Quintana Roo, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula offers Mayan ruins, a coastline that begs exploration and a buzzing nightlife in nearby resort Cancún.

Not far from the coastal resort town of Playa del Carmen  is Rio Secreto, a museum of natural history that is millions of years old, deep underground.

Rio Secreto is home to some of the most dramatic mineral formations in the world, and you can journey a small part of the route of thousands of stalactites and stalagmites – if you’re prepared to hike and swim in the underground river that has carved its way through the rock over centuries.

It is absolutely worth the effort.

Expert guides lead small groups into a Mayan underworld, with rock formations dating back more than 2.5 million years. This underground network of caves was discovered in 2004, and expert exploration of the cave system took almost a year.

Exploration found small dwelling places, animal traps and altars (long since desecrated). Cave drawings are visible, and there are small piles of rocks in the entrances to a number of caves, believed to be adoratories, or temples of veneration.

The caves are semi-sunk, which means access is still possible. Eco-tours with no more than 10 people in each group are the result of a sustainable approach to managing this attraction, and groups visit different parts of the cave system to minimise the severity of impact on any one part. The undeniable benefit is that you’ll feel like you’re almost alone in Rio Secreto.

You’ll be asked to shower before you enter – this is to remove any lotions or potions on your skin – and you will need to remove jewellery so that it doesn’t affect water quality. A short hike through the jungle and you’ll descend through narrow passageways emerging into semi-darkness.

As your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, a world of crystal emerges. Stalactites (c for ceiling) and stalagmites (g for ground) stretch towards each other, some hollow tubes or cones, others tapering to a point. Where they meet, they fuse into enormous columns that seem to support the cave roof.

Exploring further into the cave network, you’ll move from wading through the crystal blue waters, to swimming through them. They’re cold, and there are tiny catfish in the water, but you’re well protected in your wetsuit. This, along with life jackets, helmet and lamp, towels and refreshments, are included in the price of your tour.

There’s something otherworldly about being submerged in this underground world. There’s serenity in the stillness and peace of the caves, but something almost alien about the mineral formations that decorate them. Whether you emerge into the light with regret or relief, the magical river and the underworld it winds through will be etched on your memory forever.

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