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Picking a Park on the Riviera Maya — Xcaret or Xel-Ha?

Snorkeling through the grottos and caves at Xel-Ha is a great way to take a break from the heat of the day | Evaluating a Day at Xcaret vs Xel-Ha

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.

Purchase discounted tickets to Xcaret and Xel-Ha here.

The Papantla flyers performing a cultural ritual at Xcaret park in Mexico. Different types of entertainment are available throughout the park.

The Papantla flyers’ ritual has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural importance

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.

Xcaret eco park is home to over 100 species of orchids

Xcaret is home to over 100 species of orchids

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.

A waterfall at Xcaret park contributes to the habitats within the new aviary

Waterfalls contribute to the habitats within the aviary

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.

The Chapel of Guadalupe at Xcaret park

The Chapel of Guadalupe

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.

Entering one of the blissful underground rivers at Xcaret park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. A day at the park gives visitors access to water-based activities, culture, and entertainment.

Entering one of the blissful underground rivers

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.

An elaborate afternoon performance in the Mayan village at Xcaret

An elaborate afternoon performance in the Mayan village

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.

Performances around Xcaret park bring Mexican mythology and legends to life

The owl is just one of many fabulous costumes that bring performances to life

By far the biggest show – and the one most guests look forward to all day – is the nightly Xcaret Mexico Espectacular (with night admission). 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.

Dancers perform during the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, the 2-hour show that happens each night at Xcaret park

Dancers perform during the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, the 2-hour show that happens each night

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.

Xcaret park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, focuses on turtle conservation

The turtle area is one of the park’s most popular attractions

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.

Some of the ancient ruins at Xcaret eco park

Some of the ancient ruins at Xcaret

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). You can book your discounted Xcaret tickets here. There are also packages including transportation available from independent tour providers. Multi-day passes can be purchased and may be a great value if you have time.

Mexican buffet at Xcaret park

The delicious buffet at Xcaret’s La Cocina, my favorite food in the parks

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 is a nature park formed where fresh water from underground rivers meets the warm salt water of the Caribbean Sea | Picking a Park on the Riviera Maya -- Xcaret vs Xel-Ha

So much water

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.

There are many activities in the river at Xel-Ha park

If swimming isn’t enough, there’s lots to do in the river

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.

Tubing down the river is one of the best ways to spend time at Xel-Ha park

Grab a tube and jump in

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.

There are numerous animals throughout the Xel-Ha property

There are numerous animals throughout the Xel-Ha property

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.

The river entrance at Xel-Ha park is shrouded in mangroves

The river entrance is shrouded in mangroves

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.

Swimming through a cave is one of the interesting experiences at Mexico's Xel-Ha park

Take a swim through the cave on your way to the river

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). You can book your discounted Xel-Ha tickets here. There are also packages including transportation available from independent tour providers. Multi-day passes can be purchased and may be a great value if you have time.

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. Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a few pennies if you buy something, which helps offset our costs of web hosting – all at no additional cost to you.



Have you been to Xcaret or Xel-Ha?

Xcaret and Xel-Ha parks both offer great ways to spend a fun day in the Riviera Maya. But which one is best for you? Take a look at this review of everything each attraction has to offer.






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What do you think about Picking a Park on the Riviera Maya — Xcaret or Xel-Ha??

  1. Samantha December 14, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    This was our big dilemma when we were in Cancun, which park to go to. We ended up going to Xcaret which was amazing, but the Xel Ha did look equally as fun. Now I know! Next time we’ll do Xel Ha, I do like more water activities
    Samantha recently posted…Wildlife Watching Hike at Matapalo, Osa PeninsulaMy Profile

    • Laura Longwell December 14, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

      I think Xel-Ha is a more leisurely pace. You can still do the zip lines and jump off the cliffs, but you can also just float along and have a good time if you want.

      • Mary May 10, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

        Do you know if Xcaret has tubes to float down a lazy river?

        • Laura Longwell May 10, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

          I’m not aware of any floats. We wore life jackets in the river.

    • Ellen connor November 12, 2016 at 11:18 am #

      Would love too but what about hotels we can afford

      • Lance Longwell November 13, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

        Ellen – There are lots of affordable hotel options on the Riviera Maya close to both Xcaret or Xel-Ha. Check out some of the Riviera Maya hotel options. We’ve also had really good luck finding cheap accommodations by renting an apartment in Playa del Carmen and then cooking our own food (you can stock up on supplies at the Mega grocery store in Playa del Carmen). From our perspective, the Riviera Maya can actually be a really affordable destination.

  2. Katrina July 16, 2016 at 11:13 pm #

    Can you go to both parks the same visit?

  3. Olga August 18, 2016 at 12:17 am #

    What would u suggest for a family with a toddler?

    • Laura Longwell August 20, 2016 at 12:20 am #

      I can’t speak from personal experience, but I have friends who have taken toddlers to Xcaret and really enjoyed it.

  4. Zestybb August 27, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    One difference it seems is that Xel-Ha’s price is all inclusive including food and drink…but it seems Xcaret has more to offer with the shows and animal exhibits a lil more price wise and not all inclusive…decisions…sigh.

    • Laura Longwell August 27, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

      Yes, it really depends on what your interests are and if you’re looking for more activities that aren’t water-related.

  5. Darlene Reinhard December 16, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

    you mentioned needing to bring a cash deposit for xel-ha for scuba equiptment, do you remember the amount? is it per person? i can’t find any information about a deposit on their website?

    • Laura Longwell December 17, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      I believe it was $20 per person, which was fully refundable. That may have changed because the website now mentions having your bracelet scanned — like a lot of theme parks, your bracelet is tied to your ticket and allows you to get your photos and other things. There are ATMs on the property, if needed.

  6. Priscilla Solano January 5, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    Some people are saying that it may be cheaper to purchase tickets at hotel? I saw online they offer a discount if you purchase ahead… how true are these? I’d hate to buy online and realize I could have gotten a better deal there

    • Laura Longwell January 5, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

      As far as I’ve heard, the online deals are best, especially if you’re interested in more than one park. But I can’t speak to every promotion that’s run through a hotel. On our last trip there, the hotel where we were staying offered their “best deal,” which was several dollars more expensive than the online discount. For us, there’s also something to be said for certainty: locking in a good deal online in advance vs. the potential of maybe getting a better (or perhaps worse) deal from a hotel. Experience (and my gut instinct) says that the any benefits and savings will go to the hotel, not to you. Let us know what you decide to do and how the prices compare.

  7. Lindsay January 13, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    Thank you for a great write up Laura. Our family is trying to make that exact decision right now for our upcoming Spring Break trip in mid March. I have two questions and I’m not sure if you are able to help. 1. Do these two parks get very busy during Spring Break? (as in Spring Break in Disneyland busy? – long lines to wait for attractions or equipment..etc). 2. Do you know if we can get to the parks by Colectivo? We’re staying at the Grand Bahia Principe which is not too far away. Are there taxis and Colectivos waiting near the entrance of parks? I am a bit concerned about not being able to find a cab once we leave the park in the evening. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    • Laura Longwell January 13, 2017 at 11:31 pm #

      I haven’t been in March, but I know spring break is a peak time for the parks. From what I’ve heard, the longest lines would probably be for swimming/boating the underground rivers at Xcaret. Can’t say whether they would rise to Disneyland level, but I know they can run upwards of 30-minute waits at peak times. I believe the rivers are often less crowded later in the day. If lines/waits are a big concern, you might want to look into one of the other parks, Xplor. They have a color-coded board (which I totally love) that indicates the wait times for the different attractions. We’ve always had prearranged transportation, but getting a taxi shouldn’t be a problem, especially since it’s a busy time.

  8. B-rad February 13, 2017 at 8:50 am #

    My wife and I have been to both places and we are going back to Cancun in just a couple of days. We went to Xel Ha first several years ago. I fell in love with the place. It is beautiful, safe, professional, well staffed and just plain excellent. We both love to snorkel and you can spend all day swimming. There are several places to go and eat. These are huge buffet style places offering a variety of types of food depending on which one you pick. Xel Ha is very low key. It is very leisurely and it centers around a large lagoon. If you prefer to swim for a while and then get out you can walk around wonderful paths, looking at all the flora and fauna. A few years later on our next trip to Cancun, we were introduced to Xcaret and I am glad we were. There are so many different activities to see. Every where you turn there is something going on. Xcaret is excellent for families. There was an underground swimming waterway. We saw the men who spun around a pole suspended by rope. There was a great horse show. Just grab a map of activities and start planning. I highly recommend staying for the Xcaret Espectacular show that night. You can even eat dinner at the show. It is a separate charge and sells out so be sure to sign up when you first get there. If I had to pick I would say we prefer Xcaret over Xel Ha. However, You cannot go wrong with either place. Xcaret was just as nice, just as safe and professional as Xel Ha.

    • Laura Longwell February 13, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

      Enjoy your trip, Brad. There are multiple other parks to check out, if you’re looking to try something new.

  9. Sandra February 16, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    I will be out there in June for a week…I read that in xcaret my daughter who is 9 will not be able to swim with the dolphine…Can she swim with them in xel ha? I cant decide which one will be a better choice…I hear you get better prices there than purchasing them online?

  10. Kylie April 3, 2017 at 5:29 pm #

    My boyfriend and I are having a tough time with this decision as well. We are definitely mostly interested in the water activities such as the zip line and lazy river float but the underground rivers at xcaret are something that has always been on our bucket list. We aren’t extremely interested in the shows and are wondering if the underground rivers are worthy of being the decision breaker.

  11. Jily July 18, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    Hi Laura. Thank you so much for the information. We have two kids ages 11 and 9 and based on the information that you provided, we are leaning towards Xcaret. Do you know if we can bring our own snorkeling gear?

    • Laura Longwell July 18, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

      Hi Jily–Glad you found it helpful. Xcaret is probably the better choice for kids because the options are endless. I assume that you can bring your own equipment, but I don’t know for sure as I haven’t tried.

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