Limestone changes in water. As the drip, drip of surface moisture passed through the Earth, from uncountable years of rainfall, some of this limestone began to erode. First cracks, then holes, then caves, then caverns, then wondrous subterranean natural cathedrals were etched out of the rock. Long before humankind had even stood up on two legs, an underground river was starting to twist its way through the early stalactites and stalagmites; crystal clear water pooling. One tiny drop after another tiny drop, in endless succession, in patient formation.
Thus it was that, four million years ago, Rio Secreto began. It is one of the best kept secrets of Playa del Carmen. A subterranean Wonderland, based in a series of caverns, 13km (8 miles) deep. It has only been open to the public for just under three years. Those visiting it tend to emerge, in blogs and forums, or excitedly chattering to friends, saying such things as, "OMG! If you do nothing else in Mexico, go there! Go there!" or "Wow! That was really spiritual. I'm going to have to contemplate this. Excuse me..." or "I've been all over the world and seen so many wonders, but Rio Secreto has blown my mind." Yep. I don't think it's going to be a 'best kept secret' for much longer.
But the owners of Rio Secreto have a deep responsibility here and they know it. When a system has taken longer to evolve than we have, then destroying it in the name of a quick buck is worse than criminal. Therefore, they have gone out of their way to ensure that it can be seen, whilst maintaining minimal damage. It's a hard call, particularly when bending to the pressure of tourist convenience could make them all very quickly rich. Yet the owners are steadfast. They are all passionate and knowledgeable about conversation. Even students are starting to be directed towards them, in order to learn about ecological sustainability.
Visitors are required to have a quick, rinse-down shower before entering the caverns. This can be done in their swimming suits, but ensures that harmful chemicals, such as might be found in perfume, sunscreen, deodorant or insect repellent, isn't carried in to pollute the pristine waters. Even band-aids and jewellery have to be removed, in case they fall into the environment. There are two tourist routes through the system, carefully planned to minimalize damage caused by people banging into rocks. Multi-lingual guides are always on hand to steer their parties in the right direction. There are discreet ropes both to mark the route and to politely keep tourists on it.
One of the other measures, often commented upon by visitors, is the lighting. Those at Rio Secreto have resisted the temptation, endemic in other subterranean attractions, of placing electric lighting throughout the caverns. In fact, there is no electricity down there at all. Instead, visitors see the spectacular sights by use of Davey Lamps. These specially adapted torches are fitted onto helmets, lighting up wherever the head is turned to see. The result is not only a sublimely magical ambience, but it also protects the rocks. You see, the limestone is still forming and the caverns still growing; the river and pools are still getting deeper, drop by drop. Rio Secreto has learned the lessons of other cavern attractions, where electric lighting creates moss, which spreads and eats away at the very things that everyone has come to see.
Another policy is more controversial amongst visitors, but entirely understandable in the circumstances. This is the banning of cameras and camcorders underground. Pictures are taken, but by a company photographer, who takes four quality snaps of each party. These can be purchased for a price, once everyone is out again. One photograph for $25 or a DVD of all four for $59. Many have bulked at this and screamed 'scam!', as some people are wont to do. But there are very good reasons for this camera prohibiton and not all of them are commercial.
The first is purely and simply to do with health and safety. The tourist routes aren't overly arduous (young children and the elderly have managed them with relative ease), but the owners refuse to harm the environment by putting down walkways. This means that visitors walk, wade or swim through the natural ways. Sometimes that involves watching their footing, therefore the guides would rather people weren't distracted by trying to take the perfect photograph. There's also the fact that cameras in hands mean that people haven't got both hands free. This can be problematic, when there are narrow, rocky areas to traverse. Not to mention the fact that photographers, who don't pay attention to their surroundings, could well be knocking off fragments of the formations.
The second reason is to do with the ambience of the place. The selective lighting renders a sacred air to the caverns. The ancient Maya did use them as a place of meditation and worship, so this isn't entirely imaginary. Most who visit the place emerge expressing gratitude at the lack of camera flashes. It would have totally detracted from the atmosphere.
The third and final reason is commercial. This is something that commercial manager, Gavin Greenwood, has apologetically defended. "I must also however point out here that given our current global economic struggle, soaring costs, and terribly expensive distribution channels (especially in tourism) our hand is sometimes forced beyond where we would like to be."
Rio Secreto is a business. That should not be something to be sneered at, even if all of the members of staff are ecologically aware. If they were just doing it for extra profit to get rich, fair enough. But that isn't why they are doing it. While Rio Secreto own the subterranean caverns, they do not also own all of the miles of land above it. If they went out of business, then there is nothing to stop landowners snapping up the cavern below them and then digging down to create their own entrances. It's not a hollow fear, as it's already happened in the past, with previous owners. A concrete door is the legacy, something which would damage the system more to remove than to keep.
As Gavin Greenwood explained, "I cannot protect Rio Secreto from fast-encroaching urban sprawl and the hoards of profit-mongers that lurk in the wings if I cannot ensure that we have a viable business. No business means no conservation of the site." All of the money, from the photographs sold, go straight into the conversation fund for the caverns. No-one forces tourists to buy them, but when they do, the funds are gratefully received. Greenwood added, "There is no sustainability if there is no triple bottom line: environmental protection/conservation; healthy community development; and profitable business."
In the meantime, the whole company seeks to spread its message of conservation, protecting our natural resources and sustainability; whilst also providing a stunning attraction for visitors to their complex. Go to Rio Secreto. It's worth it.