Xel Ha, Riviera Maya: Mexico’s “Natural” Theme Park
Xel Ha is Disney meets the Caribbean. No, it’s not a Disney park. But it sure seems like one.
It’s part of Riviera Maya, a 75 mile stretch along the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s east coast. Since 1997, the area has exploded with fantastic luxury hotels and, even better, several theme parks like nothing else you’ve seen.
You pay one price and get nearly everything … snorkeling, food, beaches, ziplines and so much more. Swimming and walking with the stingrays and dolphins are extra at Xel Ha, but, wow, are they worth it.
Stingrays.Twenty stingrays come and go as they please into a shallow bay along the coastline. We climbed part way down a short ladder and a guide put helmets on our heads. It’s like the ones divers wore 100 years ago, but prettier and futuristic looking. And anyone over the age of 12 can do it, even if they can’t swim.
The weight of the helmets kept us on the bottom, which is about eight feet below the surface. So we walked along the sand, then when the guide signaled, we stopped, and got on our knees.
And the fun began. The stingrays swam in while we brushed our fingers along their sandpaper skin. They rippled and flowed and seemed not quite real. And suddenly, their friends got the word. We were mobbed by rays that swam inches from our faces and brushed our legs.
Dolphins. But it was the Dolphin Trek that was really incredible. Sure you can sit in bleachers at an ocean show and watch dolphins jump and twirl. But here, you are under water. Next to them. Touching them. Feeling their power as they wind up for a jump.
At 13 feet below the surface, we were a bit deeper. Again, we had a guide/trainer and again, he motioned us to stop. Then he flicked his hand and two dolphins appeared, hovering in the water while we stroked their smooth, slick skin.
And as suddenly as they had appeared, swoosh, they were gone. And back again, this time turning over so we could see and stroke their stomachs. But it was when they jumped that we really felt their strength. They twirled, like little tornadoes, leaving only bubbles in their wake. The water rolled and we actually got pushed by the underwater wave.
There are 15 dolphins at Xel Ha, most born either here or at neighboring Xcaret. And though we didn’t try it, we saw other people swimming on the surface with dolphins … getting pushed and pulled by them and having lots of fun.
Snorkeling. We did try snorkeling the mangrove river, nearly a mile long with fish that swim up to you and stingrays burrowing into the sandy bottom. And there were the games. First we snorkeled past low cliffs with ladders and stopped to watch folks jump into the water. Next was a ropes course where you hold onto one rope and walk along another, trying not to fall into the water which is only inches below.
Ziplining. But it was the zipline that stopped us short. Of course, we had to try it. There’s a series of these low lines where you just sit in a sling and slide giggling into the water.
Back at the exit dock, we watched clouds of fish swim around the pilings and more stingrays flit about. And then, we found the hammocks and the mango coconut drinks. And we just enjoyed the sun.
Good Stuff to Know
- The list of activities at Xel Ha is almost endless: snorkeling, snuba (like scuba but easier), hammock massages, swimming with dolphins, under water trekking with stingrays and dolphins, ziplines, cliff jumps, rope walks, mountain bicycling. The entry fee gets some activities and all food and drink.
- There are two other parks in the area, Xcaret which has water activities and focuses more on Maya culture, and Xplor, which is more for adrenaline, with treetop ziplines, snorkeling and rafting in actual caves plus a drive in an amphibious vehicle through jungle and into water-filled caves.
- If you want another way to see the spectacular features in the cenote caverns, there’s Rio Secreto, a 90 minute hike and swim through one of these partially water filled tunnels with spiky stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
- Fancy “all inclusive” hotels line the beaches nearer Cancun with smaller hotels in the Akumal area, including beach bungalows. Further south is Tulum, a post-hippie collection of on-the-beach inns where dressing for dinner means putting on a T-shirt.
–By Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor and Ski and Dive Editor
Want to read more about this part of Mexico? Check out these offerings:
Or savor our recipe for refreshing Chaya Juice or two recipes for Cucumber Chili Margaritas.