The first time I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon I couldn’t stop thinking what it must have been like for the very first person who saw it. I imagined an American Indian emerging from the dense pine forest that surrounds the canyon and stopping in his tracks, overwhelmed by the vista that spread before him. His first reaction must have been astonishment. Once recovered from the shock, his second thought must have been about how he would get across.
That same scenario plays out in my mind each time I see another geological wonder of the world. What did indigenous Africans think when they first encountered the roar of Victoria Falls in present-day Zimbabwe? How did Australian Aborigines explain Uluru, a behemoth red rock protruding from a flat, featureless plain in the center of the Australian outback? So strong are these images and questions that I’ve often joked that I must have lived a previous life as an explorer. I’ve always yearned to feel the sense of wonderment that accompanies the discovery of a place so beautiful and spiritual that it takes the breath away. Last month my wish was granted.
During my recent press trip to Iberostar Resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the resort arranged for our small group of travel bloggers to tour Rio Secreto, an underground river and cave complex deep beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula. Following an extensive orientation and briefing to ensure we understood how important it was not to touch any surface within the cave, we descended through a cenote, a sinkhole whose roof had collapsed, revealing the maze of underground passages and caverns below the surface. Eons ago, the entire Yucatan was covered by a shallow sea. Year after year, sea creatures died and fell to the sea floor. Slowly, pressure and heat condensed these calcium sediments into a thick layer of limestone. As colliding plates of the earth’s mantle gradually forced the limestone plateau up the seas receded, exposing the limestone to weather and the elements. Over time, acidic rains percolated through the limestone, dissolving the sediments until they resembled one giant chunk of Swiss cheese. It was into this Swiss cheese, rife with tunnels, passages, stalactites, stalagmites, and an underground river, that we descended.
At first we walked on uneven dry ground, trying our best to keep our balance so as not to touch any of the formations, which stop growing the moment they are contaminated by oil from a human touch. At times we inched along in single file, each of us holding onto the life vest of the person in front of us. About half-way through, our path was blocked by water; we had no choice but to swim the rest of the distance. I crept into the chilly water, suddenly grateful for the cumbersome wetsuit that had me sweating just moments before. Soon, the water was so deep I couldn’t touch bottom.
Can’t view the above slide show of Rio Secreto beneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula? Click here.
When the river became shallower our guide, Alfredo Kuri Ugalde, instructed us to squat down and turn off our headlamps. In an instant the world turned black. Not a glimmer of light reached into the bowels of the underground river. I felt the current try to drag me away and fought it with all my might; without being able to see where I was going in the labyrinth, there was no telling where I might end up or if I would be able to find my way back. During those 60 seconds I experienced what it must have been like for the discoverers of the cave – not knowing where each passage led or if there were other exits; worrying about the possibility of the floor caving in to yet another, deeper level of the mottled limestone; hoping their ropes were long enough to lead them back to safety and their lamp batteries held out. For those sixty seconds, I felt as if we were the discovers of Rio Secreto and I realized I had been right along; it’s a feeling that words can’t describe. You just have to go and experience it yourself.
Author’s note: Rio Secreto, located near the popular beachside town of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya, was discovered in 1997. The operators explored and mapped the complex for eight years before opening it to the public in 2008. There are no guard rails or walkways inside the cave, other that rough stone staircases that descend from the top of the cenotes to the caverns below. In the early years of exploration, a few colored lights had been installed to illuminate the formations, however over time the stewards realized that colored lights did not mesh well with their dedication to keeping the environment completely natural and preserving the area as an ecological reserve. Today, a series of strobes placed at strategic places along the tour path and helmet headlamps provide the only lighting. All guests must shower to rinse off lotions, perfumes and oils before entering the cave, and must wear the wetsuits, life jackets, helmets and booties provided by Rio Secreto. No jewelry may be worn on tours, nor may cameras be carried. All the photos in this article were taken by a Rio Secreto photographer who accompanied our group into the caverns. The $99 price for the photographic packages is donated in its entirety to a fund that has been set up for the preservation of the cenotes and subterranean environment of the Yucatan. The 3.5 hour tour is priced at $59.
Iberostar Resorts kindly hosted the author’s visit to the Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and to Rio Secreto. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Many thanks to the Heading There travel blog for featuring this post in their recent carnival: The best holiday destinations for winter sun. Check out Heading There blog to read about more great holiday vacation ideas.