The Riviera Maya: "Mexico’s Gateway Destination"
In the last ten years, I have had the pleasure of visiting Cancun and the Riviera Maya a total of seven times. I always called it “Mexico’s Gateway Destination,” and after a three year break of discovering other places and beaches in Mexico, I finally returned to the crystal blue waters of the Riviera Maya. One thing that was on my to-do list was to visit one of the several eco-parks, which I had never done on my many spring break trips. I knew I wanted to see either Xelha or Xcaret, but I couldn’t decide which one or discern the real difference between them. I found myself asking the same question I am sure many vacationers strapped for time ask themselves, “Xelha or Xcaret?” Thankfully in the end, I was lucky enough to visit both. I found that they are completely different in their own unique ways and nothing at all like I expected (I expected Disneyland-ishness)! I could not believe that after all my past visits to the Riviera Maya, I had never experienced these beautiful parks before.
Now that I have encountered both, I will break down the difference between Xelha and Xcaret for my fellow vacationers who question which to go to (although I insist on making time for both if you can!)
Xcaret was very overwhelming but in a good way! Spanning over 200 acres, it would take you at least two whole days to discover everything the park offers. You could either spend the day swimming along the underground river or trying to see absolutely everything else. I chose the route to see everything else, which is a lot. I started exploring the park by seeing some of their animals: pumas, jaguars, monkeys, butterflies in the butterfly sanctuary and the most impressive, Guacamayas (Macaw Parrots)! I learned that Xcaret actually has a Guinness World Record for breeding the most Guacamayas in one year, and to see all these bright parrots just perched line after line after line was really cool. You can see here on the map that the park has many attractions, but I think the highlight for me was the Mexican Cemetery with traditional tombs right near the Mayan Village and The Knorosov Mayan Language Center.
Other things that I would recommend as musts were the Mayan show, the Charreada, and of course the Xcaret Spectacular! I have seen many similar presentations on my many travels throughout Mexico, and these were by far some of the most elaborate and moving performances of the Mexican Culture. It was a very long, jam packed 12 hour day. What I appreciate most about this park is it shows off the colors, sounds, and cultures found throughout all of Mexico, and it sparks the interest of the tourists visiting. The experience of Xcaret transforms the image of Mexico seen as being only one big beautiful beach and demonstrates that it is SO much more.
The next day, I had a feeling Xelha would be similar to Xcaret, but to my surprise, it was completely different. It was a perfect blend of rest and relaxation while still offering different aquatic activities.
The eco-park Xelha was exactly what you see in all the photographs; a calm, serene image of a breathtaking cove of perfect turquoise waters lined with bright green palm trees. They pride themselves deeply in their commitment to sustainability and preservation of the natural environment, and it shows. With that being said, I started with a complimentary nature tour that they offer to all their guests, which I thought would be super boring but actually was fantastic. During the tour, I learned not only about nature but also very interesting tidbits about the Mayans and their history.
While there is an extra cost to swim with the dolphins or to scuba dive, the main included attraction of the park is the lazy river. The river starts in a mangrove and eases its way through the multi-channel estuary of freshwater to the sea. You can chose to snorkel along and discover the tropical fish looming below or just sit back on an inner tube and peacefully drift through the warm waters. Along the way are opportunities to rope swing, jump off a cliff, zip-line into the blue water abyss or test your skills walking the tight rope across what they call “Trepachanga”. I myself decided to take a leap off “Cliff of Courage,” and it was exhilarating, and I highly recommend it for all ages!
Although frocking in the shimmering turquoise inlet all day long is tempting, make sure to visit Hammock Island and find the secret coves, cenotes and grottos scattered throughout the park. They are pretty special. What I liked most about this park, besides the obvious natural beauty, is it is all inclusive: food, drinks, towels, snorkel gear, etc. The park was completely my style, a beach-bum who doesn’t like to get my hair wet yet still surrounding myself in all the excitement and beauty that nature has to offer.