The Riviera Maya is one of the trendiest travel destinations in the world, Cancun International Airport welcomes millions of visitors every year and this Mexican region is filled with exclusive resorts and countless attractions.
From stunning white-sand beaches in the magnificent Caribbean Sea to fascinating archaeological Mayan sites, with mystical cenotes and other extravagant natural wonders in the middle, the Riviera Maya literally has it all.
However, few attractions are as popular and diverse as the famous collection of 7 ecological theme parks of Grupo Xcaret. These eco-parks easily identifiable by the “X” on their names (Xcaret, Xel-Há, Xplor, etc.) offer a wide array of experiences that dig deep into the Mexican culture and the majestic nature of the zone.
Of them, my personal favorite is Xel-Há and for that reason I’m starting this series of 7 articles about the X-Parks describing you my one-day experience in Xel-Há, telling you about the attractions you can’t miss, the ones you can skip without regret, and sharing with you some useful tips to help you make the most of your own visit to this wonderful park.
Xel-Há is very close to Tulum, the hippiest town in the whole Yucatan Peninsula. So, you may want to consider a couple of days to visit the area as Tulum is definitely worth a visit and its famous Mayan ruins are also one of the most visited attractions in the Riviera Maya.
Today, I don’t want to bore you with transport technicalities, but I recommend you to rent a car as it’s the option that allows you for more independence and you can manage your own time and schedule.
That said, the first thing you need to do when arriving to Xel-Há is to choose the kind of ticket or package you want to buy. Consider yourself warned, as these are not cheap parks, but they are definitely worth of your time and money. This is the closest you’ll get in Mexico to a Disney-like experience… and the prices are certainly in that level, as all adult tickets are over $100.
You can choose from a series of different types of tickets, some include only entrance to Xel-Há, others include tours to nearby towns such as Tulum and Cobá (an interesting option if you ask me), and you can also choose a package that includes a combination of entrance to Xel-Há and another X-Park, which are only worthy if you were planning to actually visit more than one park during your vacations.
The ticket that I chose was “Xel-Ha Total” and, unless you want to visit one of the nearby towns on a guided tour, that’s the one I recommend you to buy too. This type of entrance allows you to enjoy the most activities inside the park, plus an “Optional Activity” and unlimited snorkeling, food and drinks. In other words, this is the package that gives you more bang for your buck and allows to make the most of your visit to this extraordinary park.
Once inside the park you’ll get the same anxious feeling of what to do next that you may have experienced the first time you visited Disneyland. The place is huge and there are so many things to do that it’s normal to feel a little bit overwhelmed. But that’s exactly why I’m here to help you choose the best way to spend your day at this magical place.
The first thing you need to do once you’re inside the park is to get a locker, put your swimming suit and water shoes on. If you have a little plastic bag where to hide your locker key and some cash, use it. One of those waterproof plastic bags for smartphones also come handy in places like this.
Here, we get to the point of discussing the sunscreen topic. In the whole Riviera Maya there’s a policy of avoiding the use of “normal” sunscreen in natural wonders such as cenotes, lagoons, and coral reefs. The reason for this is to protect the environment as much as possible, remember that these bodies of water receive millions of visitors every year and if each one leaves a trace of sunscreen behind in the water, the environmental impact on them would be huge. However, it’s also true that if you expose yourself to the sun for the whole day, you’ll get a sun burn for the ages. What’s the solution? There are two options: one, use an organic sunscreen and feel good about your contribution to the environment and your own protection. The other option is to simply wear a swim shirt or rash guard to protect you from the sun and keep the water free of any chemicals.
Once the sun protection problem has been solved, it’s time to get into the jungle and water! I started my day with the most recognizable attraction in the park – the scenic lighthouse. This is the tallest structure in the area and it offers extraordinary views of Xel-Ha in its entirety. Besides the undeniable beauty of the views from the top of the lighthouse, it helps you to understand the design of the park and the distribution of its attractions. If this was not enough, you can then go back down on the funniest possible way through a 98.5 feet waterslide that takes you all the way to a natural lagoon at the heart of Xel-Há. Great way to kickstart your adrenaline pumping and awake your senses for what’s about to come.
From there and as the adrenaline was hitting high, I took my kids to the aptly-named “Cliff of Courage” which is basically a 5 meters tall cliff that you can climb first as there are a series of cracks and ropes, and once on top you jump back to the river. Obviously, this may not be a kind of attraction for everyone, but my kids where up to the challenge and even if I wasn’t, I just couldn’t chicken out of it in front of them!
If you’re counting at home, that’s 2 for 2 on attractions that mixed height and speed, plus a refreshing splash at the end of it. By then, I was ready for something a bit more relaxing and I found just the perfect option for what I was needing–the “River Tour Xel-Ha”. Think of it as the lazy river of Xel-Ha. You can choose between swimming, snorkeling or just hop on an inflatable donut or double donut and let the river take you down its path. In my case, I chose a single donut for me and a double one for my two kids and we floated down the mangroves, the river and finally, the larger lagoon where several of other Xel-Ha attractions are located. The experience takes a good 30 minutes to complete and by then I was ready to get something to eat.
All of the aforementioned attractions are included in the Xel-Ha Total package that I bought, just as the delicious breakfast buffet that we got afterwards. I even managed to add in a couple of mimosas to keep up with the energy level that my kids were showing at the time.
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As you may know, children don’t seem to need to take any time off after eating three hotcakes and two bowls of cereal, so I thought that the best course of action was to take them to “Children’s World” and let them take some of that sugar rush off their organisms running and chasing each other in this little section filled with a series of water slides, rope climbs, a wading pool, a playground, and even a crocodile tunnel. What was I doing meanwhile? Well, just taking a little nap on a hammock in a lovely nearby area designed exactly for the kind of situation I was finding myself.
I wish I could tell you that my lovely kids gave me more than 20 minutes to relax, but that would be a barefaced lie and, if you are a parent yourself you would easily know it. Anyway, when you’ve been a Dad for nearly a decade you’re ready to roll no matter what, so I decided to make the most of the mimosa-fueled boldness that I was feeling at the time and go directly to our optional activity included in the Total package.
Optional activities are attractions that have an extra cost and aren’t included in most of the different types of tickets. Among the optional activities you can find amazing experiences such as the Sea Trek Stingray, where you get to walk on the seabed and have close encounters with stingrays; the Adrenalina Xel-Há, a speedboat tour that honours its name and pumps lots of adrenaline through your veins; the Power Snorkel Xel-Há, a James Bond-like kind of attraction where you get to practice snorkeling while controlling a motorjet in and out of the water.
Other optional attractions included encounters with manatees, cenote diving and relaxing massages at the Spa. However, and as much as I wanted to get a massage, my kids chose the “Swim with Dolphins Interax”, where you get to swim the dolphins, interact with one of them and get one of the best photographs of your life. I loved the whole experience and for my kids was one of the most unforgettable moments in their lives. I certainly wouldn’t have achieved that with a simple massage.
After our amazing encounter with the dolphins, we did the “Trepachanga-Salpichanga” one-two. The former is a series of rope challenges, where you need to showcase your coordination and balance skills while crossing a river below. The latter is a circuit of six zip-lines over the waters of Xel-Há that keeps the perfect balance between speed and refreshing splashes, one of the main features of this beautiful park.
By now, I was ready to get away from adrenaline-pumping activities and try some exploration of the gorgeous natural surroundings. Somehow, I managed to convince my kids to join me exploring the “Jungle Trails” and visit the “Chacah’s Garden”. It wasn’t their favorite activity, but for me was a very enjoyable activity as I was able to disconnect from all the noise of the other areas and connect with the amazing nature of this region of Mexico.
After this peaceful walk, we got a little snack to keep going and the next activity was a visit to the cenotes, where my kids swim and play with each other, while I got a much needed and refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters of these mystical underground rivers.
The day was coming to an end and my energy too. However, my kids still wanted more fun and remembering how much I paid for it, I decided that they were right. We were going to squeeze every little piece of fun we could get from this park. So, we headed to the “Land of Huh”, got a bicycle for each one and had fun riding through the jungle. This little bike ride allowed us to visit the “Xel-Ha Nursery” which is a kind of botanical garden with over 270 species of plants that once they reach a relative competent size are relocated to different sections of Xel-Ha. A truly learning experience for my kids.
We didn’t get to visit the “Meliponary” where local bees make their honey and neither we had the time to fly a kite in the park or visit the “Xel-Ha Cave”, but this gives you an idea of the size of this place and the amount of activities that you can engage with during your visit. All I can tell you is that I had an amazing day with my kids, they loved everything about Xel-Ha and I think is definitely my favorite X-Park in the region, although I acknowledge that opinions are varied on that regard.
If you want to have an activity-full day, where nature, heights, speed, and adrenaline are included, Xel-Ha never disappoints!