

But Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is teeming with incredible caves too.

There is something exciting about wandering through the darkness, deep into the Earth, not sure what you’ll discover around the next bend.

Visiting Rio Secreto gives you a taste of this rarely-seen and magical world.

We walked through the jungle to one of the cave entrances led by our guide “Ro”, who told us camera traps nearby had recently captured images of wild jaguars that call the area home.

Rio Secreto Mayan Blessing
Traditional Mayan Blessing

The Maya Underworld

Our adventure begins with a sacred Maya cleansing ritual using smoke. A local shaman asks Mayan death gods for permission for us to enter their domain.

The Maya consider these caves scared, a portal to Xibalba (aka “the place of fear”) — the Mayan underworld.

Ancient skeletons, artifacts, and petroglyphs have been discovered in the cenotes and caves that cover the Yucatan Peninsula. Some date back 13,000 years!

Caves like this were often used for human & animal sacrifice, and even today many local Maya keep clear of them.

In 2007 Rio Secreto’s owner decided to allow eco-tours through 10% of the natural reserve, in order to fund conservation for the rest of it.

Cave Entrance
Entrance to the Underworld
Stalactites in a Cave
Amazing Cathedral of Stalactites

Exploring Rio Secreto’s Caves

There are a few different entrances to the caves, covered in vines. Black holes ready to swallow us into the earth. We switch on our headlamps and head into the darkness, not sure what lies ahead.

Rio Secreto is a maze of passageways and dramatic mineral formations.

Water drips lightly from the ends of stalactites on the ceiling into the pristine blue pools at our feet. This water has slowly filtered through the porous rock, which is why it’s so clean.

We’re witnessing millions of years of geological history as we hike and swim through different chambers.

The water is cold, but the air is warm with humidity too. We squeeze through narrow cave passages, sometimes with water up to our chests. But there are also massive chambers, large enough to fit a small house inside.

Secret Caves in Mexico
Swimming through Narrow Passages

Underground River Systems

Limestone cave environments like this are very fragile. Rio Secreto has taken great pains to keep the area pristine, without installing concrete paths or tons of cheesy artificial lighting.

It’s just you and your headlamp in the darkness.

You have to watch your footing though, as the cave floor constantly changes from wet and slippery to sharp and jagged. It feels like a proper caving adventure!

Our guide occasionally placed a couple of powerful waterproof flashlights into the water, turning it into a giant glowing river of blue light.

This water is part of an intricate network of rivers that flows beneath the Yucatan Peninsula’s hollow limestone shell. It’s actually the 2nd largest underground river system in the world.

Professional cave divers love the area’s many underwater caves. But at Rio Secreto, the water level is shallow — allowing anyone to explore these caves on foot. No need for specialized scuba gear or expensive training.

Yucatan Caves width=
Pristine Underground Rivers

Getting There

Rio Secreto is located a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, off Highway 307 along the Riviera Maya. It’s about an hour south of Cancun, or 40 minutes north of Tulum.

If you have a rental car you can drive there yourself, jump in a local taxi/collectivo van, or arrange for them to pick you up at your hotel.

Book Your Cave Tour

Ready to go explore some caves in Mexico? ➜ BOOK IT HERE

Rio Secreto Tips & Advice

If you don’t get too claustrophobic and love exploring caves like me, then Mexico’s Rio Secreto is a pretty awesome experience. You are going to get wet. But don’t worry, that’s part of the fun!

Make sure to bring a swimsuit and towel. Rio Secreto provides a wetsuit, water shoes, lifejacket, helmet, and light.

Cameras are not allowed because of the wet & hazardous cave environment. However trained staff can take photos with special equipment, which you can buy at the end of the tour.

Where To Stay In Playa Del Carmen

Playa has become a popular tourist hub for travelers to base themselves while exploring the Yucatan Peninsula. If you’re wondering where to stay in Playa del Carmen, here are my recommendations depending on your budget.


Best Accommodation In Playa Del Carmen

BUDGET
Hostal MX
MID-RANGE
Reina Roja

FREE AIRBNB COUPON CODE!
Have you ever considered short-term apartment rentals? It’s a great way to save money! Click here to learn how to get $35 off your first booking.

The limestone cenotes and caves of the Yucatan Peninsula are very unique to this area, you won’t find anything quite like them anywhere else around the world. They’re one of my favorite tourist attractions in Mexico! ★

Travel Planning Resources For Playa del Carmen

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights on Skyscanner. This is my favorite search engine to find deals on airlines. Also make sure to read how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Car Hire is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent apartments from locals on Airbnb. Read more about how I book cheap hotels online.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Yucatan
Suggested Reading: The Maya: Ancient Peoples and Places

Tips for visiting the Rio Secreto caves in Mexico!
Tips for visiting the Rio Secreto caves in Mexico!

READ MORE MEXICO TRAVEL TIPS

I hope you enjoyed my guide on Rio Secreto in Mexico! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Have any questions about Rio Secreto? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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