Mexico’s Riviera Maya is a dream vacation spot. This 90-mile stretch of coastline offers endless opportunities for scuba diving, shopping, visiting ruins, lying on the beach, and eating all the tacos you can handle. There is even a group of eco-parks and attractions (you’ll recognize them by the “X”) to introduce visitors to the nature and culture of Mexico. Two of the most popular parks are Xcaret and Xel-Ha. Of course, ideally, both places will be on your list. But if your time is limited, which one should you choose?
There are big differences between Xcaret and Xel-Ha, from the physical setting of the parks to the range of activities available. What else makes the experiences unique? Here’s a look at what there is to do and see at these distinctive parks.
Xcaret Eco Park
The sheer size of Xcaret (esh-ka-ret) is a little overwhelming. At 200 acres, this park rivals the size of the Disney properties – not something you expect to see in the middle of the Riviera Maya. And yet every inch of the grounds is full of fun or educational things to do for everyone in your family.
What is Xcaret?
Xcaret bills itself an eco-theme park. I would describe it more as a giant playground…if playgrounds included underground rivers, top-notch entertainment, animals, history, and cultural displays. The park is designed to highlight the colors, sights, sounds, and tastes of the different regions of Mexico, educating visitors and certainly entertaining them along the way.
What are the activities?
As an eco park, Xcaret features a large number of animal- and nature-related attractions. Its impressive aquarium has over 500 coral reef structures and 5000 marine organisms – visitors can even interact with a few of them. Just outside the aquarium is the home of one of the park’s biggest attractions – the sea turtles. Here, turtles of all sizes are kept as part of the park’s educational and conservation efforts. Many will ultimately be released into the sea once they are large enough to have a good chance of surviving on their own.
Non-marine birds and animals also get a lot of attention. The humidity of the massive aviary (opened in 2015) hits you the moment you enter. This is intentional, though. Its multiple levels have different “environments” to be proper homes to the over 50 species of animals who live here. Nearby is the butterfly pavilion (not quite as humid), the largest butterfly facility in Mexico, which is teeming with brightly-colored regional species. Throughout the park, there are also exhibits including spider monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes, bats, and other animals. Once you’re done with the animals, don’t miss the orchid museum, which is home to 140 different species of this beautiful flower.
Around the park, there are also sites to teach visitors more about Mexican culture. The large colonial house, Hacienda Henequenera, is fully furnished with 19th- century antiques. Its adjacent Chapel of Guadalupe is designed to look like a countryside chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Images of her decorate the chapel, including one carved into a 39-foot-tall tree trunk that hangs at the front. You can visit the Mayan ruins on the property or stop by the replica Mayan village, which is complete with a colorful cemetery and even an artisan making fresh tortillas.
If you’ve gotten a bit warm walking around the park, there are plenty of ways to cool off at Xcaret. There are several swimming areas, including a lagoon and natural pools. My favorite swimming locations were the underground rivers – Blue River, Maya River, and Manatee River. Grab a life vest and some snorkel equipment and float your way through the tunnels and rock formations. Though the lengths vary, all the rivers are around 600 meters long with various points to exist along the way, if you wish.
What kind of entertainment is there at Xcaret?
There are shows and demonstrations all day long at Xcaret. At appointed times, you can see the Papantla Flyers hoist themselves several stories into the air and come spinning back to earth. You can also watch the evening equestrian show where riders show off their acrobatic skills on horseback (bonus if you’re watching with a drink and a snack from the patio at La Cocina). Every afternoon brings pre-Hispanic dances in the Mayan Village telling stories from Mexican mythology. Simply walking around the park, you’re likely to encounter dancers, parades, and other performances that will stop you in your tracks.
By far the biggest show – and the one most guests look forward to all day – is the nightly Xcaret Mexico Espectacular. The show begins with fire and legend as performers on a Mayan ball court play an ancient game to honor the Fire God. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the awesome display that sucks you in right from the beginning. The show also brings key events in Mexican history to life, including the Spanish conquest and the peoples’ forced conversion to Christianity, in a clear and engaging way. As the performances continue, more than 300 actors in elaborate costumes take you on a tour of the music, dance, and other culture aspects of the regions of Mexico.
Is it all-inclusive?
The basic entry ticket to Xcaret park includes use of life jackets and inner tubes. Food, beverages, and snorkeling equipment can be added as a package in advance or paid for a la carte along the way. There are 10 restaurants around the park that serve various types of food and drinks. Additional activities such as Sea Trek, snuba, spa services, and several different animal encounters are available for additional fees.
How is the park involved in conservation?
Part of Xcaret’s efforts are dedicated to caring for vulnerable and endangered species of animals and plants. The park’s work in sea turtle breeding and protection has helped thousands of turtles enter the wild over the last 20 years. The addition of the aviary is expanding Xcaret’s capabilities in raising and releasing certain bird species into their natural habitats. Conservations efforts even extend to organisms like coral — 80% of the coral in Xcaret’s aquarium has been rescued after a storm and partially transplanted or propagated at the park’s laboratories.
What else do I need to know?
The regular price of a basic ticket to Xcaret is $99 for adults (age 12 and older) and $49.50 for children (age 5 to 11). Packages including transportation are also available. Multi-day passes can be purchased and may be a great value if you have time.
Xcaret is meant to be a full-day activity starting in the morning and ending in the nighttime hours. Be well-rested and drink plenty of water because you will probably be walking a lot. However, all activities are at your own pace, and there are plenty of opportunities to stop and relax along the way.
Bring a bathing suit, dry clothes, good walking shoes, and cash for a deposit for the snorkel gear. A credit card or cash for snacks, souvenirs, and photos will also be useful.
Xel-Ha Nature Park
In Maya, Xel-Ha (shell-ha) means “the place where water is born,” and you can see why almost from the moment you step through the front gates. At Xel-Ha, there is water just about everywhere you look. And it is absolutely heavenly after you’ve spent any amount of time under the Mexican sun.
What is Xel-Ha?
Xel-Ha is a nature park formed where fresh water from underground rivers meets the warm salt water of the Caribbean Sea. This aquatic network of rivers, grottos, caves, and inlets is brimming with sea life, including over 70 species of fish. Xel-Ha is also home to 120 species of birds, numerous land animals, and over 300 species of plants, some of which are endangered.
What are the activities?
Aquatic activities are sure to dominate your time at Xel-Ha. There are plenty of snorkeling and swimming options in the river and caves. Snorkeling equipment is included in the admission price, so this is a great place to give it a try if you’ve never had the opportunity. There are plenty of fish to see, and the currents are easy to manage, especially since a life jacket is required. Whether you swim down the river or grab a tube and float along, you can stop at platforms in the water to try out the fun rope bridges. There are cenotes at Xel-Ha, but visitors can’t swim in them. For that, you’ll need to do a tour.
The water here is so clear and calm that it has a way of pulling you back in once you think you’re finished. One of my favorite activities came after the river swim when I tried out the zip lines. These aren’t the extremely long, high kinds you might find over a tree canopy (or perhaps over a vineyard). Instead, they’re relatively short and end with you right back in the cool water. If that’s not quite your thing, you can also take a plunge from the five-meter-high Cliff of Courage into the river. It’s higher than you think. Other water-based activities like snuba and a manatee encounter are available for an extra fee.
When you’re ready to stick a little closer to land, there are more options. You can explore the trails and bike paths that run through Xel-Ha’s 200 acres of jungle. There, you’re sure to encounter iguanas, parrots, and some of the other animals that call the property home. When you’ve had enough adventure, grab a hammock and relax.
There is also a special area for children. It includes a wading pool, water slide, and playground, among other activities.
Is it all-inclusive?
All food and drinks are included in admission to Xel-Ha. There are five restaurants and bars with different types of cuisine, non-alcoholic beverages, beer, and fruity cocktails open throughout the day. All-inclusive doesn’t stop at meals, though. The price also includes towels, lockers, snorkeling equipment, life jackets, and inner tubes – pretty much everything you need for the day.
How is the park involved in conservation?
Xel-Ha is involved in conservation and environmental protection practices in a number of ways. From providing guests with biodegradable sunscreen to eliminating straws in the park, Xel-Ha has sought out little and big changes that will make a difference to the environment. One of the park’s biggest projects is a reforestation initiative done in conjunction with its parent company Experiencias Xcaret Group, which planted more than 400,000 plants in 18 months throughout Cancun and Riviera Maya.
What else do I need to know?
A regular-priced Xel-Ha ticket costs $89 for adults (age 12 and older) and $44.50 for children (age 5 to 11). Packages including transportation are also available.
The three most important things to bring are a bathing suit, dry clothes, and cash to provide as a deposit for the snorkel gear (you’ll get it back when you return the equipment). You might also want to bring a credit card or cash for souvenirs and the photos that are taken throughout the park. An underwater camera would also be useful, if you have one.
Xcaret vs. Xel-Ha Overall
Xcaret and Xel-Ha are both great places to spend time on a trip to the Riviera Maya. Xcaret offers a broad range of entertainment, cultural attractions, exhibits for nature lovers, and water activities. The experience at Xel-Ha is focused on swimming, snorkeling, and generally enjoying all things water-related. Which park is best for you depends on your specific interests. And if, for some reason, neither of these parks seems to fit, check out the other parks in the Experiencias Xcaret family–Xenses, Xplor, or Xenotes.
Experiencias Xcaret, the parks’ parent company, hosted our visit. All opinions of the interesting, exciting, and underwater are our own.
Have you been to Xcaret or Xel-Ha?