A Return to Adventure—With the Family

Xcaret Ecological Park
By Dave Littleton
Page 3 of 5   |  
EMERLD ESCAPE: Snorkeling Xcaret's underground rivers (Bruce Herman-Visit Mexico)

Xcaret, the Yucatan's largest ecological park, is tucked between luxurious rainforests and the turquoise sea just ten minutes south of Playa del Carmen. And after two full days of all-inclusive indulgence at the Playa Paraiso resort, we were ready to sample some of the park's activities, such as horseback riding, snorkeling, sea treks, and cenotes (underwater caverns), plus close encounters with exotic wildlife, including manatees, jaguars, tapirs, toucans, bats, and butterflies. The park delivered all that and more. And although viewing land-based wildlife at Xcaret was not particularly different from being at any decent zoo in the United States, the water-borne experience justified the visit.

A 15-minute boat ride takes you to ecologically-diverse Palancar Reef for a guided snorkel tour or to other local hotspots for snuba and sea trek expeditions. Snuba (no, that's not a typo) is less complicated than scuba diving—instead of wearing an oxygen tank, you breathe through a mask connected to a tube that snakes to an above-the-surface tank. Think of it as a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving; after a brief training class, you're ready to scope out the coral pinnacles, triggerfish, and maybe even a shy turtle. Sea treks, on the other hand, utilize an air-filled helmet similar to '50s-era dive suits that allows divers to breathe naturally with no training.

Though both kids were too young for the underwater adventures, our six-year-old was old enough (and eager) to explore the underground rivers that run throughout the park. While Katie and I strolled the lush grounds and enjoyed a tree-shaded siesta, Susan and Allie donned life jackets and floated with the gentle current through the jungle, in and out of hidden caverns, for nearly two hours. They were so enthralled with Mother Nature's handiwork that they didn't even complain about the chilly January water.

We regrouped inside Xcaret's Butterfly Pavilion, complete with multi-level gardens, trickling streams, and a tropical jungle. Mexico is home to roughly 2,000 butterfly species, and every few weeks the pavilion hosts a newly hatched species as it joins the millions of butterflies already fluttering the enclosure. Several blue-gray butterflies actually landed on our arms and shoulders, delighting the children. When it was time to leave, I had to do a fair amount of coaxing to get Allie to say goodbye to her new bright-winged friends.

Access and Resources:
Xcaret (800.292.2738; www.xcaret.com) admission costs U.S. $56 for adults and children over 12, U.S. $28 for children five to 12. Kids under five get in free. Snorkel tours cost U.S. $34 per person. Snuba tours in the bay cost U.S. $45, while snuba reef tours cost U.S. $54. Sea Trek tours cost U.S. $45.

The other two well-regarded ecological parks near Playa del Carmen are Xel-Ha (+52.998.883.3293; www.xelha.com), a smaller park under the same management as Xcaret, and Tres Rios (800.714.3643; www.tres-rios.com), though it's closed for renovations until summer 2007.

Bird lovers should also consider a visit to Xaman Ha Aviary (984.873.0593), home to 60 unique tropical bird species. It's located in Playacar, 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen.

Published: 22 May 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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