Imagine a rip-roaring Indiana Jones’ day-out. Swimming along a subterranean river, walking rope bridges high in a steamy jungle of touchwood trees, swimming with sharks and perilously hanging onto a rope across the ocean. Slammin’ down Tequila shots if you choose. If you’ve taken the chaotic horn-blaring road south from Cancun for 35 miles, you will have already realised that Mexico doesn’t have a health and safety culture – and Xcaret is all the better for it.
Theme park? The term just doesn’t do justice to Xcaret. Esh-ka-ret, that’s how you deal with a Mexican “X”, is the real deal. Forget Disney’s plastic and micro-chip controlled rides timed to the nano-second. With the jungle creeper and waterfalls over-flowing onto the rock-paths, anghingas pecking at your shins, iguanas sunning themselves by your side and vultures eyeing you optimistically the scene is pure Attenborough. To be blunt after Xcaret any other theme park seems a bit Mickey Mouse. There’s a lot of truth in the brash tag line; “When you visit Xcaret, don’t forget to visit Cancun.”
Does any other “theme park” have a genuine Caribbean Beach? A Guinness Book of Records listing for conservation? A breeding programme that has released nearly 100,000 turtles? And recognition as one of the pioneers of eco-tourism? A determination to revive Mayan traditions by teaching school children how to embalm the dead? It is a successful formula that pulls in over a million visitors a year. Some of those stay next door at the Xcaret Grand Occidental hotel so that they can visit day after day.
If you only had one day in Mexico then Xcaret, which opened in 1990, would be the place to enjoy it: a huge 200 acre site where you can view Mexico’s wildlife, look up in awe at 200 feet high giant kapok trees, sample Mexico’s chilli-laced cuisine, snorkel with fish, walk through the rain forest, listen to mariachi music, meet 1,600 of Mexico’s welcoming diminutive people who work at Xcaret and even see remains of a remarkably advanced Mayan civilisation. This is the ultimate jungle party.
The name Xcaret originates from the Mayan / Spanish word meaning a small inlet. Once it had been a small port from which pre-Hispanic pilgrims, particularly women, had departed to visit the oracle of Ixchel, the fertility goddess, beyond the coral reef on the island of Cozumel.
The whole of the Yucatan peninsula, a curled finger pointing into the warm Caribbean, with Cancun at its northern tip, is a honeycomb of limestone. There are countless Cenotes, sinkholes where you can swim, but Xcaret gives you the opportunity to float along a subterranean river towards the coast for around 45 minutes. Park literature suggests swimming immediately you arrive but a cooling swim in the heat of the afternoon, after you’ve walked for a morning, is probably a better option. Plastic shoes to protect your feet from the jagged riverbed is another tip to heed. You bag up your belongings in a large plastic bag – they should include towel/sun cream/mosquito repellent – which is transported to the end of the river.
Although the Mayan villagers weaving, dress-making and carving maracas are obviously bussed in so much of the park is for real. An authentic graveyard illuminates the Mexicans’ colourful attitudes to death. One shrine was shaped in the expansive style of a green Cadillac, another creatively used beer bottle tops to celebrate the drinker’s love of beer. Local people are encouraged to continue using the graveyard and preserve age-old customs.
Xcaret promises Mexican wildlife but this ain’t a pokey city zoo. Dense jungle, waterfalls and a rocky landscape on a vast scale provide numerous snoozing spots for the likes of the jaguars. No one’s ever accused Xcaret of providing cramped claustrophobic accommodation. You’ll be exceptionally lucky if you see a jaguar, raccoon or tapir.
In contrast sea life is abundant. The subterranean river flows past a glass plate wall giving up-close views of manatees. If you opt to snorkel there are shoals of rainbow coloured fish. Then you can pay extra to swim with sharks. Crowds gather as a handful volunteers are intimidated by a pre-swim All-Blacks-rugby -style-haka from the black wet-suited guides. Though once the sharp-toothed sharks are persuaded to roll-over they allow the intruders to stroke their tummies. Swimming with dolphins may be a better option for those of a nervous disposition.
Most visitors arrive early on buses that pick up from hotels along the Mayan Riviera, from Cancun in the North through to Tulum in the South. So, breakfast in a charming light waiter-service cucina is popular. Tickets which include the cost of transport to the park, along with a lunch buffet inclusive of unlimited soft drinks, are a wise investment. Lunching on the stilted Caribbean Restaurant overlooking the beach and seeing speed boats departing for coastal adventure is just one option.
After sunset the light and colour show, Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, is a presentation of over 300 artists that runs you through the history of Mexico, gives a taste of the Ancient Mayan Ball Game -though in the 21st century version the losing team is not sacrificed to the Gods as a gift for the rains – and a celebration of Mexican Music.
Xcaret has created a role for itself as a guardian of ancient Mayan traditions celebrating the ancient ceremony of the “Flying Men” – the Voladores – while timing a visit for late October’s spectacular Day of the Dead celebration is worth putting in your travel diary.