For someone who loves to travel, I am, admittedly, not very adventurous. I struggle with anxiety in large crowds and small spaces, and, oddly enough, situations which require waiting in line are extremely difficult for me. I get nervous and sometimes nauseous. I know it’s strange, but that’s why they are called irrational fears.
With all these things considered, I still was truly excited to experience Xplor Fuego, one of the adventure parks included in our stay at Hotel Xcaret. During the daytime, the park opens as Xplor: Mexico’s premiere adventure experience, featuring the tallest zip lines in the country, subterranean river swim and raft activities, and a closed, amphibious vehicle course which takes drivers through caves, over bridges, and into rivers of the Mayan jungle. The same experiences are available at night, with the added ambiance of fire, when Xplor becomes Xplor Fuego. Xplor and Xplor Fuego are truly all-inclusive parks, with the mandatory helmet, guest lockers, and all food and drinks included with entry.
Of all of the obsessive research I had done prior to arrival, I probably spent the most time researching this park. My reasons for obsessing about Xplor were two fold: outwardly, I told my friends I was excited to zip line and swim through underground rivers; in reality, I was totally terrified that this was how I’d die.
Reviews of Xplor Fuego are generally very positive, and many people rave about the food. I found myself extremely invested in trying this rave-worthy, barbecue buffet.
After a morning of silliness at Xenses, and an afternoon by the Casa Fuego rooftop pool, we readied ourselves for the adventures promised by Xplor Fuego. I selected my most athletic bathing suit, with board shorts, knowing that even the zip line courses involved water. I strapped on my waterproof Keens, the best investment I made for the whole trip, pinned my hair up in braids (hoping to maintain some sense of cuteness under my helmet), and headed out to meet the shuttle.
It was approaching 5:00 o’clock, and the shuttle was almost empty. We were dropped off at the rear of the park and followed signs for Hotel Xcaret guests, which instructed us to enter the park through the regular exit. The path took us down into caves--legitimate caves with stalactites. The research I had done to prepare me for this park had been less than effective in representing just how unbelievable it is that this place exists.
Xplor is built with activities that wind both through the jungle landscape and in a subterranean labyrinth. Having grown up in Virginia, I have been in caves and caverns before. I was struck multiple times during this visit by the fact that in the US, just visiting the caves would have been an exceptional experience, but Xplor has incorporated them into the navigation of this adventure park.
At the center of the winding system of tunnels, some spilling over with waterfalls, is a giant mosaic heart. It is the heart of the park, the true center of everything. Each path begins and ends here. There are signs to indicate how to reach each different activity, and one of the more helpful features of Xplor is an activity board that includes lights that indicate how popular a given activity is at any time. Headed to the zip lines? Check the board first; a green light means there won’t be much of a wait.
Once we had checked in, received our helmets, and dropped our unnecessary items off in a locker, we headed straight to the heart to check out the board. There was a green light on the amphibious vehicles, and that’s where I wanted to start. We headed up the path, identified with signage in both English and Spanish, and found our way to the entrance of the ATV attraction. There was no wait to drive, so we were immediately placed in a John Deere vehicle that looked like a super-aggressive golf cart. There was no discussion; I was definitely driving.
The amphibious vehicles move faster than I expected, and while the trail is clearly indicated, it is not closed in the sense that one could not leave it, deliberately or by accident. The terrain is challenging. The turns are sharp and the trail winds through the jungle, over bridges, into caves, and through shallow rivers. I had an absolute blast, taking turns too sharply, speeding through water features, and behaving like I had some idea how to drive recklessly. The course is lit with torches and fire features and it begins to feel much like driving through a real-life video game.
The Hammock Splash was next for us. This is a zip line recommended for children and those less comfortable with the more adventurous activities in the park: ME. The Hammock Splash is a zip line, however, which utilizes a hammock swing in which a single rider can sit. The rider is then sent down the line and into the water. An almost identical line awaits on the other side to bring you back. While it is recommended for kids, there is nothing about it that is less than awesome. This was among my favorite experiences at Xplor Fuego; I could have done it all day.
Since we were wet from the Hammock Splash, we decided to try the river swim next. Wow. Okay. This was crazy. I’m a decent swimmer. I’m in fairly decent shape. This was one of the most athletically demanding experiences I’ve had in my lifetime. Life vests are mandatory for guests swimming the subterranean river, and that is such a good thing. There are two options of courses for swimmers to take: one short: ten minutes; and one long: forty-five minutes. We thought since we were all energetic, athletic people, and all wearing life vests, we’d try the long one.
The river is beautiful, with clear water that is lit, periodically, with glowing red and blue lights. At times the stalactites descend all the way into the water and swimmers need to be careful not to swim helmet first into them. The lights under water do a pretty good job of indicating the presence of the monstrous stalagmites, but my knees found quite a few of them anyway. Even with the benefit of the life vest, the constant movement need to swim with and against the river was exhausting. I found myself needing to pause here and there just to catch my breath. It was in these moments of pause where I got the chance to see the caves. It was during one of these moments of rest when I noticed something I hadn’t even thought to be afraid of.
Floating on my back, staring at the rock ceiling above me, I could just make out a shape in the red light. And then it moved- no, flew. It was huge. Maybe a foot across, wing to wing. A woman in the group swimming near me saw it, too. She screamed and splashed. While swimmers are making their way through the river, it is easy to miss the Xplor life guards, lazily floating by, as though it takes no effort at all. An employee was next to my panicked new friend in seconds, as if he’d appeared from nowhere. “The bats, they live here,” he explained, calmly. She was still not okay. He let her hold onto him and he swam her to an emergency exit.
After what felt like an eternity--a life-changing, exhausting eternity--I could finally make out what looked like the Cenote that is the end of the river swim. I swam for it, almost desperately. Others did, too, though, and this was very difficult for me. The cave narrows tremendously towards the end of this course. There were dozens of people in this tiny, enclosed section of river, swimming and pushing to get out. I had done fairly well with the river swim up to this point, but at the end I started to panic. I clawed my way into the center of the Cenote, which features a waterfall that I might have found beautiful under other circumstance, but I was struggling to catch my breath. I took a desperate look around, found one of the swimmers from my group, grabbed hold of his life vest, and let him pull me out of the river. It seems like a very dramatic ending to what was supposed to be an amusement park experience. It was. I will likely not complete the river swim again.
I was still reeling from what had been truly terrifying for me, and I needed a break. Just down the path from the river swim exit was the famous barbecue. The aroma caught me first, and I followed my nose for some much-needed comfort.
The restaurant is the one place in the park where guests may remove their helmets. I took off my helmet to reveal that the braids had failed miserably in the mission to preserve some cuteness. With the added bonus of having just come through a pretty significant panic attack, I looked awful, and the sympathetic looks from employees and other adventurers, while very sweet, only served to make me ashamed of my own anxiety. I just wanted to eat. And eat I did.
This buffet deserves its reputation. They have everything. Because of my dietary restrictions, I didn’t try the ribs which get the most publicity, but I can attest to the quality of the mole’. I ate all of the chicken. Maybe it was the workout, but I maintain it was the flavor; I returned for a second plate of chicken with mole’, rice, and beans. It was at this buffet where I mistook the roasted salsa for habanero salsa. I love spicy food and the habanero salsa was amazing, but my food was swimming in it and I thought my lips might burn off. I added some crema and guac to my plate and finished like the champion that I am. Nothing fixes my mood like fantastic food.
After sufficiently gorging ourselves, it was time to check out the main attraction: the tallest zip lines in Mexico. The sign at the heart indicated there wouldn’t be much of a line, so our timing was perfect. With tremendous anticipation, I climbed the path up to the entrance of the zip line course.
Along the path, signs, in English and Spanish, explain that the course is made up of seven zip lines and that it takes approximately one hour to complete. There are no rest areas or restrooms on the course, so guests are advised to take care of business before queuing up. At the base of the course, a team of employees orients guests to the equipment and process they are about to undertake. They answer questions, and assist each guest in putting on their harnesses, safely and securely. This process is done with staggering efficiency. It takes only a few minutes to harness and instruct dozens of guests.
Once harnessed, guests begin the trek up to the first zip line. The climb up is a combination of ramps and stairs that wind up to a tower that is intimidatingly high up. Once atop the tower, adventurers take turns stepping forward to the launch blocks. Tethered employees coach each person on how to carefully approach the blocks, and they expertly assist each rider in safely assuming the the best position for the ride. Riders may zip line solo, or pairs may go in tandem if they don’t exceed the weight limit. As a total wimp, I rode in tandem every time.
Each new zip line is taller and faster than the last, and climbing the towers becomes increasingly terrifying. The second-to-last zip line boasts a giant ring of fire, through which zip liners fly. The ring is huge, the flames are real, the ride is unbelievably exhilarating, and the level of adrenaline I was feeling was almost overwhelming. By the final tower, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to be able to complete the circuit. The final tower, though, provides a bit of a respite from the endless stairs and ladders of the previous towers. It spirals up out of the night, spitting flames into the sky. The zip line flies riders over the park, where they can briefly catch a glimpse of a cenote and some ominous-looking (fake) crocodiles. To complete the circuit, riders trek down a spiral staircase to one final line. It is the smallest, least intimidating of them all. It lands riders safely, but delightfully, in the always chilly waters of the subterranean river.
We were definitely satisfied with our evening when we finished the zip line course and decided to head back through the tunnels to the exit of the park. The evening at Xplor Fuego thrilled me, tested my physical limits, and challenged me to conquer some crippling anxiety. On the shuttle ride back to Hotel Xcaret, I felt a sense of accomplishment for having been able to keep up with my more athletically capable friends. I was exhausted and sore, though, and very grateful to be headed back to a room with a stocked mini-bar and Jacuzzi tub.