I have done the Secret River excursion twice – and both times I paid for it on my own, so obviously these are my own opinions, right? Some links in this post are affiliate links that earn me a small commission.
When you visit Cozumel as part of a cruise or Playa del Carmen just because it’s a fantastic vacation destination, do not miss the Secret River excursion. This is one of those once in a lifetime totally cool experiences, and the folks who manage the Rio Secreto – the Spanish name – do a fantastic job.
If I go to Cozumel again, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m still angling for a Playa del Carmen vacation that would give me the chance to do a longer tour, too. For a cruise, the Secret River excursion lasts 7 hours, but you spend “only” an hour and a half underground. If you are local, tours can last much longer, and some include picnics and meals along the way while still underground!
Even if you’re on a cruise, the Secret River excursion offers five different routes, so you can explore different caverns on return visits. I’ve done Charming and the Palace so far. Both were amazing, and I would love to explore the entire system!
If you want even more variety, some versions of the tour have additional upgrades that remove your time to explore Playa del Carmen where you can do the cave tour in conjunction with an ATV exploration of the jungle. On the quieter side, Rio Secreto has biking and other options to explore the jungle, as well.
Heading to Cozumel on a cruise? Check the bottom of this article for some of my recommendations for my other favorite tours in other locations, too.
Why I Love the Secret River Excursion
This is a truly unique experience. This underground cave provides 20% of the water for the Yucatan peninsula, yet it remained undiscovered until 2006. It’s as pristine and amazing today as it was then.
The story goes that the owners of the land were chasing an iguana that scurried into rocks. The pulled rocks away to find it, and one dropped. They heard a huge splash and excavated further. The caves they found today are only 10% mapped.
Underground? It’s awe inspiring. While the cave is generally no more than chest deep water and often shallower, the soaring stalactites and stalagmites, plus the really rare helictites. Never heard of them? Neither had I. They grow sideways from cave walls and ceilings rather than up or down.
You don’t feel crowded. From the pickup point, you split into groups that are a maximum of 12. Even if you sign up for a shore excursion with a lot of people, your individual guide leads a small group. You hear everything and see everything easily.
I feel like you get a great value for the length of your excursion and the inclusions. It’s a truly unique experience, and it includes transportation, the Secret River excursion underground, and a filling lunch. You fill your time with a variety of experiences, and for the cruise, you even have time to explore on the mainland before taking the ferry back to Cozumel.
This experience doesn’t exhaust you, either. While you do a good amount of walking and a little climbing with a tiny bit of swimming, it isn’t strenuous. That means you can bring kids with you to enjoy it. My parents declined to do this because they didn’t think they had the balance, but most people can successfully enjoy the Rio Secreto.
This excursion runs rain or shine. While you don’t want to think about rain on your vacation, it rained nearly the entire time I cruised last January, and some excursions had to cancel due. The Secret River excursion doesn’t have that issue.
On the flip side, Mexico can be hot. Nasty, beastly hot. In the jungle and underground, however, the temperature remains comfortable.
Convinced even before you read all the details? Book your day here.
What’s Included in the Secret River Excursion
Getting to Rio Secreto
Assuming you come from Cozumel, your Secret River excursion starts with a ferry ride from from Cozumel to the mainland of Playa del Carmen. The ferry takes 45 minutes, and they offer food and drink for sale.
The first time, the ferry tendered straight from the cruise ship. We exited the boat and went straight across. The second time, we tendered to shore then got cruise tickets and boarded the ferry from the dock. That will vary based on where your ship docks in port and other factors, but either way, it’s a 45 minute boat ride.
Once in Playa del Carmen, you separate into groups of no more than 12 and board air conditioned mini buses. You take a 30-35 minute drive to get to Rio Secreto. While you get to the overall park in about 15 minutes, the drive back to the site is another 15+ minutes. In the end, the drive is longer than advertised but not by much, and it’s not a big deal.
Before You Go Underground
Nothing goes into the caves with you. You’ll hear me repeat a lot that this water supplies 20% of the Yucatan peninsula. It has to stay clean, so you have to store all cameras, watches, jewelry, bags, etc.
Each group gets at least one locker with a padlock to store items. The lockers are plenty big, and our items easily fit inside. You keep the key to the padlock on a spring chain you slide over your wrist for security.
As everyone stores their items, take a chance to use the restrooms. One note: toilet paper goes in trash can, not toilet, which I know is a hard habit to remember! Once you’re set, then head over to the shower area. Why?
The next step before you head underground is to take a shower to remove any oils, perfumes, etc. The water is cold, so be ready for that. The shower is mandatory, so take a deep breath and know that it’ll be over quick!
Each person must wear a life vest, helmet, and headlamp, plus water shoes. They fit you with each item to ensure they’re comfortable.
You have the option to wear a wetsuit, as well. It’s a neoprene shortie that goes to your knees and elbows. With water at just over 70 degrees, consider wearing it. The suit should be tight to insulate, but you don’t want it uncomfortable.
You can also grab a walking stick if you choose. If you take one, find one with a strap that you can place on your wrist so you don’t have to hold onto it all the time. Then you’re ready to head to the caves!
The Underground Experience
The walk from the main base to the caves varies from 5-10 minutes, as there are five different mapped routes that last the hour and a half of the tour. Not all groups will go on the same track so you don’t wait for the group to move through a space before you get there.
Each cave has rock steps to get down, and take your time. You may want to walk sideways to avoid the chance of slipping.
Once everyone gets down, turn on your headlamps as your guide instructs and follow the directions for the rest of your tour. They’ll keep you safe and give you a heads up on what to expect before you get there. I love that nothing comes as a surprise.
The water initially feels cold, but you quickly get used to it. Water is cold, but you quickly get used to it. It helps that you’re in and out of the water. It ranges from splashing ankles to over your head throughout, though again most is not more than chest deep.
The guides stop often to share info in the various caverns.
For example, you’ll see a film on the water. This isn’t dirt or oil or anything wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite. The firm shows the health of the water and caverns. It’s calcium carbonite, the mineral that eventually forms the stalactites and stalgmites you see everywhere. I won’t spoil the cool demonstration you get in one cavern.
In many places, the stalactites and stalagmites have grown together to form columns. Elsewhere, you can see where they’re close to touching but haven’t made it quite yet. The formations continue to grow. In fact, the water you see dripping from them leaves behind mineral deposits that expand each formation.
You can touch stalagmites under water for balance of needed, but make sure you avoid anything above ground where they’re still growing. The oil from your hands prevents future growth. Be careful, as the formations can be fragile. Did you know the stalactites are actually hollow straws?
In the caves, the base used to be a coral reef, and you can see that in some places where stalactites haven’t yet covered it. The popcorn looking effect on the growths is older while smoother formations are newer. Why? The water hasn’t splashed and melted as much.
The caverns have a variety of colors and shapes, including what our guide calls “bacon” formations. They actually look like bacon when you shine light behind them, which is such a cool effect I never imagined existed.
Other formations are sparkly like crystal, while yet others are yellow and look waxy. Keep an eye out to see as many different varieties as possible!
After the Cave Portion of the Secret River Excursion
Once you climb back up and return to the home base, the guides give each person a towel to dry off, and you return any gear you used. The towel is small and not super thick, but it’s adequate for what you need.
If you plan to go to the beach in Playa del Carmen after the Secret River excursion, bring a beach towel though!
After you towel off and gather your belongings, return the key to your guide. They then usher you over to a quick alcohol tasting. You get a shot of shot of liquor to salute your fellow spelunkers that contains anise, honey, and morning glory. It’s pretty good, and if you like it, you can purchase a bottle for $25 in the gift shop.
You then get time to view all your photos. Because no cameras or phones are allowed in the caves for purity reasons, there’s a roving photographer to take candid pictures of individuals going through the caves and organized group photos. If you like them, you can purchase photos $25 apiece or $99 for all of your group (about a dozen). They quickly burn them, so you take the digital images with you.
Then you head to an amazing lunch.
Secret River Excursion Food
Lunch is served buffet style with plenty of options. If you’re vegetarian, let them know ahead of time, and they can accommodate you.
The lunch includes a delicious lime broth soup in one area. Another line includes salad, papaya, and jicama. The main course follows in another line with beans, tamales, rice, coconut chicken, pork pibil, peppers, and accompaniments – achiote. Try a little of it all if you can. While the tamales were a little dry, I can’t tell you what I prefer from the other options. This is far better quality than you expect from a lunch buffet in the middle of a jungle.
You also have fountains with hibiscus water, horchata, and regular water to drink. Try the hibiscus; it’s amazing!
The buffet doesn’t have dessert, but if you’re still hungry, you can get seconds.
As the Secret River Excursion Ends…
After lunch, you have time to explore the area a bit and relax or do a little shopping in the gift shop before your guide gathers you up one last time for the van ride back to Playa del Carmen.
There are little hidden areas, including some with hammocks where you can relax until you get the call to head out.
If you’re in Cozumel, the van drops you at the pickup point, and you have time to explore the area before the ferry leaves. The ferry isn’t just for this excursion and has a specific schedule, so you can’t head back early.
Ask your guide for recommendations on what not to miss in Playa del Carmen as some have really great tips of what stores to visit or what to try. Alternatively, head to the beach just off the ferry dock and relax on the sand until it’s time to take the ferry back.
Secret River Excursion Pro Tips
Note that if you come from Cozumel, you take a 45 minute ferry to Playa del Carmen where you board the minibuses. Depending on the weather, that ferry ride gets rough. Even if the weather isn’t bad, consider taking sea sick medicine or wearing accupressure bands to help.
Make sure that you use the restroom before you head down to the caves. You’re underground for 90 minutes, and remember that’s water that serves a huge portion of the Yucatan peninsula. You have plenty of time once you store your gear in lockers to use the facilities.
Wear your suit. There’s no reason to change into it once you arrive!
If you have water shoes, bring them. Rio Secreto has water shoes they provide, but I like using my own. Make sure any water shoes you bring have good treads to help ensure you don’t slip on the wet rocks in the caves. The operators will check your shoes and let you know if they won’t work.
Test your headlamp when you get your helmet. Generally, they work just fine, but every once in awhile, a lamp runs out of batteries. Don’t let that person be you!
Feel free to bring a change of clothes. While I just wore a cover up and let my swimsuit dry, the location offers not just the bathrooms but full on changing rooms just behind them. They’re perfect for families where parents need to assist kids and make sure nothing gets left behind!
Skip the sunscreen and bug spray. Again, this is drinking water you wade through and living caves. Since you’re underground – and the jungle around the Rio Secreto is shaded because… jungle – you don’t need to worry about sun exposure. Just apply after you get out before you explore Playa del Carmen. And bugs? They’re oddly not an issue in the middle of the jungle.
Skip the walking stick if you can. It’s one more thing to carry, and you don’t need it most of the time. Just walk slowly and use safe handholds in the few places where you might need it.
Don’t forget to tip your guides. They work hard to make this a fantastic experience for you, and they deserve monetary thanks for you. They’re happy to take US dollars, but remember to carry cash in addition to a credit card for any souvenirs you may want to purchase.
Who Shouldn’t Book the Secret River Excursion?
While most people can successfully navigate the caves, this isn’t for everyone.
You must be able to walk unassisted, as you have to climb down steps into the caves and back up again. The majority of the tour involves walking in the caves, in some places across uneven ground. Though you have the option of bringing a walking stick into the caves with you, you need to feel comfortable walking on a variety of surfaces.
Toddlers aren’t permitted. Through Carnival, the minimum age for the excursion is 5, although this varies by tour operator, so check before you book.
The tour also has a weight limit of 250 pounds, as there are some tight spaces within the caverns.
Do you have a fear of water? You spend basically your entire time underground in some form of water or another. Generally it gets no more than chest deep so you can wade, but a few places are deeper and you swim or float across the cave. While you have a life vest on, if you aren’t comfortable in water, skip this.
If you suffer from claustrophobia, think twice but don’t rule it out. I’m claustrophobic. I have a problem when I sit in the middle or window seat in airplanes and the St. Louis Arch was a disaster. I loved this experience, however. Though you’re in caves, they tend to be somewhat open, with only a few places and spaces that are tighter.
If your claustrophobia gets activated by other circumstances, like not knowing where you are in space, you may want to avoid this. From the time you descend into the caves until you return to the surface an hour and a half later, you don’t see the sun. You twist and turn through the maze of caves, which can be disorienting if you need to know where you are at all times.
Have you done the Secret River excursion? What did you think?
If you’re headed to Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, book it now!
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