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!

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.
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35 thoughts on “Rio Secreto: Exploring Mexico’s Underground Rivers & Caves”

  1. We also tried out Rio Secreto. It was definitely fun and interesting but as particularly thin people we were super cold in that water! I would wear a double wetsuit or something if I knew.

  2. Hi, group of 4 and we would like to visit Rio Secreto. Are there any restrictions? I have a bad knee and I am a little over weight but I am very adventurous. Would you think I would be able to do this tour?
    Thanks for your time and help.

    • Hi, my husband and I just done this tour thru carnival cruise line and it was amazing I have knee problems and I am over weight also and I had no problems with the tour. if you can walk up and down stairs you should be fine.. happy exploring!!

  3. Which tour company would you recommend, and would you recommend a half day or full day? Is there a way to explore the Rio Secreto without a guided tour?

  4. I’ve never tried spelunking and this makes me want to just go somewhere to try! Isn’t there a really beautiful one in Vietnam that’s now close to tourists?

  5. The colour of the water in that cave is truly amazing – it almost feels like you’ve gone back millennia and have truly become part of history. I was lucky enough whilst in the Bahamas to snorkel inside a beautiful cave at the Exhuma Cays – it was a truly magical experience being inside that cave surrounded by the dappling light and differing shades of blue.

  6. I was wondering about plus size and fitting through? I have no issues at all with keeping up or that part of it, but I heard that some places were hard to fit into?

  7. Never thought that the proverb – there are two sides to every story – can also apply to a geographical location of a country. I knew that Mexico is fascinating on the surface; never could imagine that it also has as fascinating, if not more, underground. Now I wonder what underground shapes does my country have. Thank you for this revelation!

  8. You should come surf my couch sometime, Matthew! I live in Chattanooga, where the National Speleological Society has counted over 3,000 caves within an hour drive. That’s second highest density in the world, after the Karst region of Germany. Oops, did I just put 2 destinations on your bucket list?

  9. Beautiful! What is most surprising is that they have only allowed 10
    % of the natural reserve to be used. These underground caves must be miles long and deep.

  10. This sounds a little terrifying, but awesome at the same time! I went to Mexico a couple years ago but had no idea this was a thing. I didn’t even see any cenotes! That probably just means I have to go back.

  11. I have always loved caves, even as a kid! When I was like 5 I wanted to be a ‘cave explorer person’ and to this day I think caves have some of the most beautiful features on earth. I would love to visit some of these places before I die! Thank you for sharing them with the rest of us!

  12. Wawo! What an amazing looking place for adventure. I would definitely go there in this year. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing with us Matthew. Loved it:)

  13. So Matt,

    You got any articles on driving and bringing a car down to Yucatan from U.S.? Is it safe? Is it dangerous? Are there advantages, do you/not recommend relocating to Carmen Del Playa with ones’ car? I’m thinking of driving to different places and Rio Secreto is at the top of my list.

  14. I flipping loved Mexico’s cenotes. I did two of the best dives of my life there and was also fascinated to learn about the issues of trying to conserve them despite tourism-related development being a huge threat.

  15. Wow. I love your pictures! I’m thankful you share your favorite places so freely with information about how to have similar experiences!

    I might make the same trip for my blog in the future!

  16. I’m very intrigued by the smoke cleansing ritual and the spiritual aspects of the cave. I love visiting places that have centuries old sacred energy. It will definitely be on my to-do list the next time I’m in Cancun.

    • Thinking about the long & fascinating history of these places, as you explore them, is one of my favorite aspects of travel.

  17. I love exploring caves. I have explored a few in British Columbia Canda and Iceland. My next caving adventure will be Belize in a few months :) So excited! I did not realize that Mexico had tons of caves to explore as well. I definitely will be checking some out when I visit the country. Thanks for all the information; great article.

  18. I’ve always wanted to try something like this. Looks amazing! I like that Rio Secreto is more walking than swimming, that’s definitely something I’m looking for in a first cave adventure because I’m not a great swimmer (won’t drown but wouldn’t be much fun to swim for ages).

    • There is some swimming, but yeah, most of it is walking/wading through the water. Plus with the lifejacket, you don’t have to work too much.

  19. Breathtaking images Matthew!
    I always wanted to go on places like this which amaze me on every step.
    After reading your post I have added this place in my bucket list.
    The narrow cave passage is marvelous.

  20. It’s nice that they do allow you into their sacred areas. I wonder has there been a time when their prayers asking for permission to enter was denied and what would happen then.