Everyone and their aunt are looking back over 2016 this week, before New Year rolls around in a couple of days time and everyone starts making resolutions and plans for 2017. I’ve already gone over my 16 highlights of 2016, and picked out my favourite restaurants (lets stay positive folks, food and fun stuff no celebrity deaths etc), but I really have to elaborate on my favourite day of 2016. It was a really close call between a Saturday spent in Paris, and a day spent at Xel Ha park in Mexico, but the latter I think just wins.
We were recommended Xel-ha by a few people, and I’d seen some photos online mainly the watermarked theme park type with giant colourful birds or the dolphin encounters, but these really do not do the place justice. I tried my absolute hardest to get photos that show how beautiful the place is, and how natural too so hopefully that comes across in the thousands you’re about to see. This is going to be a pretty long read so hope you’ve got plenty snacks!
Despite being a ‘theme park’ by advertising, and a website that looks like a cartoon, if you can get past that and actually research the place properly you begin to realise how special it is. What I liked most when reading about it is that it is all natural, obviously the human additions like the sun loungers, restaurant, zip wire etc have been added, but the actual place is a natural inlet, surrounded by jungle and complete with Mexican cenotes and a fully natural lazy river. I think eco-park is definitely a better term so keep this in mind throughout.
Your entry ticket is all inclusive, which includes food and drinks, lockers, showers, towels, a free snorkel and use of the masks and flippers. You can choose a photo ticket upgrade, which also includes photos from the day at various photo spots around the park, and in addition to the standard ticket you can pay for extra experiences. Booking in advance online will get you the cheapest ticket, starting at £65ish, but as we didn’t know which day we would go we just paid on the gate and it really wasn’t much more than that. There were plenty kiosks as well so it didn’t take long at all, there were hardly any queues.
There are shuttle services and hotel pick ups to get there, from all over Quintana Roo, the Mexican state it’s located in, but our hotel was only ten minutes away in Tulum so we just got a taxi for next to nothing. Arriving at the park and it does feel like a waterpark at Disney World, there are merchandise shops and a huge model of Tulum right in the entrance.
Once you’ve passed through the shops you come out in the blue area, each section of the park is colour coded, to help you find your way around, but also so you don’t forget where your locker is, and where to return your mask and flippers. Lock up anything you don’t want to take with you for pretty much the whole day, you won’t want to waste time coming back for anything and you literally need nothing with you. Obviously I took my phone and waterproof case with me, and flip flops are a good idea for when you aren’t snorkelling as the ground gets hotter than the sun.
Everything there is to do is located somewhere along either side of the inlet, which gets narrower the further inland it gets from the sea. The easiest way to see and do everything is to start at one end and work your way the whole way around. It took us the whole day, we didn’t rush anything, but we also didn’t do any of the additional activities that you have to pay for so we weren’t tied in to any time slots. There are maps the whole way around in case you get lost along the jungle paths, and the place is pretty big so there was quite a bit of walking. Who would mind though when this is the view the whole way round?!
Snorkelling at Xel ha
The first thing we did once we got our masks, snorkel and flippers was get into the water to go snorkelling. There were huge boards up with everything you could expect to see, including giant grouper fish and barracudas! Some of the landing areas with steps down could get quite crowded, but there are little steps and secret spots dotted the whole way around the park if you can be bothered to look for them.
When in the water you need to wear a life vest, they’re not massive though and they make the whole experience much more relaxing as you just float. The water is crystal clear and once you swim out about there is so much space you can easily have nobody around you very quickly.
The fish appeared very quickly too, and there were hundreds, from shoals of bigger silver things, to tiny little Dory’s and bright tropical ones I wouldn’t have a clue what they’re called. You see more when you swim up to some of the rocks and little coves at the edges of the shore, and under a giant swing which was also a photo spot I saw the giant grouper lurking. It was bloody massive and the kids playing on the swing were blissfully unaware what was sat right beneath them.
What we found really difficult was being able to show each other every type of fish we saw, there was a lot of flapping and flipper tugging, as well as pointing and trying to talk through a snorkel. This was definitely the case when we saw the barracuda. It appeared totally out of nowhere and swam right past, really black and very sinister looking. My heart was racing and I think we were both in total shock. Other than that encounter the rest were pretty and colourful.
The snorkelling was amazing all over the park, you could dip in and out of the water pretty much anywhere, and there were flags to let you know where were particularly good for spotting fish. There were photo spots at a few of them too, where you just swipe your wristband and smile for the camera.
Xel Ha Adventure World
As far as physical activity goes this was about my limit in the heat and on holiday, but it was a lot of fun. We zip wired first straight into the water, and then attempted the rope walk across. It was actually really hard! Kieran managed it but I was far too short and just gave up and jumped off to wallow in the water like the massive whale that I felt after a week all inclusive.
There were other obstacles to do with rope ladders, swinging tyres but I found the whole experience was best enjoyed from the water. I did however thoroughly enjoy the cliff jumping a bit further round.
At a specific spot with a lifeguard monitoring there was a cliff perfect for throwing yourself off, and I tell you what until you’re actually stood there you don’t actually realise how high it is. Tremendous fun though even though I think I was the least graceful thing ever. Here’s Kieran instead.
At the furthest point inland of the park is the start of the fully natural lazy river, which you can walk to or get the high line zip bikes up to. However you get there you basically end up at a narrow stream surrounded by jungle vines – basically a scene from the Jungle book.
The water is crystal clear, so beautiful and it could actually be quite confusing with all the vines and reflections which way to go. There were single or double rubber rings, so we climbed in and set off. It did take some getting used to, with it being natural there literally could have been anything among all the branches, and I’m glad we were sat in the rings rather than snorkelling along which you could also do.
Once the river opened up a bit we float out in the open, passed the cliff jumping and adventure world and wound up back at the snorkelling area near to where we started. So by lunchtime we had fully explored the whole of one side of the valley and were ready for some food.
The restaurants at Xel-ha are all inclusive, with full buffet from snacks, to fast food, to traditional Mexican dishes, salads and deserts. The hut is massive and you’re sat at a table, free to help yourself with waiter service for drinks. There are drinks machines throughout the park as well, and Corona bars, snack bars and soft drink areas all the way around. In the heat you’ll need them and they’re never far away.
The afternoon was a bit more relaxed, no throwing ourselves off cliffs so we had a wander around the other side. We came across the dolphins, rays and manatee encounters – the dolphins were interactive and we didn’t go in as I’ve seen Blackfish and just don’t agree with it, but the rays and manatees all seemed to be less captive, I’m not sure exactly what the situation is with them but they are in the main lagoon so it was hard to tell if they’re kept there or free to roam.
Other wildlife we saw were beautiful exotic birds and parrots, both with staff and just flying around the jungle paths, as well as lizards and iguanas. The jungle paths were extensive, but provided shade from the heat which was now blaring and they were very pretty to walk along with various games and riddles along the way. We came across these, as well as a kissing seat.
All the way around the paths if you branch off from the main ones are little coves and private beaches, secluded stairways into the lagoon and private sun traps to sunbathe at. The place is in immaculate condition and it really is stunning. If you prefer to relax in the shade there’s a hammock corner to doze at too.
Cenotes of Tulum
One of the things Tulum is famous for is it’s natural cenotes, sunken pools with crystal clear water and there are many dotted about the region. There were a few actually in Xel ha so we crossed the water bridge to the other side to find them.
The first ones we found were so big you couldn’t swim in them, they did look like they’d be home to all sorts of creatures and they backed on to the proper jungle. You could walk across them and spot some of the fish by the edges among the algae.
Walking further round you come to the smaller one by the cliffs that you can swim in. It was pretty quiet up there, with a ledge that made it easy to sit and enjoy them if you didn’t want to go right in (aka scared like Kieran). I was straight in, it was so refreshing but I didn’t venture too far out as you could hear frogs and the rest of whatever was among the reeds further in.
There was a rope swing which was a lot of fun, even though I massively failed at it, see video here. The main pool had a gorge running along to another one, and there were a few people snorkelling along. As you climb the cliff further round you come across a well, and some caves you can swim up into. They’re all linked together, and perfectly natural.
I didn’t swim in the caves, despite a shark net to prevent anything too dangerous getting in, and to make it easier for lifeguards to monitor there was still quite a current as it’s the sea at the end of the day.
We did get our photo taken on the giant chair, and by the Xel ha sign. If you paid for a photo wristband you could get them done by the official xel ha cameras and get prints at the end of your day, but we didn’t bother as I took plenty myself. There were enough people around willing to take your photo at the popular spots.
Another one was the giant floating tap in the middle of the lagoon. A good snap and also a great place to spot some tropical fish.
Exploring both sides of the inlet and trying out all the activities we wanted to do took us the whole day. We must have walked and swam for miles but it was completely worth it and we both said it was our favourite day of the holiday.
The human presence hasn’t yet damaged or spoiled the area, and everything about the eco park is done in a way to preserve its natural beauty (with the exception of captive dolphins however). You had to wear specific sun cream which they provided if you didn’t have any, and the whole place was very clean and well looked after. Not to mention absolutely beautiful.
It really was absolutely incredible, and worth every penny and if you’re in Mexico then definitely make the trip. I’m glad we went this year when Tulum and the nearby area is still relatively untouched. Xel ha didn’t feel overcrowded or like a tourist attraction at all, and was a great way to experience a lot of different activities. I’ve got plenty more Mexico posts to come too. For now have a read of my swimming with sea turtles experience in Akumal!
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