Before we even boarded the plane to get to Mexico, we were already overwhelmed by the array of excursions available in the Cancún and Riviera Maya region of Quintana Roo. With only four full days and an entire resort’s worth of all-inclusive amenities to enjoy, I was extra picky about what we wanted to do on our two designated days off-property. Xel-Há and Xcaret came up multiple times in conversations with friends stateside— they just loved both of these parks when they visited Cancún!
A Taste of Tulum: Visiting Xel-Há
The question we had going into this experience— how manufactured was this excursion going to be, exactly? We’d heard people liken Xcaret (Xel-Há’s predecessor and parent company) to a Disney-like experience. Like Disney but different, they’d assure, which isn’t quite the vibe we were looking for. With a four-year-old in tow, we ultimately decided on Xel-Há. While Xel-Há has been specifically noted to be way more laid back, we still weren’t quite sure what to expect.
Hidden Wonder in the Riviera Maya
Then, wow. Hidden Wonder is right— this oasis of a natural aquarium almost makes you forget that you’ve paid a pretty penny for the privilege of visiting the park. The experience will cast away all your notions of what a theme park is and should be.
The grounds are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and I kid you not— the clear teal-blue waters are things out of dreamscapes. Once in the park, all the focus is on sensory exploration and your enjoyment during dining, snorkeling, and other park experiences. Xel-Há employees were exceedingly friendly and wonderful throughout. We felt every team member we encountered cared about customers and their own roles— from the locker room attendants to the restaurant servers, to the photographers, and everyone else that keeps the place running!
Getting to Xel-Há from north of Puerto Morelos
While planning out our days in Mexico, I spent a lot of time agonizing over ground transportation. As a family of five, the costs add up quickly for a day out, amirite?
As of writing this post, there’s no such thing as Uber in Quintana Roo (though this will change by September 12, 2018 – just a few days from now!). That means unless you’re in the Cancún Hotel Zone or within walking distance of Playa Del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, or Tulum, you’re stuck with taxis and private excursion shuttles.
Public transportation is available in these areas, but when you’re staying at a resort as far back from the highway as the Royalton Riviera Cancun and you’ve got three kids in tow, it’s not particularly convenient. You literally need to take a taxi to the main highway from the Royalton just to be able to catch a passing colectivo. Spoiler alert: taxis in the Cancún and Riviera Maya tourist areas are not cheap.
In an effort to save a few bucks, I outlined a plan consisting of a combination of taxis and colectivos that would absolutely save us money, if not time. I was confident that we’d be able to get from north of Puerto Morelos all the way to Xel-Há (just a few kilometers north of Tulum) and back again on the cheap. Doing this would also let us arrive at and depart from Xel-Há on our own terms, rather than being bound to a tour group schedule.
From the resort, we set out in a taxi to Playa del Carmen. It cost way more than just a taxi out to the highway, but we didn’t want to chance not being able to catch a colectivo in transit with enough space for five. Our original intent was to be let off in PDC where the colectivos head toward Tulum, but our driver dropped us off at the ADO bus station instead.
In a minor tizzy of confusion and with the kids super anxious to get to the park without roaming around in the daytime heat to find the correct road, we ended up in another taxi to take us from Playa del Carmen straight to Xel-Há.
So much for my money-saving public transportation plan.
Sure, we spent extra-extra on transportation, but we got there. And just look at how beautiful it is. 😍
Xel-Há Park and what we liked
Xel-Há is laid out quite thoughtfully, and the grounds are super easy to navigate. It’s incredibly family-friendly, and it’s clear that an immense amount of experience-focused planning went into every single detail at the park! The park is designed around a beautifully clear and calm inlet, which has multiple entry points for visitors to swim and snorkel.
Comfort stations are conveniently located throughout the park, and visitors are also presented with many opportunities to pick up souvenirs and watersports essentials like sunscreen and bathing suits (though why you’d venture there without a bathing suit, I can’t tell you).
Automatic photo stations dot the park, so committing memories to digital film is as simple as a scan of your bracelet. I didn’t purchase the photo package in advance, so when it was time to go, we paid $100 USD for all the images before we exited. You get a few dozen bucks shaved off when you buy the package in advance. I wish we took advantage of the cameras and had more family photos taken with the automatic cameras and park photographers!
Snorkeling equipment rental is included with entry, and you even get to keep the snorkel as a souvenir, which my kids loved. (Sorry, masks, fins, and the PFD life vests must be returned!)
As laid back as the park is and as unobtrusive the employees are, they don’t mess around with safety here. Life vests are required when swimming, and yes, they do take that seriously. We witnessed a lifeguard jump in to enforce the life vest rules when a group of vest-less folks failed to respond to repeated attempts to get their attention. The lifeguard used a very loud, very shrill whistle.
In addition to the inlet, there’s also the river to float down, a few cenotes (though none to swim in unless you count where a popular rope swing is located), and some very well-kept winding trails to explore. We opted out of any attractions requiring an extra fee (like the swim with dolphins activity) but on our way out, we got to catch the dolphins put on a little impromptu show as they played with the trainers and jumped out of the water repeatedly— a real treat to see! The park had plenty to keep us busy without adding on the premium activities, so I didn’t feel like we missed out on anything. Note: Kid2 would disagree and say he did miss out. He saw the sign for the dolphin swim and asked me why I hadn’t asked if they were interested in that. Come on, kid.
At Xel-Ha, hammocks and beach chairs abound, so you’re never more than a few minutes from a relaxing place to lounge.
Most of the photos we got on our GoPro are from us floating about and snorkeling within the clear turquoise waters. It was just beautiful there, and swimming among the colorful fishes was such a delight for the kids, especially kid2! We resorted to bargaining just to convince him to take a break from snorkeling so we could eat lunch.
Did I mention that food is included, too? Yup— you could quite literally arrive there at opening, then proceed to eat breakfast, then second breakfast, early lunch, late lunch, then early dinner before the 6pm closing bell… and it’s all included. (Pace yourselves, folks!)
Visitors will find four restaurants at Xel-Há, each with a different theme. We ate lunch at the one featuring traditional Mexican fare. The chicken molé and horchata were the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere, hands down! The husband definitely appreciated the included beer with his meal.
Getting back to our hotel
Before heading back to our resort, we stopped at Avenida 5 in Playa del Carmen to enjoy the mercado vibes and do some souvenir shopping. Because we took a taxi to Xel-Há, we had no choice but to take a taxi back to PDC, too. We could have walked the ~half mile or so to the highway to try and catch a colectivo heading north, but this option crossed exactly nobody’s mind at the end of the day. We were all snorkeled out.
Rookie mistake alert
In our exhaustion, we hopped into a taxi before confirming and negotiating the fare, so the ride from Xel-Há to Playa del Carmen was close to twice what we paid the opposite way. Moral of the story here is to always confirm your taxi fare before hopping into the vehicle, because you won’t get standard metered rates here.
After enjoying snacks, lighthearted haggling, and a reasonable amount of impulse buys on Avenida 5, we returned to our hotel. In a taxi.
Yup, transportation costs killed us that day.
If you’re traveling with children, buy the package with shuttle transportation included! However, if you’re traveling solo or with one or two other adults, it is well worth the savings and time flexibility to catch a colectivo on the 307 all the way to Xel-Há.
For those of you who’d rather not be stuck on a tour operator’s schedule but also don’t have a desire to navigate public transportation while on vacation, consider renting a car, even if it’s for just a day. Most (if not all) of the bigger resorts have a rental car company on site.
When to get there
To avoid crowds, plan to get to Xel-Há either very early (by 9am) or later (after 1pm). The park is open until 6pm, so don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy everything!
Should you buy the photo package?
If you pre-purchased or plan to purchase your photos, take PLENTY of them at the automatic photo spots and with the roaming photographers. There’s no obligation, so if you end up buying none of them, no big deal! But if you decide to purchase all the digital files (it’s a great, deal, I promise), then you get a TON of photos!
When and where to purchase your tickets
Buy your tickets in advance, before you even get to Mexico. Tickets are on the pricey side, but for everything you get you experience, it’s absolutely worth it. I’m speaking to you as a mom of three— do your wallet a favor and secure your tickets in advance. Purchasing directly from Xcaret gets you savings when you buy at least a week ahead of your visit to the park.
Eat your heart out, Disney. Just kidding, I love everything Disney, but this was a different type of experience altogether.
Xel-Há was incredible. From the views and wildlife, to the snorkeling, to the food— simply awesome. And for all that’s included, it’s a tremendous value, especially for families. 10/10, would do again, for sure.
Thanks for the memories, and thanks for the smiles. Until we meet again, Mexico! Next time we’ll make room for Xcaret and Xplor, too.