Spelunking in the Cenote Caves on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico – An Adventure in Eco Travel and Green Living
Published Originally at: Chicago News
In 2009 my family and I went on an eco-adventure of a life-time into the Mayan Riviera. I was invited back in 2010 to film a mini-series of short internet videos which show the region from a sustainability perspective. Rio Secreto, the underground river system near Playa Del Carmen, Mexico is an amazing beginning to the series (see photos in the gallery below).
Watch me and my fantastic 2010 guide, Victor Rodas, experience the Rio Secreto cenote caves in the below video.
Included with this post is an excerpt from the 2009 Mexican Eco-Blogging Green Adventure post-series – Spelunking in the Yucatan Peninsula’s Underground Caves and Secret Rivers. It really speaks to the Rio Secreto experience and needed to be retold in accompaniment with the above video. Enjoy!
Spelunking in the Yucatan Peninsula’s Underground Caves and Secret Rivers
Cave spelunking in the jungle – not exactly what the ordinary traveler thinks they will find on a visit to the Playa Del Carmen region, which is known for its night life and beaches. This was, however, one of the singularly most wonderful experiences at touching nature I have ever had in my life.
Just south of Playa Del Carmen, Rio Secreto is indeed a well kept secret. Our group pulled into a rather unassuming parking lot. Little did we know, the real adventure would begin as soon as we stepped into the Rio Secreto tour van.
My daughter and I climbed into the very back of the van, and our tour group immediately started off. We turned onto a paved road that strongly resembled a dirt road laid delicately on top of a roller coaster. It took several miles of twisting, turning, up, down, and tilting at all angles driving into the jungle to reach our destination.
You can imagine that being an eight year old and riding in the back of a van over an extremely bumpy road is adventure enough, but watching your Mom crack her forehead on the window pane while laughing so hard she was crying is almost too much fun for any eight year old to take. She and I were both being bounced around the back at that van and laughing so hysterically we were squealing. The rest of the passengers had a much milder ride, had no idea why were laughing, and were dead silent the entire trip while my daughter and I loudly giggled and guffawed until tears were running down our cheeks. My advice if you go to Rio Secreto – sit at the front of the tour van if you get car sick, sit at the back of the van if you are under the age of eleven.
What struck me as powerful was seeing, as we drove into the jungle on this bumpy man-made road, what an impenetrable thicket a jungle is. Without a guide, in less than twenty feet of walking into the thick green of it all you would be swallowed whole and be unable to find your way out if you became disoriented.
Soon the jungle parted to reveal an entrance to the Cenote and caves. A Cenote (pronounced “se no teh”) is a sinkhole with exposed rocky edges containing fresh ground water. The Yucatan Peninsula is the primary location of most of the cenotes in the world. Cenotes are surface connections to subterranean fresh water bodies and are formed when rock is eroded. This erosion creates a subsurface hole, which might be linked to an active cave system, and then the rock ceiling collapses creating an open hole.
My earliest cave memory was from Silver Dollar City’s Marvel Cave in Branson, Missouri when I was 11 years old. That cave had hand rails, dramatic up-lighting, and a cheesy miner-49er tour guide – thankfully not a single miner-49er was in sight as we began our spelunking adventure. Instead we had Moises – a fantastic cave-guide who so thoroughly and completely detailed the life of a cave, that I came away with a wealth of knowledge.
Rio Secreto is an incredible labyrinth of underground natural passageways. Moises helped us suit up and we walked and swam about 600 meters through the underground system. Without a doubt this look at the natural world of the Yucatan peninsula was not one we ever expected to see and the experience was a powerful one.
Thousands of calcified stalactites and stalagmites displayed.in soaring caverns emphasized the quiet and solitude of a cenote system. Drips of water sifting through the natural sieve of jungle, then sandy soil, then limestone to land underground in a silent cenote is a natural process that has happened for millions of years, and is quite amazing to behold.
At one point Moises had all of us sit in a pool of water. He asked us to turn off all our headlamps and flashlights so we could sit silently in the complete dark and listen to the caves themselves. As I write, remembering that moment brings a tear to my eye. It was very moving to sit there and be silent. To stop thinking about all the business in the world and listen to my own heart and to the dripping of the mineral-filled water. It left me considering nature in a unique and immersive way which I had never done before. Describing it is difficult, but I can say I felt something touch me in that moment of silence and darkness – it can only be described as “touching nature”.
Even the smallest child in our small group, who was only seven years old, sat quietly in the dark and touched nature. I am absolutely sure that I will never forget that moment and am even more certain that my family will also remember it forever.
Rio Secreto’s water is quite warm for an underwater system, with a year round temperature close to 70 F degrees. Our diving suits helped keep us warm and the diving shoes helped protect our feet from injury on the jagged calcifications as we navigated through the underground system of caves. Most of the time we walked, but several times the water was above our heads and we swam. Towards the end of our adventure we had to crawl through the caves and water as the ceiling was so very low.
Crystal clear fresh water runs through the cave which has been filtered down from ground level. It does not smell like mold, in fact, it smells clean. No slime or fungus or greenery of any kind grows in these caves because there is absolutely no light. We saw a family of tiny bats high up in one cavern, there were also many small catfish and are quite unafraid of humans, so they swim right up to our feet to say hello.
While I expected the caves to be the color of limestone, I was quite surprised at the dozens of different colors which covered the walls and ceilings of the caves. Mineral drips of varying sorts create different colors on the walls. Roots from trees and plants above ground can be seen forcing their way into the cenote system, breaking limestone and dipping their roots twenty feet down into the water so they are able to sip while plants in the jungle around them might be suffering a drought.
I carefully touched one of these roots and they are so thin, so delicate; it astounds me that the power of a single plant can rip apart rock just so it is able to drink water. Sparkling crystals, soaring caves, and ceilings filled with thousands of tiny formations were only the beginning of our adventure at Rio Secreto. It was truly an impressive experience to touch nature in this special way and I hope you can visit this natural wonder in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico to see it for yourself.
Seeing the world from underground is an interesting experience because it gives you a better view of the process that water really goes through. If locals were spraying herbicides and other chemicals on the jungle above this cave, the waters in Rio Secreto would soon be ruined from the chemicals. Many people who live in the jungle tap into cenote waters to live, so it is important to keep them clean and fresh.
Poisoning of aquifers and other sources of water is happening the world over. Perhaps in your own neighborhood. Now, thanks to Rio Secreto, my family has seen how the system really works.
Having experienced this, I can say how important it is to protect our water systems. Please do not use chemicals on your lawns or gardens unless you absolutely have to. These chemicals percolate through the soil and goes to a cave or underground aquifer and can be poisoned by your careless use of chemicals.
Help save our underground water systems. Each of us can make a difference and now that I understand it is a global concern, I will certainly do my part as well. It is as simple as trying not to use non-organic chemicals on your property. Please try an alternative treatment first before using chemicals – you could be saving the life of fresh water you might need to survive in the future.
To see more of Shawna’s eco-adventures, please click this link – http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/gardening-nude/eco-travel.
*All photos above which are not labeled are credited to the fabulous Rio Secreto photography staff*
Production and editing done by Brooks Visuals – www.brooksvisuals.com
Special thanks to our sponsors for this amazing journey –
- MAYA RIVIERA – www.rivieramaya.com
Thanks to our sponsor-hosts –
- HACIENDA TRES RIOS – www.haciendatresrios.com
- CENTRO ECOLOGICO AKUMAL – www.ceakumal.org
- RIO SECRETO – www.riosecretomexico.com
- XEL-HA – http://xelha.com
- XCARET – www.xcaret.com
- PUNTA VENADO – www.puntavenado.com