Destinations / North America / Mexico

Rio Secreto Review: One of Riviera Maya’s Most Unique Tours

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One of the things I love about visiting Mexico is that the list of things to do is endless: you can relax at a resort, pop into small towns or seek out once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Today I’m excited to share my review of one of those adventures, a tour of the Rio Secreto caves outside of Playa del Carmen.

After reading this article you’ll understand what Rio Secreto is, whether or not it’s the right experience for you and tips to make your Rio Secreto tour experience amazing. You can also check out more things to do in Playa del Carmen and Cancun family excursions for inspiration.

What is Rio Secreto?

Rio Secreto is an underground river flowing through a cave system in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The Rio Secreto caves are just over an hour south of Cancun and an easy 15 minute drive from Playa del Carmen.

In some places the caves look like typical limestone caverns with stalactites and stalacmites, but in other places you can see that the ceiling is formed by ancient fossilized coral! While some parts of the system are accessible on foot, much of your exploration is in water ranging from hip height to glad-you’re-wearing-a-lifejacket deep.

Rio Secreto was used by the Indigenous Mayan community hundreds of years ago, but was only rediscovered in 2004 by a local farmer chasing an iguana! It has been open to tourists since 2008.

A quick recap of the Rio Secreto Tour

The Río Secreto Classic Tour, which most participants do, is a half-day excursion from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. We did it while stayed at Moon Palace Cancun, and pickup and logistics were easy – Rio Secreto sends a shuttle van to most of the nearby resorts.

Once you arrive at Rio Secreto Nature Reserve you’ll be assigned to a group of no more than 10 people and taken in a second vehicle on a bumpy dirt road within the property (if you’re prone to car sickness, be sure to sit up front). At that location you’ll get a full orientation and be fitted for all the gear you need: wetsuit, water shoes, life jacket, helmet and head lamp. You’re given a locker to store all of your personal items during the tour.

Each group of 10 has their own guide (or two) to take them on the tour. You’ll walk through a well-maintained path in the jungle to get to the cave entrance and then start your journey! There are several variations of the route once you get into the cave with the goal of avoiding groups clumping together.

This is definitely an experience for the intrepid and able-bodied. At times you’ll be walking on uneven ground with very little head clearance, at other times wading in the river and sometimes full-on swimming in cool water. While our kids – 8 and 11 at the time – were nervous when the water was deep despite their swimming skills and life jackets, overall they did great. One person assigned to our group had a broken toe and she spent the entire tour cursing her friends who brought her, as it was very difficult to manage with that type of injury. Though we had traveled to Mexico with Grandma, we left her at the resort for a spa day and that was the right choice!

Once you’re down in the cave, you’ll also encounter a professional photographer with a serious camera to take amazing pictures of your experience – you can’t bring your own camera or cell phone, and you probably wouldn’t be able to get decent pictures in the challenging environment anyway. As someone who constantly feels compelled to document things for my business, it was really refreshing to just be present knowing that someone else was doing the legwork for me! All of the underground photos you see in this article were part of the Rio Secreto photo package, which I purchased for $99 (and I did just a touch of lightening using my editing software).

As you go through the route, your guide will instruct you on where to walk in the tricky places and also explain the geology and history of the caves surrounding you. You may see or hear bats or feel fish swimming by your legs. The only light is from your headlamps, but they’re sufficient to get around.

Once you emerge from the Rio Secreto cave system, exhilarated and maybe a little chilly, it’s time to dry off with the provided towels and go have lunch (you’ll be driven there, as it’s elsewhere on the property). The provided buffet is all traditional Yucatan food and was delicious. The restaurant is unfancy and open-air, and was a wonderful respite from the perfectly manicured mega-resort scene. Lunchtime is also your opportunity to purchase the professional photos from your cave tour, for which we paid $99. They were well worth it!

After lunch, you’ll hop back in the transport van and be on your merry way back to the beach. In total our Rio Secreto excursion from Cancun was around 4 hours door-to-door.

If you’re eager for a full-day excursion option, you can book the new Rio Secreto Plus package. It includes the Classic tour plus off-road biking, rappelling, hiking and a sound and light show! That tour has a stated minimum age of 7, though I think that’s pretty unrealistic for all but the most adventurous of kids.

Two quick notes on how to book a Rio Secreto tour. First, take a look at all of the options with traveler feedback – pay attention to which listing offers transportation from the area where you’re staying, whether it’s in Cancun or Riviera Maya. Second, I recommend booking at least 48 hours in advance as the transportation schedule is established the day before tours take place.

What to bring to Rio Secreto

One of the best things about the experience is that they have amazing infrastructure set up to help guests visit the Rio Secreto cenote with minimal stress! I recommend that you bring as little as possible – just what’s on my list here:

  • Swimsuit – You’ll want to wear this under your clothing on the way there so you can get geared up quickly. Be sure it’s comfortable since you’ll be wearing it under your wetsuit for about two hours.
  • Dry clothing – Mid-day groups have lunch after touring Rio Secreto caves, so you’ll want to be comfortable and dry. Don’t forget underwear!
  • Wet bag – Be sure to have a place to store your swimsuit when you’re done! This version is more expensive but also a little larger and I love the brand’s quality products
  • Credit card – To pay for the photo package, which is absolutely worth it – purchase at the gift shop adjacent to lunch (we use this one since it has no foreign transaction fees and earns double points on travel expenses)
  • Cash – Optional, to tip your guide

In the photo above, the only things we have that belong to us are our swimsuits! Note that you aren’t allowed to use bug spray or sunscreen but you really don’t need them.

Rio Secreto Mexico FAQs

Is Rio Secreto a cenote?

Yes, Rio Secreto is considered a “closed cenote”.

Can you go to Rio Secreto on your own?

You can save some money by driving yourself to Rio Secreto Nature Reserve, but to tour the cave complex you must be on an official tour with a guide.

Which is better Rio Secreto or Xcaret?

Rio Secreto is a completely different experience than visiting Xcaret Park, which we did the year before. While Xcaret has a partially underground river system (which may connect with the Nature Reserve, as they’re just across the highway from each other) it’s more of a leisurely float and most of the interesting things to see are different parts of the park. Xcaret Park is awesome and a full day of entertainment but doesn’t compare to Rio Secreto as a unique adventure – we love it for what it is, which is a wonderful Mexico-themed park that incorporates culture, ecology and some light adventures. If you’re staying in Playa del Carmen for a while, I recommend doing both but skipping the river at Xcaret to focus your time on other activities there. Get the best price on Xcaret tickets here.

What’s the minimum age for the Rio Secreto cave tour?

The minimum age for the classic Rio Secreto tour is 4 and for the plus tour it is 7. However, as a mom who has taken kids on the tour I don’t think those are realistic. Most 8 year olds should have a good time on the classic tour, and thrill-seekers as young as 6 will be ok as well. Having one parent for each kid at those ages was very helpful, and it would have been tricky if we’d had another young child with us. For the Plus tour you’ll also be rappelling and biking off-road, so I wouldn’t take my kids until closer to 10 years old.

Planning your trip to Mexico

Be sure to read these articles as you continue planning your trip to Cancun and Riviera Maya!

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