Today we went on a tour of Rio Secreto, an amazing underground river (well, not truly an underground river, more like pools of water that slowly make their way to the ocean) that weaves through incredible caves. We started out the tour winding our way along paths through the jungle, until we came to a small clearing where a Mayan blessed us because we were going into a cenote, which the Mayans believe is an entrance to the underworld. He put some incense powder into a chalice containing coals and while speaking Mayan, slowly moved the chalice around so the smoke went around us. Once the blessing was finished we continued on to the entrance of the cenote. Upon reaching the cenote we went down a flight of stairs and entered the cave. We walked about five paces in and then our guide told us to turn our flashlights on, since the flashlights would provide the only source of light. I crouched down to get a better look at the cave and passageways and when I saw one weaving off into the gloom, it occurred to me that we would be exploring passages similar to these, so I got super excited.
Our awesome guide, Valentino, led us to the first pool of water, which was a milky blue color. We jumped in and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was not that cold. We swam across the pool of water, looking in all different directions, watching the beams from our headlamps light up the labyrinth of water and stalactites. Again and again I find myself repeating: caves are so beautiful and magnificent. It seems like caves were created to amaze the eye and humble you, and this cave surpassed all of my expectations. The formations were clustered together in groups and were all over the place. After that first pool we waded over and continued our tour. Valentino was very happy and you could tell he loved what he was doing. While the ground was slippery it was not hard to walk on, but what you really had to look out for were drop-offs when walking into pools and stalagmites lurking in the cloudy blue water (Dad cracked his knee on one and we all stumbled over and around them). At one point we had to shimmy through ankle deep water with stalactites two feet above us! The only downside was that you could not bring a camera, but they had someone taking photos of and for us.
The nice thing about this cave was that we were able to closely examine the formations, allowing us to see how they form. During the cave expedition we saw all sorts of formations, from stalactites as small as soda straws to monster ones reaching down to the ground, from tall, skinny columns, to thick pillars and everything in between. Stalactites form when water seeps through the ceiling and then seeps out in the form of a droplet. When the droplet falls it leaves a little ring of calcium carbonate which, over the course of a couple hundred years builds up and forms a stalactite (it takes a hundred years for a stalactite to grow one inch.) We could walk under some of the stalactites and see the tube formed by the water droplets. Another cool formation that we saw was called “popcorn”, which basically looks like pieces of popcorn shrunk down and put all over the place. It grows on any formation that has gone dormant, because it is formed when the water droplets come out of the formation and leave a small amount of calcium carbonate behind. What was even cooler was that we saw this happening in ‘real time’. While looking around the cavern we saw that some of the stalactites were glittering, so Dad and I walked over to one and saw little droplets of water perspiring out of it.
The third main formation that we saw was called “bacon” because of its wavy thin shape looking like a picture perfect piece of bacon. Valentino described that it happens when the cave has airflow that blows droplets of water that are running down back and forth making a wavy flowing shape. One of my favorite formations to look at was this hump in the wall that had bacon running down the side forming wavy patterns all over the place with stalactites decorating the ceiling. But my all-time favorite was a grouping of stalactites and stalagmites covered in white crystals we saw at the very end of our journey. The last thing we saw before emerging from the Mayan Underworld was a collection of different stalagmites forming from seeping water droplets. These droplets create small divots in the ground that eventually grow into a mound, which then slowly forms a stalagmite.
As we walked a little farther and saw the entrance back out into the jungle surrounded by thirsty tree roots searching for water, I found myself remembering all the different caves we have seen over the course of our trip. From walking in the ‘dry’ Wind Cave in South Dakota, to wandering through Carlsbad Caverns’ water-formed wonders in New Mexico, to scuba diving and trekking across other-worldly cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula. The variety of Earth’s caves continue to fascinate me and I know I have only just started my explorations.