Xcaret: Tribute to the Yucatán

A billboard in distant Guadalajara's airport reads in Spanish, "And when visiting Xcaret, don't forget to enjoy the pleasures of the Riviera Maya, too." An exaggeration, yes, but a point well taken: Xcaret ("eesh-ca-ret") is the biggest attraction in these parts and even has its own resort. Thousands visit every week; stay away if you like solitude. Xcaret samples everything the Yucatán -- and the rest of Mexico -- has to offer, and action junkies take full advantage of the pricey admission fee.

The myriad activities include scuba and snorkeling; cavern diving; hiking through tropical forest; horseback riding; an underwater river ride; swinging in a hammock under palms; and meeting native Maya people. Exhibits include a bat cave; a butterfly pavilion; mushroom and orchid nurseries; and a petting aquarium. Native jaguars, manatees, sea turtles, monkeys, macaws, and flamingos are also on display. The best folk art museum in Mexico is housed in the Hacienda Henequenera, a traditional Yucatecan hacienda with rooms decorated as if a family lived there. The wonderful folk art collection from throughout Mexico decorates the rooms, and the displays are always changing. The Cava, an amazing underground wine cellar, displays bottles from Mexico's many excellent wineries and offers wine tastings with advance reservations; the dining rooms looks like somewhere major global negotiations would take place. The Hacienda and Cava both offer guided tours; book them when purchasing your entrance tickets. The evening show celebrates Mexico in music and dance, and the costumes and choreography are unequaled anywhere in Mexico. This show is a genuinely mesmerizing spectacle, presenting so many aspects of the Mexican nation that you feel like you've toured the whole country by the time the performers take their last bow.

Xcaret is 10km (6 1/4 miles) south of Playa del Carmen; you'll know when you get to the turnoff. It's open daily from 8:30am to 9pm. Basic admission prices are $69 for adults, $35 for children 5 to 12; many activities and facilities cost extra. The Xcaret at Night rate is a good deal at $49 for adults and $25 for children. You enter the park after 3pm and have plenty of time to play and explore before the night show. All-inclusive tickets start at around $100. Xcaret is now offering deluxe tours to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid. The tour has drawn rave reviews and costs about $100 adult, $50 children. Discounted rates for all Xcaret tickets are available online. For more info, call tel. 998/883-0470 or visit www.xcaret.net.

The people who created Xcaret have another park called Xplor (tel. 998/849-5275; www.xplor.travel) next door. The adventure park has a zip line, four-wheel-drive track, and an underground river ride. Admission is $99 for adults, $49 for children (8 or over); you get a 10% discount for booking online 3 days in advance.

Four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) south of the entrance to Xcaret is the turnoff for Puerto Calica, the cruise-ship pier. Passengers disembark here for tours of Playa, Xcaret, the ruins, and other attractions on the coast.

Paamul: Seaside Getaway

About 15km (9 1/3 miles) beyond Xcaret and 25km (16 miles) from Playa del Carmen is Paamul (also written Pamul) [find]. The exit is clearly marked. You can enjoy the Caribbean in relative quiet here. The water at the out-of-the-way beach is wonderful, but the shoreline is rocky.

Scuba-Mex (tel. 888/871-6255 in the U.S., or 984/875-1066; www.scubamex.com) is a fully equipped PADI- and SSI-certified dive shop next to the cabañas. Using two boats, the staff takes guests on dives 8km (5 miles) in either direction. If it's too choppy, the reefs in front of the hotel are also good. The cost for a one-tank dive with rental gear is $39. They also have multi-dive packages and certification instruction and offer accommodations in four bedrooms in a beach house for $80 per night.

Puerto Aventuras: Dolphins & Shipwrecks

Five kilometers (3 miles) south of Paamul and 104km (65 miles) from Cancún, Puerto Aventuras is a condo/marina development with a 9-hole golf course on Chakalal Bay. There’s a large expat community, including many families, but it’s not the best location for tourists wanting to explore the coast since there are few interesting businesses and activities within the compound. A small cluster of restaurants offering Italian, American, and Mexican food border the marina. The major attraction is swimming with the dolphins in a highly interactive program; make reservations well in advance with Dolphin Discovery (www.dolphindiscovery.com; [tel] 998/849-4757). The surest way is through the website.

Puerto Aventuras is also popular for boating and deep-sea fishing. Capt. Rick’s Sportfishing Center (www.fishyucatan.com; [tel] 888/449-3562 in the U.S., or 984/873-5195) will combine a fishing trip with some snorkeling, which makes for a leisurely day. The best fishing on this coast is from March to August. Puerto Aventuras has a few hotels, but most residential development is condos and homes. The most prominent hotel by the marina, the Omni Puerto Aventuras (tel. 888/444-6665 in the U.S., or 984/875-1950), has a clean, small beach and many return guests. Rates start at $179 per night. A few all-inclusive hotels are located just north of the marina.Xpu-Ha: Sublime Beach

Three kilometers (1 3/4 miles) beyond Puerto Aventuras is Xpu-Ha (eesh-poo-hah), a wide bay lined by a broad, beautiful sandy beach. Much of the shore is filled with private houses and condos, along with a few all-inclusive resorts. The beach is one of the best on the coast and is long enough to accommodate hotel guests, residents, and day-trippers without feeling crowded.


Three kilometers (1 3/4 miles) beyond Puerto Aventuras is Xpu-Ha (eesh-poo-hah), a wide bay lined by a broad, beautiful sandy beach. Much of the shore is filled with private houses and condos, along with a few all-inclusive resorts. The beach is one of the best on the coast and is long enough to accommodate hotel guests, residents, and day-trippers without feeling crowded.

Akumal: Beautiful Bays & Cavern Diving

Continuing south on Hwy. 307 for 2km (1 1/4 miles), the turnoff for Akumal ("Place of the Turtles") is marked by a traffic light. The ecologically oriented tourism community is spread among four bays, with two entrances off the frontage road parallel to the highway. The main entrance, labeled Akumal, leads to hotels, rental condos, and vacation homes. Take the Akumal Aventuras entrance to the Grand Oasis all-inclusive hotel and more condos and homes. No waterside road connects the two, so you'll need to know which exit to take. A white arch delineates the main entrance to the tourism community (years ago, the original residents were moved across the highway to a fast-growing town where many workers and business owners reside). Just before the arch are a couple of grocery stores and a laundry service. Just inside the arch, to the right, is the Hotel Akumal Caribe. If you follow the road to the left and keep to the left, you'll reach Half Moon Bay, lined with two- and three-story condos, and eventually Yal-ku Lagoon, a snorkeling park. To rent a local condo, contact Akumal Vacations (www.akumalvacations.com; tel. 800/448-7137 in the U.S.) or Loco Gringo (www.locogringo.com).

Both bays have sandy beaches with rocky or silt bottoms. This is a popular diving area and home to Mexico's original diving club. Three dive shops are in town and at least 30 dive sites are offshore. The Akumal Dive Shop (tel. 984/875-9032; www.akumal.com), one of the oldest and best dive shops on the coast, offers cavern-diving trips and courses in technical diving. The friendly owner and dive masters know all the secret spots in the area and can offer all sorts of insider tips.

Modern sculptures punctuate gardens beside the clear Yal-ku Lagoon, which is about 700m (2,297 ft.) long and 200m (656 ft.) at its widest. You can paddle around comfortably in sheltered water and see fish and turtles. It's a perfect place to learn how to snorkel and let kids swim about safely. Of course, there are many spots along the bays where you can snorkel for free, but this little park is an easy, relaxing outing. It's open daily from 8am to 5:30pm. Admission is 80 pesos for adults, 45 pesos for children 3 to 14.

The gentle crescent of Akumal Bay, washing a wide, soft beach shaded by coconut palms, is one of the few places where you'll often be surprised by a sea turtle swimming along with you. During nesting season (May through July), visit Centro Ecológico Akumal (tel. 984/875-9005; www.ceakumal.org) in the morning to sign up for that evening's 9pm turtle walk (Mon-Fri). You'll help staff search for new nests, protect exhausted mothers making their way back to sea, and remove eggs to hatcheries where they can incubate safely.

Xel-Ha: Snorkeling & Swimming 

Just south (3km/2 miles) of Akumal, you'll see the turnoff for Aktun Chen (tel. 984/109-2061; www.aktunchen.com). This is one of Yucatán's best caverns, with lots of geological features, good lighting, several underground pools, and large chambers, all carefully preserved. It has thrived under management by the local community rather than outside tour companies. The cavern tour takes about 90 minutes and requires a lot of walking, but the footing is good. It costs $26 for adults and $14 for children. Other choices are snorkeling in a cenote ($33 adults, $16.50 children), or soaring above the jungle on zip lines ($38 adults and children). There is also a zoo with spider monkeys and other local fauna; some critters are allowed to run about freely. Aktun Chen is open from 9am to 4pm daily (closed Christmas and New Year's days). The turnoff is to the right, and the cave is about 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the road.

Thirteen kilometers (8 miles) south of Akumal is the water and cultural park Xel-Ha and Hidden Worlds Cenotes. Follow the links to see our complete reviews of these top sites.

Tankah Bay: Bubbling Cenote

Tankah Bay (about 3km/1 3/4 miles from Hidden World Cenotes) has a handful of rental houses and condos. The most interesting hotel is Casa Cenote (tel. 998/874-5170; www.casacenote.com). Its underground river surfaces at a cenote in the back of the property, then goes underground and bubbles up into the sea just a few feet offshore. Casa Cenote has seven beach bungalows. The double rate runs from $125 to $175, depending on the season (excluding holidays) and includes breakfast. A few simple rustic cabins with shared bath and kitchen go for $125 in high season and $75 low season. The American owner provides kayaks and snorkeling gear and can arrange dives, fishing trips, and sailing charters.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.