On a nighttime sound and light walking tour of the Mayan ruins of Tulum,
the historic tales and colorful atmosphere are riveting. Hector Montaño Ina
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
It is a challenge to describe Xcaret (pronounced Ish-caret). In fact, it is probably impossible to do justice to the place in anything less than a book. A bare description of its 80-hectare/200-acre site, fronting onto the turquoise blue waters of the Riviera Maya Caribbean coast 75 kilometers drive south of Cancun, conjures up images of Disney theme parks, long lineups for “top attractions” and crazy crowds, lots of cement and plastic artificial play areas. Happily, none of these elements define Xcaret, a property which is as remarkable as it is beyond description. It is also a great model for corporate and social responsibility rolled into a very entertaining and educational package.
Though water is the most important natural element of the site, featuring lagoons, pools of different sizes, sinkholes and underground rivers, I never had a minute all day to poke my toe in the water so much was there to see and experience on land. Through the entrance gates, visitors are temporarily relieved of their sunblock and tanning lotions because these are bad for the water and the marine life so abundant in the park. Biodegradable sunblock is provided so as not to pollute the water which is quality tested daily throughout the site. You are also handed a map and a schedule of events and times so you will not miss anything during your visit.
Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park is dedicated to local nature preservation,
environmental education and fostering cultural heritage. Xcaret.
Numerous colorful daytime shows authentically present traditions,
history and mysticism still practiced by the Mayan people. Alison Gardner
With each carefully-designed display, optional tour and special event, children and adults alike are gently taken on an educational odyssey that showcases local environments and wildlife species characteristic of the Quintana Roo coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Xcaret is home to around 4,000 species of local and many rare or endangered plants and animals. All aquatic exhibits are linked to the sea so water is constantly flushing. Hours dissolve away in the fascinating butterfly conservation pavilion which studies the biological cycles of 51 species in the region and intensely breeds 15 of them among 80,000 cultivated host plants. Sea turtle conservation is another huge mission as are programs to research and care for endangered coral reefs and a number of marine mammals.
The re-creation of this typical Mexican village cemetery includes
365 life-size replicas of creative grave memorials from across the country
even the names of the departed are real! Alison Gardner
Cultural restoration has been the other keystone of Xcaret since it opened in 1990. The authentically-costumed and carefully-researched stories of pre-Hispanic Mayan culture are performed around intimate natural backdrops throughout the park during the day, and as part of the spectacular mega-show staged each evening. The Mayan Village is alive with artisans who create traditional wood objects, weavings, ceramics and garments, all for fair prices, and there are several Mayan archaeological temple sites dating back one thousand years or more. No need to create replicas here when you have the real thing to tell the story of a rich history before Europeans ever set foot on Yucatan soil!
A pair of Central American jaguars have their own jungle island to roam in safety. Alison Gardner
If I had to pick three highlights during a whole day and evening intense with highlights, they would be the amazing display of riding skill by a team of Mexican horsewomen in fabulous ruffled dresses and sombreros, the seven terraces of the Mexican village cemetery with 365 completely different grave memorials authentically reproduced from throughout the country, and a two-hour evening cultural performance in the covered amphitheater with its multiple stages and non-stop act changes. Though the show is included in the park’s admission ticket, I opted for the bonus of a delicious three course dinner with wine served during the show in a special front row section of the amphitheater (US$35 adults; $17.50 children).
Nightly in this distinctively-designed amphitheater, 300 colorfully-dressed performers stage
a memorable two-hour cultural showcase of Pre-Hispanic and Mexican colonial heritage. Xcaret
It is impossible to visit, never mind absorb, all that Xcaret has to offer in a single day. If vacationing at Cancun, Playa del Carmen or further down the Quintana Roo coast, the solution has already been anticipated by Xcaret which offers a second day at half price as long as guests buy the additional ticket on the first day of their visit. This second-day ticket may be used up to seven days later. One-day adult entry is a bargain at US$69; children are $34.50. The only things not included are a few optional tours and activities such as swim with dolphins, seatrek, snuba, snorkeling tour, or the evening show’s special dinner. Book on line and get 10% off everything: www.xcaret.com.
On a previous visit, I had toured the impressive 11th Century Mayan walled city of Tulum by day. About 130 kilometers south of Cancun on swift highways, it is the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico and the only Mayan city built as a sea coast port of trade. However, any daytime visit has to take second place in my mind to the new “Vistas Nocturnas” sound and light guided walking tour, about one-hour long. This is the world’s first physically active sound and light show, and the concept is brilliant for engaging visitors in the pre-Columbian history, mythology and cultural experience of the Mayans who built this impressive city.
Tulum assumes a different personality during its “Vistas Nocturnas” show. Hector Montaño Inah
Every guest is outfitted with an audio headset in their language choice, and a guide leads each small group around the site for an hour, activating the headset text and colorful light show that spotlights selected pieces of restored Mayan architecture. While Caribbean waves create suitable background noise and stars twinkle overhead in an otherwise ink-black sky, it is also the guide’s job to make sure guests don’t take a wrong turn and get lost among the stone temples and palaces or walk over a cliff edge. Visitas Nocturnas is a bold concept that adds dramatic new interest to the more common sound and light shows of historic sites now sprinkled around the world. Advance bookings are advised.
Your Travel with a Challenge editor is still mentally processing her recent stay at an intriguing “eco-resort” about half way down Quintana Roo’s Caribbean coast. To pinpoint more accurately this less-traveled region of the Yucatan Peninsula, I journeyed well south of Cancun close to Tulum which proudly boasts the only Mayan seaport archaeological site overlooking a stretch of brilliant turquoise sea. Follow along in my eco-footsteps for a few moments …..
Welcome to my Villa #11! Up the steps and come on in.
A raised boardwalk made of all local materials by local Mayan people links the 15 villas together.
Azulik EcoTulum Resorts, www.azulik.com, embraces an unwavering mission: to blend in with the landscape in a low-profile, sustainable manner, use local materials, labor and artisanship for almost everything. At first glance its buildings appear alarmingly primitive, but they are not. The mosquito-net-draped beds are super-comfortable, the bath water is hot on demand, and the meals are fabulous in the open-air restaurant at the neighboring, same-owner Copal Cabañas.
However, no part of this eco-adventure is suitable for those with mobility issues, nor those who anticipate phones, electricity or a CNN TV show with their accommodations. You may expect a flush toilet and a 20-liter container of purified drinking water which is surely all that matters.
Camouflage is part of the initiative, so locating the “resort” nestled well below the radar in its tropical forest cover is the first challenge. In fact, it’s pretty easy to get disoriented while navigating the sprawling property itself, especially after dark. A strong flashlight is an asset …. no, make that a necessity. For the first encounter, it is strategic to arrive in broad daylight so as to get fully oriented, but even then, I managed to take two wrong turns before finding breakfast along what seemed like a quarter mile of boardwalk and crisscrossing sandy pathways with minimal signage to my eatery!
A hollowed out Zapote log creates a bathtub of designer beauty.
Outside on the deck is an equally attractive Zapote log hot tub!
A swinging bed roped to the rafters provides a napping alternative to a hammock.
However, the highlight of my eco-experience was clearly villa #11 …. that is, my personal, naturally-weathered piece of heaven crowned with a thatched roof and perched on stilts. It was one of 15 such “villas” fringing a cliff next to a pristine beach of cream-colored sand. Mesmerizing white-noise waves rolled off the open sea both day and night. Having successfully navigated my way back from a delicious dinner of coconut-crusted king shrimp and Mexican beer at the Copal Cabañas, the perfect sleep tonic proved to be a steaming bath deep in my gorgeous six-foot Zapote tree trunk bathtub. In sync with each gust of wind that slipped through the villa walls, half a dozen candle flames swooped and swayed in an otherwise pitch-dark environment, tracing intriguing designs all over the large yet somehow cosy interior of my villa. Eco-life is good! All Azulik story images by Alison Gardner.
Selected in 1986/87 as a protected biosphere and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sian Ka’an, spans 120 kilometers/75 miles, almost one third of the Caribbean coastline of Mexico. It is a mind-boggling 1.3 million-acre protected area. There are only 176 designated natural World Heritage Sites on the planet, and this is one of them!
Sian Ka’an is an important nesting ground for two endangered sea turtle species. Community Tours Sian Ka’an
Within Sian Ka’an is a unique geography, 23 known archaeological sites with artifacts dating back 2,000 years as well as 103 mammal species, 340 bird species, 444 species of butterflies, nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles and natural lagoons, canals and estuaries around which entire vacations may be created. Snorkeling is also a popular activity where the top end of the world’s second largest coastal reef, the Mesoamerican, abuts Sian Ka’an. Access to all areas is understandably controlled, with only one percent of the land within this vast reserve being privately owned.
Natural waterways allow visitors to get up close to aquatic and bird life in the lagoons and canals. Alison Gardner
At the end of the Muyil Forest & Float Tour, it’s a treat to cool off in a Sian Ka’an river. Community Tours Sian Ka’an
With at least two millenia of documented presence, clearly Mayan residents see themselves as guardians of Sian Ka’an. With a lot of international encouragement, financial support and business coaching, Community Tours Sian Ka’an (CTSK), www.siankaantours.org, has become a major player in the biosphere’s tourism delivery. Tourism is the main source of income for 80% of the local population.
While the Muyil Archaeological Tour, remains the single most popular option in the CTSK tour portfolio, a new addition, Mayaking, is playfully reminding clients that Mayan kayaking is a great way to actively discover both the natural assets of Sian Ka’an and its Mayan heritage in the biosphere’s lagoons and estuaries. Another new option catering to the less active nature lover is the Sunset Wine and Cheese Boat Tour of mangrove areas, especially magical as hundreds of large birds come in to roost at dusk.
This Mayan Muyil Pyramid is one of 23 known archaeological sites
in the Biosphere, some dating back more than two thousand years. Community Tours Sian Ka’an
Visit the Riviera Maya website, for complete information on Quintana Roo state, defining the Yucatan Peninsula’s east coast as far south as the Belize border. Also we invite you to read our brand new companion article about the Mayan temple city of Chichen Itza, selected by 100 million people worldwide as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza is readily accessible to Quintana Roo travelers, though it is in the neighboring state of Yucatan.
South of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, visitors quickly leave behind the mass tourism resort atmosphere and drop into a smaller-scale, slower-paced, more distinctively Mexican world. Since a round trip visit to any of the attractions down the coast takes the better part of a day no matter how you sample it, why not cut the transport time from the resort cities by staying in the more southerly area and exploring lesser-known archaeological and natural areas at leisure?
In addition to Azulik Eco-Tulum Resorts described above in this article, I can also personally recommend a very comfortable, more family-style accommodation on the beachfront outskirts of Akumal: the self-catering Villas Akumal, www.lasvillasakumal.com (photo left).
With spacious appeal to multi-generational families or couples traveling together, it offers quiet well-appointed studio, one, two and three-bedroom vacation rentals in two-storey whitewashed buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens. Villas Akumal overlooks Jade Beach, a seasonal nesting area for sea turtles if you pick the right months for a visit, but it is a welcome choice any time of year. There is also a fine open-air restaurant on the property, open day and evening. These villas are a pleasant 20-minute stroll along the beach front to the quaint village of Akumal.
Villas Akumal fronts onto Jade Beach. Alison Gardner
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.