Saturday, January 11, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - Mayan Riviera

I counted back all my trips to Mexico and realized this is my tenth visit to the country between work and play. I recall the tour guide at Teotihuacan during my first trip back in 1985 saying "Once you've visited Mexico, it's in your heart, and you'll always return". He missed his calling in fortune telling.

Though we landed at the port of Cozumel, our excursion today was on the mainland near Playa del Carmen. The "Amazing Secret River" is a limestone cave system with an underground freshwater river located in Río Secreto Natural Reserve. This day trip didn't even exist the first time we visited the Yucatan, as the cave network wasn't discovered until 2006. That's incredible considering a few million tourists visit the area every year, and caves aren't exactly rare in limestone terrain. But once you've seen the thick, scrubby jungle of Quintana Roo State, it's easy to understand why. A stroll in the woods is neither easy nor pleasant. Tourists generally don't stray far from the beach either.

Morning mist makes the island of Cozumel look more mysterious than it really is.

A 45 minute ferry ride took us to Playa del Carmen from the port of Cozumel. Then we slowly drove 7 km down a bumpy, unpaved road to the park. The tour guides supplied a clammy wet suit, life vest, water shoes and a hard hat that smelled like my oldest son's gym sneakers. Stacey's hat smelled like those of another son. The safety helmet had a little LED light, which (with fellow guest's) was to be the only source of illumination underground. We had to shower with well water, before getting suited up, to prevent entry of chemicals or oils into the water of the cave. Some guests took this directive more literally than others, and I seemed to be the only person thoroughly soaked before we started. Some other people just looked at the shower and called that sufficient.

After getting kitted-out we hiked about 10-15 minutes on a level trail to the cave mouth. Besides a smoky Mayan blessing at the entrance to the cave, which was a bit of inauthentic mumbo jumbo designed to make us feel culturally aware without any actual effort, this was perhaps my favorite day trip in Mexico that didn't involve ruins. It beats out Xel Ha, which was great the first time, but which is hit or miss depending on water clarity. Secret River is a bit like a Xel Ha that still has the roof and a lot less sunburned corpulence. Equipment, moderate physical effort and tight spaces limit guests to less than 250 pounds. I was absurdly pleased; nearly half of the players in the NFL aren't similarly gifted with the right physical attributes

Altogether, we hiked and swam over three miles underground, in a group of 10, for a bit more than 1.5 hours. There were a few gratuitous photo stops, but swimming in crystal clear water between stalactites while guided only with a headlamp and the silhouette of the person in front of you is a memorable experience. I don't have the time or inclination to be the kind of person who carefully maps these systems for fun or science (this particular cave network has at least 200 miles mapped so far), but it gave me a little taste of a caver's thrills. The main challenge was simultaneously watching your step and your head and pointing out sudden drops or trip hazards to the guest immediately behind. I was promptly assigned the rear post, so my selfishness was obviously apparent to our guide Nunes. I don't think he trusted a geologist to look out for anyone else while surrounded by rocks.

While in the water, our focus was on treading carefully, to prevent scraping a toe or leg on flooded stalagmites. Dog paddling with only your arms is not very efficient, so I occasionally flipped myself on my back for more propulsion and navigated over my shoulder. To hear some people's yelps when entering the water you'd think they just fell into the Bering sea. However, the cave's air temperature was near 75° Fahrenheit, which is pretty warm for the average North American body in April, and the wet suit mitigated most of the shock of the slightly cooler water. Altogether it was relatively comfortable except for initial immersion and the occasional whiff of someone's helmet.

Rio Secreto Natural Reserve near Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Like all caves of any extent, it was utterly dark when we all turned off our headlamps. That was a surreal experience when floating in one of the deeper pools. When lights were on, we saw no animals other than one catfish, a bat and an irritated scorpion. The latter was stranded on an isolated stalagmite, and I'm not entirely sure he wasn't a prop. That may explain his attitude.

There were at least three wide spots where I couldn't touch bottom. Unfortunately, there were no bubbles in the pools unless you provided your own, and burritos were not served until after we left the cave. The food was excellent, especially the Taquitos and a selection of hot salsas. There were tamales and a green juice, both made in part with a local plant called Chaya. A hot and sour lime tomato soup with chips was particularly good.

You probably couldn't do this tour in the U.S. However, the staff seemed genuinely committed to preventing any damage to the speleothems. We were kept to a narrow and controlled path, and Nunes was a conscientious guide. I didn't see any apparent degradation or unnatural breakage off the beaten track, though invisible skin oils can repel carbonate precipitate and prevent deposition on a handled formation. At least no one came out bearing a stalactite. Only the scorpion seemed put out.

If I ever return to Quintana Roo and the Mayan Riviera, and I'm sure my wanderings will draw me back to this part of Mexico once again, Río Secreto will be on the itinerary.