Hidden underground in Mexico’s northern Yucatan peninsula lies one of the world’s most mysterious and beautiful destinations. Thousands of cenotes (sinkholes) dot the region. Some openings are slivers in the limestone while others are cavernous circles revealing cool waters curtained by jungle vines. One glance at their wild beauty and visitors wonder, “Which is the best cenote Tulum experience?” After exploring several cenotes over the years, I enthusiastically answer, Rio Secreto Nature Reserve, where you don’t have to know how to swim.
This post is part of my Plan Now / Travel Later series. Rio Secreto hosted my tour and in response to Covid, additional safety and sanitation measures are managed carefully at the Nature Reserve. This post contains affiliate links which help in a small way to keep the blog going at no charge to you. Thank you!
Over the years, every picture of teal blue cenote pools hidden by vines and roots reaching into the water far below, fed my longing to visit. Scenes of light bending as it pierced dark waters was mesmerizing but that’s only visible while scuba diving. It takes a solid, experienced guide to navigate the waterways safely and well-honed dive skills. My first cenote dive was full of anxiety (Read about that dive experience in this earlier post.) Then on my last cenote experience in Rio Secreto, I could pause to look around, ask questions and listen to our guide while walking or wading from wonder to wonder. Can’t do that while diving!
How the Best Cenote Tulum Adventure Was Created
Several of the largest cave systems in the world lace the Yucatan peninsula. The more than six thousand cenotes are still being explored. A dense jungle has hidden them and grown through surface limestone pulverized by centuries of heat and storm. Sea levels have risen and fallen over the ages leaving decayed coral systems, then decomposing plants, insects, and animal remains mingled to create a soft crust. All this covers the karst below punctuated by ridges, buried towers and fissures. In order to survive, trees grow down into the stone, roots braid together for strength, and push deep through surface cracks into caverns of cool water below sea level.
The Mayan Connections
The Mayans revered these dark pools. The waters made villages and farming possible. When rains failed, and when over-harvesting left the land barren, ancient Mayans traveled deep into the tunnels to make offerings and ask the gods for relief. Over the last ten years Rio Secreto developers have been collaborating with Mayan descendants to preserve the land and experiences.
Getting to Rio Secreto
The entrance to Rio Secreto is about ninety-minutes south of the man-made pleasures of Cancun. It’s easy to spot along the main highway. I rented a car for the excursion but there are a range of buses, private tour options, and taxi drivers willing to give you a day rate. Rio Secreto will help you set up transportation as well. There’s ample, complementary parking on-site.
Once inside the park, friendly bilingual guides showed us what to expect with videos and then we took a short van ride into the jungle. Near the entrance to the caves, we loaded our valuables into private lockers, including cameras, which are not allowed on the tour. Don’t worry, the Reserve has staff photographers to accompany tour groups. It was freeing to concentrate on the space and navigate uneven pathways without juggling a camera. Also, no more than twelve people can navigate the narrow passages at a time. Our tiny group of four moved freely inside the tunnels.
Preservation In Action
Rio Secreto takes preservation seriously on many levels keeping watch above ground as well as below. The Reserve covers over 247 acres of lush jungle and dozens of different species of wild animals like jaguars, birds, and wild pigs. Conservation is written into their mission:
Of each dollar that you contribute to our Nature Reserve, a significant percentage is used to help preserve the local flora and fauna, for the development of studies of water quality as well as various environmental education programs through our foundation Centinelas del Agua A.C (Water Sentinels), among other important efforts.
While the fresh cenote water is meticulously filtered by the earth, humans are having an impact as tourism and development increase. All life in the Yucatan depends on clean water. In Rio Secreto, cave visitors change into swimsuits, then shower outdoors to remove any lotions or oils that might pollute the crystal waters. The waters are also tested regularly across the region. The national testing agency, SEMARNAT, and privately owned cenotes test often. I appreciated knowing the cool, clear water we navigated through was reliably clean.
After pulling on the Reserve’s equipment, I followed a narrow trail to find a tabletop altar in a clearing. A small structure stood near. Smoke rose from a goblet as a shaman circled and chanted quietly before releasing us to continue down a cliffside stairway to the cave entrance. We paused for a last-minute orientation then following, Paulina, our guide’s lead we switched on our helmet lights and stepped into the pitch black, Mayan underworld.
Check out this short video about the experience.
Choices in the Deep
It’s easy to explore the best cenote Tulum adventure at Rio Secreto. Families and visitors from four to ninety have trekked through the passages. There are several tour options and even the Rio Secreto Plus tour which includes rappelling down an interior rock face, biking as well as the ‘Salon of Peace’ experience. At one point, I spied a small group with walking sticks – very helpful for less sure-footed visitors.
My travel buddy and I took an adapted Privilege Tour with a private photographer, our guide, and a meal at the end. Time and again I was mesmerized by the dense natural sculptures, the glow of the water and shadow play. We focused our lights on columns, spiderwebs, reflections, even bats!! Ever patient, our guide answered all our questions.
Near the end of our tour, Paulina asked if we were comfortable swimming for about five minutes. Cenote water is stratified in layers. The top layer filtered down from rains and floats above salty ocean water. It can make swimming a bit more challenging. My travel buddy elected to walk to our meeting point with the photographer. I was happy to paddle through and felt like a kid, pivoting in circles to better etch the magnificently foreign sights in my memory.
The Secret in the Caverns
Rio Secreto descriptions hint at a magical experience in the cooling waters and how transformative the space can be. I felt a healing calm permeate my body, especially after stopping in one spot to turn off our lights completely. As I slowed my breath, Paulina asked us to imagine being a Mayan explorer entering the cavern by torchlight. From across the large space she approached swinging a dim light that grew in intensity. The vision was startling – how could her light glow like fire?
Later she showed us how she poured powdery crystal onto the flashlight, turning it orange. The ‘sand’ beneath us was colored by the same stone. We were surrounded by crystals. Pale ribbons of powdery minerals shimmered on the surface of the pools and stalactites sparkled with ‘Moon Drops.’ The watery minerals take ages to build into giant columns. There we stood, barely a whisper in this timeless space.
More Adventure Above Ground Too
Soon it was time to return to life on the surface. We showered and the van shuttled us to lunch inside a towering palapa woven of palm leaves. The breezy dining room opened to a garden pool and Paulina beckoned us to a small table. Moments later I savored a shot of sweet honey liquor and plates full of local dishes appeared at our table. It was an all-you-can-eat feast of local specialties: rellena negro, chicken with black beans, empanadas, small cochinita tacos, and pork slow cooked over eight hours in pits; served with a choice of iced, ruby-red jamiaca or black tea.
The walls of the dining area were carved with bright murals illustrating Mayan priests and musicians, vendors, and animals. They held court while we ate. In the rafters, fantastical paper birds of paradise floated. Across from the patio, a juvenile crocodile lay near a low pond. He seemed quite comfortable with the attention other guests threw his way. It was a sweet reminder of Rio Secreto’s partnership with the wildlife who call this jungle home.
Rio Secreto has been quietly gathering awards and attention since opening in 1987. The accolades include a Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence, inclusion in the National Geographic Top Ten, a World Travel Award and several films have featured the mysterious space.
Rio Secreto is unforgettable, as are the dedicated, sweet staff who guarantee it’s preservation as well as your safety. Thank you for coming with me on this adventure. I hope you see for yourself why this is the best cenote Tulum adventure and add it to your Cancun itinerary.
I enjoyed revisiting Rio Secreto with you here. I explored Rio Secreto myself about 8 years ago. It was an exciting experience. I had been quite nervous because I can’t swim, but I was assisted through the deeper sections. I remember seeing an altar where people left items, and since no one has much with them in a swim suit I wound up leaving a hair band.
So glad to hear that you visited and had assistance in the deeper parts. We didn’t get to an altar but that would’ve been wonderful, hairband or no.
We would love to explore this interesting sinkhole. Mexico is definitely on our radar and this would be a perfect place to begin. Thanks for the great images and exciting adventure.
I hope you visit Rio Secreto one day. Truly amazing.
Before IT happened (it being 2020) I had planned on traveling to Mexico for a few weeks. We know what happened to our travel plans for the year… but I’m now planning 2021 and cenotes have always intrigued me. Now, reading your piece, I’m even more intrigued. Yucatan, here I come!
The Yucatan is one of my favorite regions in Mexico (so far.) I too was waylaid by the health situation for the most part this year but travel is still possible when done carefully and following proven strategies.
Looks like a beautiful adventure there at Rio Secreto. Glad to learn that they take preservation seriously there, too! As much as I can appreciate the beauty of nature, the sweet honey liquor and local dishes that followed your exploration might be the highlight of my day there.
You’d love sitting in that huge dining palapa and the food was glorious indeed.