“Dad, can we please see the turtles first?” asked Cole. “I want to see the jaguars!” exclaimed Jordan.
With the kids on board, we waited with happy anticipation at the front gates of the Xcaret Ecopark. Located in the beautiful Riviera Maya, only a few minutes south of Playa del Carmen, Xcaret is one of the largest theme parks in Mexico. It draws busloads of tourists from both Playa del Carmen and Cancun on a daily basis and attracts a million visitors from all over the globe each year.
We were about to meet our rep for the day and really didn’t know what to expect. The kids were looking forward to the marine exhibits while Micki and I were just content to see and review everything the place had to offer. When Daniela led us through the gates we knew we were in for a treat.
Xcaret – an eco conservation project in the making
Judging from the network of roads just getting into to the park (just follow the signs and you’ll be fine) we knew that Xcaret was going to be big. Just how big was actually a surprise. We found out the park covers over 80 hectares (200 acres) of trails, attractions, ruins, cenotes and beaches. To give you an idea of its size, think Disneyland. In many ways, the two are very similar, though Xcaret has a stronger focus on conservation and marine attractions.
There are paved and unpaved paths all throughout the park with many shortcuts between the main attractions. So many so that at times it’s easy to get turned around. There are gardens and flora everywhere you look. With a butterfly pavilion, a living orchid museum, a mushroom farm (full of edible mushrooms) and a rotating scenic tower the place has it all.
It’s easy to understand why Xcaret offers a multi-day pass since we spent almost our entire day on the move and still didn’t begin to see everything. The park’s numerous restaurants, cafes and eateries were generously spread throughout the park and the 1500+ staff had the place moving along steadily. It seems like the place is alive and with the constant expansions in the park it’s easy to understand why.
The animals of Xcaret
Xcaret at is heart is a eco conservation park with flora and fauna native to the Yucatan and the rest of Mexico. From the worlds largest macaw breeding program to the spider monkey and jaguar exhibits, they cover a large section of this area’s natural wild creatures. While the focus is mainly on threatened regional species, they also include other animals like deer and tapirs and 24 varieties of local birds including hundreds of beautiful macaws, toucans, pink flamingos, king vultures and even bats in their very own natural underground bat house cave.
The marine park and Coral Reef Aquarium of Xcaret
What makes Xcaret truly shine is the local marine life with a gorgeous water area that includes dolphins, sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, manatees, crocodiles and tons of corral and fish in and around their large and nicely designed Coral Reef Aquarium complex.
They also allow you to witness what happens behind the scenes with their open to the public fish spawning area, baby turtle hatchery and butterfly nursery. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a trainer hand feeding a manatee apple slices in the back of the manatee lagoon. Like the majority of the animals in the park, the manatees in the lagoon are all rescued animals.
Sea Turtles at Xcaret Park
The kids especially loved getting up close to the baby marine sea turtles. There were hundreds in numerous large tanks and we would have loved to be there when they released them all back into the wild. Right next to the turtles was a large natural pool with several adult sea turtles lazily swimming between the rocks and around the trees. With a huge paved pathway all along the turtle area, getting a bird’s eye view of them as they swam and came up for air had Micki and I entranced. If the kids weren’t with us we could have easily sat and watched them for hours.
Xcaret – regional and cultural entity
Besides for all the animal attractions, Xcaret offers nearly everything this area of the world has to offer all in one location. From the ancient Mayan ruins on the grounds and from where Xcaret got its name, to the many cenotes and underground rivers that dot the landscape, it can all be found here. They even have a sprawling colonial Yucatan house (Hacienda Henequenera) that’s fully furnished with antiques showing off this region’s previous prosperity due to the cultivation of henequen (the plant used to make sisal rope).
There’s a grotto chapel where you can be married, a replica of an ancient Mayan village complete with a colorful Mexican cemetery and a real Catholic church on a nice hill overlooking the park called the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel where couples can get married and where mass is held every Sunday.
The underground river of Xcaret
For those that love the water, Xcaret has it covered. The underground river that runs through the majority of the park will surely be a good way to spend a portion of your day. With free life vests and storage for your things you can float down the river and experience a part of this area that’s inaccessible to the majority of the population. If you want you can also toss on a snorkel and mask and check out what’s happening below the surface. With a consistent depth of around 5 feet the length of the underground river, there are tons of entrances and exits throughout the park in case you want to stop and check out the attractions.
If you’d like to experience the joy of exploring the underground water system without getting wet, you can jump on one of the Paradise River rafts and let your captain push you and your group along as you check out the local wildlife and scenery. The kids enjoyed looking for lizards along the banks and watching the turtles and fish swim around in the water. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to swim and snorkel in the underground river, but judging by the faces of those that did it I’m sure it would have been fun. The river goes by or under several of the attractions and it was always humorous to see people bobbing along in places you’d least expect them to be.
Beach, lagoon and pools of Xcaret
Xcaret also has a large lagoon and beachfront area. From costly snack bars and cocktail stands to lounge chairs and even a spa, spending the day along the water could easily satisfy either the dedicated sun worshiper or the relaxed vacationer. With a bunch of natural salt water pools you can even enjoy everything the ocean has to offer in a safe and secure location. If that’s not your thing, you can lounge the day away and enjoy the calming ocean breezes on one of the many hammocks that are permanently set up along the beachfront.
Optional water attractions
Not only is the waterfront a good way to enjoy the calmer aspects of Xcaret, that’s also where you’ll find some of the livelier attractions. The swim with sharks exhibit is right around the corner and the swim with dolphins option is also found here. If you want to explore the ocean while under water and you don’t have time or the inclination to learn how to scuba dive you can try out their Sea Trek adventure. With their special helmet you can walk along the bottom of the ocean without even getting your hair wet! If you want to see more you can jump on a boat and head to a reef where you can Snuba (like scuba except you’re connected to a tank that stays on the surface). Either option will get you in the water quickly and easily. They definitely look like fun however it has to be noted that they’re not included in the standard pass and will cost you extra.
For those thrill seekers you can always go for a ride on Adrenalina. Promising ridiculous speeds, hairpin turns and unexpected water splashes, this oversized speedboat looks like a ton of fun. Unfortunately our kids weren’t old enough (minimum age is 8 years old) otherwise we would have totally signed up for it. To the chagrin of our kids, besides for Adrenalina, there aren’t any amusement park style rides or mechanical monsters in Xcaret. It is marketed as an Ecopark and, for the time being at least, that it remains.
For the food lovers, there are five buffet restaurants in Xcaret and we had the good fortune of having lunch at La Laguna. Not only did we have a delicious meal, but our table was near the entrance and we had a great view of the black and spotted jaguars on Jaguar Island right next to the restaurant. I’m not sure if I was channeling the felines but the steak strips were especially tasty. Micki and the kids enjoyed the freshly prepared pasta and everyone loved the many varied desserts and soft ice cream buffet. The buffets are available with the Xcaret Plus option or can be purchased once you’re there.
Performances and night time shows in Xcaret
Two things we just didn’t have time to see at the park was the Mexican Traditional Dances display and the Voladores de Papantla show (Paplanta Flying Men). The dances exhibit covers several traditional and folk dances of the area. It also includes a traditional mayan dances ball game. The flying men of Mexico is a cultural show demonstrating the dedication of early Mayan rituals. In it a man sits, dances and plays music atop a hundred foot pole while four men slowly unwind while upside down from the top in a circular pattern towards the ground. We’ve seen a similar show in Tulum and it’s quite the acrobatic feat. There’s also a demonstration during the Espectacular show in case you don’t make it during the day.
As the day progressed towards night we got to sit down for a snack and some drinks at La Cocina restaurant while enjoying the Fiesta Charra Show. In it, the charros and cowboys show off their horse and acrobatic skills right in front of the crowds and the seats in La Cocina are the best you can ask for. While an energetic and lively announcer explains what the riders are doing, the brightly clothed men and side saddled women show off to the crowd. The riders and horses do an excellent job of staying in formation while galloping around the ring and displaying the many facets of Mexican traditions. The show even included a matador on horseback and wooden bull demonstration. It was a joy to watch and the kids really loved the riders who were doing lasso tricks with their horses.
The real highlight of the evening though, if not the entire day, was the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular Show in the evening. As the Fiesta Charro show ended, we all strolled over to the huge entertainment complex, the Gran Tlachco Theater. With a seating capacity of over 8000, the place is ridiculously large and the tall concrete columns that hold the massive thatched ceiling hundreds of feet over our heads was impressive. The video below gives a good overview of why the Espectacular show is so well received.
The large, oval, open-air building centers around the main stage. Unlike a normal stage, this one is banked downwards along two sides in order for the two teams to play a match of pelota. Pelota or Ulara is a Mesoamerican Mayan ball game where teams use their hips to bump a large rubber ball through a stone ring along either side of the court. It was quite cool to watch and all the players were very skilled. They also played fire ball (pelota purépecha), a game with sticks similar to field hockey with a large ball that was lit on fire. It looked like fun and the Canadian in me wanted to jump in and play some fire hockey!
The rest of the two hour show featured regional dances, extravagant costumes, lots of tribal drums and a recreation of the Spaniards arriving in Mexico and the bloodshed that followed. It also featured more cowboys performing rope tricks, cowboy singers and, of course, a few mariachi bands. It was all extremely well done and entertaining and the 300 performers definitely make this show one of the biggest, if not the best reviewed, in the country.
One of the audiences’ and our favorite bits was the Danza de los Viejetos. The “old man dance” involved a dozen men in old man masks and canes. It was definitely the most humorous bit of the evening with the men starting off the dance quite slowly and then building up momentum. By the end they’re all moving at a decent pace and when they take off their masks and everyone sees that they really are all old men the cheering was deafening. From that moment onward they had the crowd eating out of their hands.
Overall, we had a great day in Xcaret and the kids loved the animals and the aquarium complex. The food was plentiful and decent and we could have easily spent another few days there just relaxing by the water, enjoying the underground river, the many restaurants and some of the optional activities. As it is we feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of everything Xcaret has to offer and we look forward to our next visit the next time we’re in this area.
How to Get There: Xcaret is about a 10 minute drive south of Playa del Carmen, and about a 70 minute drive from Cancun. There is ample free parking. The nearest international airport is in Cancun. You can arrange for transportation with the Park directly from Cancun or Playa. If booking online, the tour options include transportation.
How long will you need? We spent a full day there, from 10 am to 9:30 pm, which was enough time for a great visit and to hit the highlights. You’ll need two days to hit all of the attractions and shows. The park is open from 8:30 am to 9:30 pm every day with extra special events happening during local holidays.
Is Xcaret kid friendly? Cole and Jordan (aged seven and four) absolutely loved the animals, the aquarium and the marine life. They were so entertained that they even sat still through the entire two hour Mexico Espectacular show. There’s a lot of walking, so if you have smaller kids, you’ll definitely want a stroller. If your kids are picky eaters (and really, whose kids aren’t?), the majority of the buffet restaurants have a great selection of kid-friendly foods, including pizza, pasta and ice cream.
Cost: Basic admission to Xcaret is $79 per adult. You get a 10% discount if you buy through Xcaret online. An Xcaret Plus admission includes a buffet lunch, access to the Plus area and free snorkel equipment and towels. Children under 5 are free, and kids aged 5-11 get half off adult prices. You may be asked to show ID at the Park’s ticket office. The second day is half price on multi-day passes.
Xcaret kindly hosted our stay, but they definitely didn’t ask Cole and Jordan to eat their way through all the flavors of the soft ice cream buffet. And then go back for a full dessert plate. Each. They also didn’t ask us to write a favorable review. We decided on that ourselves.