Six nature-driven theme parks in Riviera Maya promise extraordinary experiences from leisurely to bold. Imagine yourself zip-lining through rings of fire, rafting in underground caves, floating in a river of mud, or holding onto your wits and balance through a maze of optical illusions. These are fantasy wonderlands backdropped by serpentine waterways and lush tropical jungle. They are daring and, OMG, they are fun! Don’t hesitate -- all the experiences are perfectly safe.
Created by Grupo Xcaret, the six stunning, eco-friendly parks are Xcaret by Mexico!, Xel-Ha, Xplor, Xplor Fuego, Xenses, and Xoximilco. (The X is pronounced “sh.”) Each one offers totally different experiences on land and water. The parks are scattered throughout Riviera Maya between Cancun and Tulum in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
First, a recommendation: Anchor your stay at the all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret Mexico in Playa del Carmen, and you’ll have free admission and transportation to and from all the parks. Reservations are required at some of the parks, so check with the hotel concierge.
Hotel Xcaret Mexico is a sprawling resort nestled between the Caribbean Sea and verdant flora, and ribboned with pools and rivers. Swathed in contemporary Mexican art and architecture, the 900-room complex is interspersed with 10 restaurants, eight bars, and Muluk Spa. Accommodations include family suites and adult-only buildings. My garden suite balcony, appointed with a low-slung hammock and stone bathing tub, invited serious lounging as I gleefully watched monkeys playing in the trees.
Here’s a rundown on the Xcaret parks and what you should know to plan your itinerary:
Xcaret By Mexico!
The original and most emblematic of the Xcaret parks, Xcaret By Mexico pays tribute to the country’s culture and heritage. More than 50 attractions capture a wide variety of interests. Among them are recreational pursuits, animal and bird exhibits, conservation programs, archaeological sites, live musical and theatrical entertainment, a replica Mayan village, and specialty restaurants and shops. Plus, you’ll find hiking trails and sandy beaches. Food and beverages are included with Xcaret Plus admission. If you’re staying at Hotel Xcaret Mexico, you can ride the canal boat to the park.
Visit the sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation center, and stroll through the open-air aviary home to more than 1,500 exotic birds. Browse the Museum of Mexican Folk Art and hop aboard a raft on the Paradise River for a meandering cruise through the landscape. In the evening, head over to the Gran Tlachco theater for a dazzling performance of Xcaret Mexico Espectacular. The stage production features 300 dancers and musicians enacting Mexico’s story from pre-Hispanic days to the present.
Don a life jacket and jump into any of three underground freshwater rivers. A gentle current guides you through labyrinths of caves and tunnels. Openings in the rock formations provide natural light, so you can see where you’re headed.
An eco-adventure waterpark built around an inlet of the Caribbean Sea, Xel-Ha just might be the world’s largest natural aquarium. Aquatic activities are the focus here, primarily swimming and snorkeling, but there are also slides, high jumps, and water zip-lines. You also can visit the manatee sanctuary and the remains of an ancient Mayan port city. When it’s time for a break, seek out the tranquility of the hidden beaches and hammock gardens. Life vests, snorkel gear, and bicycles are provided. Buffet, snacks, and nonalcoholic beverages are included with admission.
Hike or take the Jungle Train to the start of the river, then step into a one- or two-person inner tube for a relaxing mile-long float. If you like, stop along the way to climb up a cliff and jump into the water, traverse a rope bridge, or grab onto a zip-line. A snorkeler’s paradise, Xel-Ha is a memorable destination with more than 70 diverse aquatic species, including sea turtles and stingrays. Look for the red flags that mark areas especially rich in marine life.
Climb the 160-plus stairs to the top of the Scenic Lighthouse for a panoramic view of the park and the sea beyond. Choose one of four spiral waterslides, two slow-moving and two fast, that shoot you into a cenote (the pond-like openings to the area’s subterranean bodies of water) at the bottom. The faster the slide, the more intense the ride.
Xplor And Xplor Fuego
Xplor and Xplor Fuego are dual identities of a day and night adventure playground. The park is carved into a rocky landscape millions of years in the making, helped along by a charging asteroid. Adrenaline-rushing thrills beckon on land, in water, above the treetops, and down to subterranean wonders. The adventures intensify at sunset, when Xplor becomes Xplor Fuego. Torches and bonfires illuminate the park’s same attractions for dramatic and mysterious effect. Safety harnesses, life jackets, and helmets are provided. A buffet, snacks, and nonalcoholic drinks are included with admission.
Take the wheel of a powerful amphibious vehicle, and feel the speed as you travel through rugged jungle trails, across hanging rope bridges, and into flooded caverns. Swim or raft along underground rivers, where the millenary rock formations and galaxies of stalactites are breathtaking. Soar above the treetops on the highest zip-lines in Riviera Maya, and end with a vigorous plunge into a cenote. If you’re new to zip-lining or just cautious, try the Hammock Splash, which seats you upright in a hanging mesh cocoon.
Xplor’s newest activity, Underground Expedition, is a trek through spectacular underground scenery, shallow rivers, water slides, and surprising obstacles. Choose between two paths, one physically challenging and the other one contemplative. Bring your water shoes.
Xplor Fuego’s zip-line circuit, the only one open at night in Riviera Maya, flies you through a ring of fire. It’s okay if you scream.
The first clue you are entering an unusual world is at the Xenses entrance: An enormous boulder seems to be supported by a water jet spouting from a shallow pool. It’s only one of many sensory deceptions and delights at Xenses amusement and activity park, where nothing is as it seems. Your visit is filled with aquatic, terrestrial, and aerial conquests, and crazy photo ops. How about a clean-water drinking fountain built into a toilet fixture -- will you imbibe?
Float lazily down a mud river or a salt river, or both. Stroll the Town at Xenses, where walking along a charming streetscape feels like an arduous uphill climb. Your quadriceps are quivering, and you've stumbled a few times -- only to discover you've been on level ground all along!
The Xensatorium is a pitch-dark tunnel that bores through various ecosystems like forest, desert, and savanna as perceived by senses other than sight. Go barefoot -- all the better to feel the sand, smooth rock, and water beneath your feet. The tunnel is a tad scary if you’re claustrophobic, but secluded staffers are watching and will lead you out if you need help.
You’ll literally feel like you are flying while strapped horizontally into the Bird Flight harness. Spread your wings -- I mean your arms. Fortunately, you don’t have to flap them. The zip-line does the work and ends with a splashdown.
When you’re ready to party, Xoximilco promises a floating fiesta. It’s a dinner cruise, Mexican style. Start the evening with carnival games and live entertainment on the boldly decorated plaza. Then board a brightly lit trajinera, or flat-bottomed boat, that floats along scenic canals through the park. As you dine on traditional Mexican fare and perhaps down a tequila shot or two, you are serenaded with musical genres like mariachi, ranchero, and norteno. Congenial hosts keep up the steady banter with fun facts, jokes, songs, dance moves, and drinking games. The event runs about three hours.
Dinner consists of tasting portions of more than two dozen traditional foods including ceviche, chicken tamales, shrimp with tamarind sauce, and Oaxacan milled chocolate. The bar, consisting of tequila, beer, soft drinks, and fruity beverages, is open all night. Request the vegetarian option when you purchase your tickets. Each boat seats 20 guests. Wheelchair service is available.
The entire Xoximilco experience is an adventure in Mexican gastronomy, music, and tradition. You’ll be singing and dancing the night away!
Eat the chapulines, also known as fried baby crickets. They are one of the most popular snack foods in Mexico and considered a delicacy. Another adventure: Try tequila in a new way, perhaps changuirongo-style, which mixes tequila with orange soda.
Don’t bring a camera, which can easily be damaged or water-logged. Instead, buy an Experience Photo Pass. You get a coded wristband and a map of strategic photo spots. When you come upon one, scan your wristband and strike a pose. Your “Xelfies” are taken automatically. Some parks also have photographers stationed at scenic settings. If you do carry your own electronics, secure them in waterproof cases.
When To Go
Riviera Maya’s near-perfect weather is popular with vacationers year-round, especially in the summer and winter. To avoid the peak crowds at Xcaret parks, plan your visit in the fall or spring, except around Easter.
A Note About Accessibility
Many areas of the parks are wheelchair accessible, including one lane of the Xenses Xensatorium. For water activities, private lifeguards may be available for hire. Inquire when making reservations.