t was just after 4:00 pm on Sunday afternoon, our first day in Mexico. We had already an amazing lunch at Hotel Xcaret’s exclusive restaurant, Fuego. We’d spent a couple lazy hours by the glorious rooftop pool, sipping hand-crafted cocktails, and then we’d checked into our own personal paradise on the ocean side of Casa Fuego. It was time to explore.
Hotel Xcaret is pioneering a program which they have dubbed “All-Fun Inclusive.” This program, which is standard for all guests of the hotel, includes full access to all of their parks: Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xenses, Xavage, Xplor, and Xplor Fuego. The program also includes the Xperiencias Xcaret tours for Xichen and Xenotes, as well as Xoximilco. But Hotel Xcaret’s “All-fun Inclusive” doesn’t stop at just including admission to their parks and tours; food, beverages (including alcohol at some locations), and all transportation is also provided. Just imagine this sort of concept applied in Orlando…
Excited to have the opportunity to explore ALL these different parks and cultural experiences, we were determined to see as many things as our time here permitted. Thanks, in part, to my over-planning, we had a pretty rough schedule of what we intended to do each day. I had gathered the vital information about parks and tours (operating hours, how long to expect each park or tour to take, not-to-be-missed experiences, food to try) from my friends in the Fans of Hotel Xcaret Facebook group, and was feeling pretty confident about my proposed schedule. My friends somewhat begrudgingly followed along.
My research yielded that only Parque Xcaret and Xel Ha are open on Sundays. Xel Ha is a forty minute bus ride from the hotel, and groups intending to go there must be book a day in advance. Parque Xcaret is fewer than ten minutes away, with shuttles departing from the hotel entrance every twenty minutes and a boat ride departing from the rear of the property almost as often. We would head to Xcaret tonight.
The shuttles are reliably punctual and extremely well appointed. They are painted bright pink and have straw roofs to suggest the palapas so often associated with Riviera Maya and the Caribbean. Drivers set out on a loop from the hotel, stopping at Xenses, Xplor and Xcaret respectively. It is certainly possible to start at one park and hop a shuttle to the next park without returning to the hotel. This was information I wanted, but hadn’t been able to confirm.
Within minutes, we arrived at Xcaret. The entrance is grand and maybe a little confusing. I was distracted, though, because there is a small flamingo habitat located immediately out front. We hadn’t even made it into the park, and I was losing my mind over wildlife. Animal exhibits and conservation are a major focus of Xcaret, so I was prepared to spend quite a bit of time getting excited about animals. Squealing with delight every time one of the giant indigenous iguanas crossed my path never got old for me; I can’t speak for my friends, though.
Entering the park as a guest of Hotel Xcaret is easy. There is a line specifically for hotel guests, indicated with the hotel’s logo. We were scanned into the park using our bracelets, provided a map to the over two-hundred-acre complex, and sent on our way. We were realistic about how much we might be able to do this evening. We had been up since 4:00 am to board a very early flight, and Xcaret is enormous. The plan tonight included a few major highlights, with the intention to return in a few days to focus on wildlife.
First on the list was the river swim. I was super excited to swim in an underground river. What I didn’t know until after I’d left Xcaret is that there are three rivers from which to choose. The park was crowded and, as such, a little difficult to navigate. We tried to follow the map and signs, but we ended up just surging forward to escape the huge crowds. That almost serendipitously placed us at the entrance to the Mayan River. At the entrance to the Mayan River there are lockers and dressing rooms which are reserved for guests with Xcaret Plus access. Hotel guests have Xcaret Plus. Snorkeling gear is also provided with Xcaret Plus. Had it been earlier in the day, we might have opted to utilize the lockers, but as we only intended to swim the river and move on to our next experience, we chose to have our valuables secured in a safe bag. A safe bag is available to all guests to secure their items while they are in the river. It is dropped off at the entrance and taken to the exit to be retrieved. Safe bags are assigned to each party, and things like phones and dry clothes are waiting for you at the conclusion of your swim. This was such a convenient and innovative solution to storing our things.
Outfitted in mandatory life-vests, we entered the river. It was almost unnaturally clear and beautifully temperate. The rock walls that rose up around us were a fortress of natural beauty. The beginning of the river journey is open to the sky, with a stunning view of the jungle foliage and glimpses of occasional wildlife all around. From the river I saw Scarlet Macaws, flamingos, a boar, coatimundis, blue crabs, and other various birds which I couldn’t identify. I couldn't believe this experience was real. I thought about all of the “lazy rivers” I’d spent time in during my lifetime. How foolish it seemed to float in a man-made, concrete channel, when something this beautiful exists naturally.
Quickly, though, the open sky becomes less frequent, as the river winds in and out of caves. The caves are not lit artificially. Three things one will learn about me as they read through my experiences include: 1) I over-plan, 2) I love all animals, 3) I’m afraid of the dark. These caves are dark; as in “swimming totally blind” dark. There is a rope attached to the cave wall so swimmers can pull themselves along should there be need. There was need. I was blown away by the splendor and beauty of the river in the open-air; in the dark, though, I thought I might be eaten by a Kraken.
Every so often, inside the caves, there are naturally occurring breaks in the ceiling which provide just a little light. I paused under one of these for a moment and looked up. The vegetation climbing upwards was thick and mysterious; and there was movement all over it. I was curious about what I was seeing, and too stupid to keep moving. I let my eyes adjust to the dark for a moment and looked more intently. The vines climbing up the crevice were crawling with tiny mice. Time to keep swimming.
Along the river, there are numerous exits. Each exit is clearly indicated and each sign also includes a note about how long it will be until the next exit. These signs became hurdles for me; challenges I set for myself. I was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I was enjoying it and was determined to complete the whole river course. It took us about forty-five minutes to swim the entirety of the Mayan River. I emerged with a feeling of personal accomplishment and a sense of true wonderment at the power and beauty of the water coursing through the rocks. And, man, I was hungry.
We made our way to the nearest buffet (traditional Mexican, I insisted) and were immediately seated by the hostess. I wasted no time filling my plate with chicken, black beans, tortillas, and cheeses. I piled on salsas, recklessly, and needed to return for crema and guac. To say that I gorged myself at the buffet would be polite. I was a gluttonous mess. I was shameful. And I’m not even sorry.
After dinner, we made our way towards the “Bridge to Paradise” Mexican Cemetery. Xcaret has a tremendous dedication to preserving authentic Mexican culture, and this was one of my primary reasons for wanting to visit. The cemetery is replicated to feature elements of Mayan culture and Mexican folk-art, ranging from the pre-Hispanic era to present day. It is built into a spiral shape which references the conch, significant to the Maya. Within the spiral, there are seven levels to represent the days of the week, and fifty-two steps ascending the levels. The steps refer to the fifty-two weeks each year. There are three-hundred-sixty-five brightly colored tombs adorning the cemetery, each specific to the days of the years. The cemetery is breathtaking, colorful, and leaves you with a sense of mystery and reverence. There is nothing gloomy or morbid about the spirit of this place. It is a celebration in its truest form.
The sun had set by the time we left the cemetery. There had been talk of trying to catch the Xcaret Espectacular, a nightly show which highlights the influence of Mayan history in the culture of this region. Reviews of this show are universally positive, and I was dying to see it. But I was exhausted. After much discussion, we settled on making our way back to the resort for a quiet evening.
A couple of drinks at the beach bar, Las Playas, a dip in the in-room jacuzzi, and some late-night hammock time would round out my evening. Getting me to leave Hotel Xcaret was going to be no easy task.