Exploring the Underground Rivers of Xcaret

The underground rivers of Xcaret are a geological marvel

Playa del carmen


The underground rivers of Xcaret are a geological marvel forming part of an expansive network of freshwater rivers and cenotes (natural sinkholes) found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. These intricate cave systems and subterranean waterways have evolved over thousands of years, representing some of the most significant geological features in the region.

Since opening in 1990 Xcaret has become one of the Riviera Maya’s hottest destinations, drawing millions of tourists and locals to this eco-archeological, watery wonderland. Far from its roots as a pre-Hispanic cultural and commercial center that lived and thrived in the area, today Xcaret serves as a multi-venue water park as well as an entertainment, dining and cultural extravaganza.

During our trip in May of 2023 (our third to the park) we were as excited to swim in the underground rivers as we were on our previous two trips. Driving the road through the jungle that leads to the entrance we immediately sensed that the park was going to be crowded even though we had arrived fairly early. It was clear to us that there is no “low season” at Xcaret!

Although there are over 50 different attractions, shows and interactive activities within the park we chose to escape the crowds and explore the three distinct underground rivers. With tickets in hand we headed for the lockers, stored our gear and picked up our hot pink life vests for our day long adventure into this magical world.

PGE l Xcaret l Heading into the Río Subterráneo

For our first swim we chose the Río Subterráneo (Underground River). Each of the three rivers have a distinct look and feel to them so if your going to swim all three in one day it’s simply a matter of taking the plunge into one or another as their entrances are roughly in the same location. At the entrance of Río Subterráneo we happily let a couple of families go ahead of us so as to experience the crystal clear water in solitude. The near total darkness of this river is not for the faint-of-heart although there are occasional openings that allow glimpses of filtered sunlight through the jungle canopy above. Another feature of the Río Subterráneo that may come as a surprise to newcomers is the enormous bat cave containing thousands of bats hanging from the walls and ceiling. From the darkness of the bat cave we emerged into a large, light filled galleria that is topped with a stunning stained glass installation depicting multiple butterflies in blazing colors. It is a mesmerizing sight especially after exiting the near total darkness of the bat cave!

PGE l Xcaret l Opening to the jungle above
PGE l Xcaret l Butterfly stained glass
Buoyed by the lack of crowds in Río Subterráneo we walked back to the entrance of the rivers to explore the Río Maya (Mayan River). The Río Maya features the same crystal clear water along with several recreated archaeological sites including miniature pyramids and temples as well as intricate sculptures and carvings. Although recreated, these structures and statues provide a modern day glimpse into Mayan civilization. Near the end of Río Maya there is a very large dugout canoe secured to a wooden dock atop which sits several replicas of thatched roof structures typical of Mayan houses. With the sound of exotic birds and Mayan music floating in the air it is truly an immersive experience.
PGE l Xcaret l Pyramid
PGE l Xcaret l Canoe with traditional houses
Last, but certainly not least, we explored the Río Paraíso (Paradise River). Once again we found ourselves nearly alone with the notable exception of a young couple that appeared slightly less than enthralled by the occasional darkness. With a gentle current moving us along we leisurely floated our way through the vibrant tropical foliage spotting various butterflies and iguanas while enjoying the sounds of various exotic bird calls. The last stretch of the Río Paraíso winds its way through a thick mangrove forest. Although the water in the forest is not as clear as the rest of the river (due to the tannins) it still offers up the chance to see the tangle of mangrove roots beneath the surface. This is one of the more serene sections of the Río Paraíso as the sunlight filters its way through the mangroves creating a magical dance of light and shadow.
PGE l Xcaret l Heading into the mangroves
PGE l Xcaret l Mangrove forest

Three rivers and close to five hours later we emerged through the mangroves into a large open pool with stone steps leading up to the deck of the river. With sea legs announcing their arrival we returned our vests and retrieved our gear before heading to the bluffs above the beach for some downtime in one of the many hammocks strung from palm trees overlooking the azure blue water of the Caribbean.

There is nothing like several hours of swimming to whet the appetite, so after a brief and well deserved siesta we tumbled out of our hammocks and headed to the Baja California restaurant for a late lunch before departing back to Playa del Carmen. Relaxing in the large, open-air palapa overlooking the Caribbean we enjoyed a leisurely meal of guacamole, grilled octopus and fish tacos along with a couple of ice cold cervezas. It was a fitting end to a high energy afternoon.

PGE l Xcaret l Turn left at the boulders
PGE l Xcaret l Out of the darkness and into the light

By the time that we left the park the crowds had grown substantially which is something we hadn’t noticed due to being underground for most of the afternoon! Before too long daylight would give way to nightfall and, for many in the park, the evening festivities would begin. Not wanting to drive back to Playa del Carmen in the dark we decided that we would save the popular after hours show tracing 500 years of history from the pre-Columbian era to the beginning of 20th. Century Mexico for our next visit.

Sufficiently waterlogged and exhausted we collapsed into the comfort of our bed while listening to the sound of waves lapping at the shore just outside our room. Sleep came fast and easy.