Visitors to Cancun or the Riviera Maya soon hear about Xcaret, as many ads promote this attraction and sister eco-park Xel-ha: you may never be sure how to pronounce "Xcaret", but you'll certainly be aware of it.
What is It?
What, exactly, is Xcaret"? The buzzword is "eco-archeological theme park". Imagine Disney-meets-National-Geographic. Xcaret aims to package the Yucatan's Mayan history and its tropical lagoon ecology into one day-long fun experience.
The result is well-executed; Xcaret is a terrific place for a family to spend a day.
Xcaret is approximately an hour's drive south of Cancun. All resorts organize excursions; also, tourist kiosks in Cancun also outings to Xcaret and Xel-ha. Or you can rent a car and drive yourself, or take one of the buses that fly down the highway, and then return to your resort by one of the taxis waiting at the end of the Night Show.
Plan of Action
Approach your visit to Xcaret like a visit to a major theme park: arrive early; expect to spend a couple of hundred dollars; and stay as late as the park is open, to enjoy Xcaret At Night.
You'll be covering a lot of ground during your visit, so it's nice that the park has many quiet spots where you can rest in a hammock, or your kids can play in the sand. You'll also find great restaurants.
The standout activity at Xcaret is a 1,590-foot swim in an underground river.
This is indeed a fab experience, and even kids as young as five can participate: everyone is issued a life-jacket.
"Underground", by the way, doesn't mean pitch-black and scary: some areas are like tunnels, but you can always see light.
If the river gets crowded, simply get out of the water: there are many pretty places where you can climb out and take a break.
Other water activities at Xcaret include swimming at the beach and snorkeling in a warm lagoon, and premium (i.e. extra charge) activities such as dolphin encounters, snuba, sea trekking, and excursions to the coral reef.
Xcaret also has a river boat ride: very pretty, but know that this is a hot, slow, ride; families may find their time is better spent elsewhere.
More Park Features
Flora and Fauna
Be sure to visit the Butterfly Pavilion and the Tropical Reef aquarium. (See all attractions on the Xcaret map.) Also, throughout the park, you'll come across habitats for creatures such as giant turtles, or orphaned manatees.
I'm not a zoo-lover --hate to see caged animals-- but still, it was a thrill to see the magnificent pumas and jaguars who had a large "cageless" area in Jaguar Island.
As for the archeological part of the picture: there are indeed some genuine ruins in Xcaret, as well as a re-created Mayan Village that's fun for kids to explore. My family zipped past the ruins for two reasons: we'd already visited spectacular Tulum, and we were in a rush, having underestimated how much there was to do at Xcaret.
Xcaret has several daytime performances. A horseback show -- Fiesta Charra in Xcaret-- takes place right by the El Mexicano Restaurant (an excellent eatery for families.) Arrive early, get a ring-side seat, and have your meal while the show goes on.
One of the live performances: "Voladores de Papantla" -- Papantla flyers-- is based on a ceremony worshipping the sun god, 30 meters in the air. The four flying men represent the elements earth, air, fire and water. (Always check web site for updates!)
Xcaret Night Show
The grand finale of your visit is the excellent Xcaret Mexico Espectacular night-time show that takes place in a large roofed theater. This show is a spectacular production, not to be missed. Families with kids are everywhere, and the music, fast pace, and cast of hundreds including horses will keep even little kids and teenagers entertained.
The night begins* with an ancient Mayan ball game: imagine basketball with a hoop that's sideways on a wall, a sloped court, and a heavy ball that can only be hit with the hips. Next -- during our visit-- came a panoramic sweet through Mexican history, and then a medley of regional dances.
Audience reaction added to the fun, as the many Mexicans at the show cheered the regional songs.