Darkness closes in around you as you leave the sunlight and sunlit world behind. Before is a dim passage lit only by the light you carry. In reverent silence, you descend into the blackness.

Many ancient peoples believed that caves were gateways to the underworld. In the Mexican Yucatan, these caves most often take the form of a cenote. A cenote (pronounced see-know-tea in English from the Mayan word ‘Dzonot’ or sacred well) is a remarkable version of a cave. For ancient Mayans, they were life-giving sources of water and mysticism. By definition, cenotes are surface connections to subterranean water bodies, but that sterile definition fails utterly to describe the experience of exploring these caves and their hidden waters.

I have been to dozens of caves in the States, and I always enjoy them. My childhood fascination of the wondrous formations that adorn most limestone caves seem like they were shaped by the very hand of God. In most caves, to see a standing pool of water from a distance is the most you can expect, with the pool being caged off from access similar to how animals are enclosed to protect the zoo animals and its patrons.

But in cenotes, the water is not caged off. It is an integral part of the experience. The water is accessible, and you can touch it, wade in it and even swim in it. Such is Rio Secreto, or Secret River in English. While many cenotes are more of a swimming hole with perhaps a roof of natural stone over it, Rio Secreto is more a cave with a river that can be traversed intimately.

Rio Secreto (Secret River), cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Hiking through Rio Secreto

Hidden in the dense jungle of the Yucatan a relatively short distance from the coastal highway, Rio Secreto escaped detection until 2004 when it was discovered by landowner Don Cleo as he chased an iguana into a hole in the ground. This hole ended up being an entrance to what is now recognized as the longest cave in the Yucatan at over 12 kilometers of semi-submerged cave system that is unique. Unlike many cenotes that are completely submerged and require special diving skills to traverse, Rio Secreto is accessible to nearly all, allowing for walking, wading and floating through the cave and its river.

As if the crystal clear river wasn’t enough, Rio Secreto is loaded with speleothems. Stalactites, stalagmites and columns are innumerable, decorating the walls and ceilings in a wondrous array of beauty. You’ll marvel with how close you come to these as you swim or wade amongst them like old friends.

Since its opening in 2008, Rio Secreto has been operated properly as the natural treasure that it is. All guests shower before entering and are guided in small groups to ensure safety and preservation while

Rio Secreto (Secret River), cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Wading through Rio Secreto

enjoyment is assured. It’s good to know that it should retain its beauty for decades to come. But access to this wonder is, by its nature, limited and only a few dozen people get to experience it in a given day.

Join this small list of the fortunate by adding this wonder to your collection of special moments. It is a perfect example of careful adventure. Risks are small, and the payoff is amazing.

To get all the nitty-gritty details on how to experience Secret River (Rio Secreto) cenote for yourself, check out the companion article here.

You can see a gallery of pictures from our trip here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.


IT pro by day, avid traveler and photographer by night.

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