Photos by Brandi and Perry Montoya
Ten inches of snow! That is the actual measurement on our front lawn the day we arrived in Mexico. Meanwhile, Quintana Roo had experienced a rainy period and subsequent better than average humidity. One local called it, “September weather in December”. We called it welcomed relief as news trickled in of our family and friends weathering an unseasonable cold back in Utah.
Just as we like it, JetBlue whisked us off from SLC to our eventual flight destination of Cancun, Mexico. It’s hard to say enough good about “Even More Space” seats on long distance flights. Couple that with your own TV and unlimited snacks and the recipe is set for fun.
The jaunt from Cancun to the Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret (our lodging for the week) was made easy by pleasant conversation with Miguel, our driver, and the comfort of a smooth riding travel van. Public transportation and taxistas are options from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, but we’d recommend a trusted source and even, perhaps, a trusted touring agency for the trip.
Central to all things Experiencias Xcaret (the theme parks provider we’d partnered with as our guide for this foray) is Occidental Grande’s Flamenco resort. Accommodation at this all-inclusive hotel was not a disappointment given both their ambiance and ease of access to Caribbean sands and waters. The buffet, while a little below expectations for our lunch arrival was, during the remaining days, standard buffet fare. Occidental offers finer scale restaurant options (which we greatly enjoyed) within their all-inclusive stay as well. Often during our meals, we ate alongside indigenous animals including iguana and our first sighting of a Mexican raccoon called a Coati.
Perhaps the best thing about our stay at the Occidental was also the first thing uttered from nearly everyone who heard we were staying there. “That’s the park that is feet from the entrance of Xcaret!” Indeed, Occidental was our gateway to the Xcaret theme park.
While vacationing with Experiencias Xcaret, the ecotourism and land/water options for enjoyment run long. Once you’ve played with them in this area, you’d likely never settle again. While there are multiple Experiencias Xcaret parks to choose from (each with a myriad of excursions and diversions), we chose to spend our days as follows:
Anyone can go to one or more of the many Mexican sink holes (cenotes) that abound in this region. However, not just anyone can ride comfortably and worry-free to some of the region’s best cenotes, especially while being assured that all amenities are covered for your day in the wild. And, that’s not to mention being led by the likes of guides like Alfredo Sigala. Alfredo represents the best of the best for Experiencias Xcaret’s Xenotes Oasis Maya. His expertise was that of one that is both knowledgeable and enjoyable to be with for a full day in the shades and waters of this Mayan/Mexican forest. Xenotes (their trademark name – though said just like “cenotes”) pairs a guide with each group that ventures through their park and rightly so; I wouldn’t want to experience this region without a guide to help make Mayan and Mexican history come to life. That said, a Xenotes Oasis Maya Tour is an eco-hound’s Mecca. Xenotes certainly offers a full day of enjoyment. While enjoying this tour, adventurers are treated to four different types of cenotes. We started at a fully open, pond-like cenote with zip line. From this first glimpse, we were sold on this amazing park. Our next cenote was considered a partially covered cenote. We began at ground level and descended (walking) via well-developed paths into the watery cave below. The initial portion of this cenote, though walled on multiple sides, gave way to a deep, can’t-always-see-the-bottom, sunlit cavernous snorkel adventure. This one’s not for the faint-hearted nor for very young children.
We followed the snorkel with a calming Mayan river kayak expedition where we were flanked by towering, vine-strewn rock walls and joined by birds, butterflies and the peaceful serenity that comes from the Mayan forest. All this was enough to work up an appetite! Lunch was provided after enjoying this cenote (a multi grain bread sandwich and homemade chicken soup) and it not only hit the spot, it fueled us for the remainder of our adventures that day. Drinks and water were also provided (it’s so easy in the Yucatan’s humid heat and cool waters to forget to stay hydrated) we were glad for the constant reminder and all that was provided. For the remainder of the day, the various stops we made while in Xenotes park included multiple swings and zip lines destined for watery landings. We took repeated runs on the zip lines and rode in varied riding styles; we went “Tarzan” style which was a standing position and I even went “Superman” which was a fully laid out position on my stomach. Our day at Xenotes ended with a thrilling steep rappel into the deepest cavernous cenote we’d see throughout the trip. Nothing was spared to make this park all it could be. Even the bathrooms at Xenotes are built into the landscape and are open air style – carefully crafted to not remove you from your surroundings. Indeed, we felt like nothing could extract us from this stunning jungle this day, but more fun-filled days with Experiencias Xcaret yet awaited us.
Surely, the namesake park for Experiencias Xcaret, Xcaret itself, was the flagship of this series of theme parks. Day two would be spent here. I could’ve never imagined the effect Xcaret was going to have on my soul. I knew Mexico meant relaxation. Researching our pending time in the region, I knew Xcaret meant culture and adventure. What I never could have known is that, on top of the theme-park enjoyment we’d have there that day, the night show known as Mexcio Xcaret Espectacular at Xcaret would mean reconnection with my roots and history in a way that would be otherwise unimaginable. Let me be clear. I’ve been to Mexico multiple times before and I’ve never felt something like I felt at Xcaret that night. Simply, in many ways, I’d come home.
Though its ruins likely date back to between the 13th and 15th centuries, Xcaret has been a Cancun/Playa Del Carmen theme park staple for some thirty or so years now. When we mentioned we were heading to this part of Mexico, nearly every person who’d ever been to Cancun and its surrounding areas, knew about Xcaret. Again, most jumped immediately to “the night show”. Rightly so.
The night show is an extravaganza of sensory overload from start to finish. The music, history, dance, sport, food and personal side of Mayan-turned-Mexican inhabitants of this region could not be told more completely, correctly nor with any more enjoyment. Having descended from Spanish-Mexican heritage, I was most moved by the overall message of the show which seemed to be encapsulated by a phrase spoken by the narrator of the show when she said something like, “As Mexicans, we don’t see the Spanish conquest of the Mayans as wrong or bad . . . because of it, we are here.” Indeed, because of it, I am here and was there, deeply bathing in and rejoicing in my heritage like never before. We’ve already begun to plan our return if only for this show. However, the show comes at the end of a full fun-filled day in the Xcaret theme park. While at Xcaret we highly suggest trying some of the add-on’s we loved including Sea Trek (a “SNUBA”-like underwater experience with local sea life like rays, sea turtles and sharks), wandering through their aquariums, taking in their awe inspiring aviary and saving time for village shopping and intermingling with the locals they employ there. Any who follow my writings know I have a soft spot for local foods. I couldn’t say enough good about the buffet (purchase it with entrance) at La Laguna and, having eaten all things Mexican throughout my life, was thrilled with the authentic, savory options.
We’ll be back to Xcaret very soon and I don’t think I can say which of my senses longs to return the most!
Xel-Ha (including Tulum)
At the tender age of twenty while serving as a missionary for my church in South Texas I met Betty. We knocked a door with a message of hope and there stood Beatriz Romero. At 6’2” I was in awe as I stared down at all 4’8” of Betty. To show her appreciation for the message and lifestyle changes we’d brought to her, Betty bestowed upon me a poster of her homeland: Tulum. It wasn’t until we arrived at Tulum during this trip that I remembered that poster. Oh how I wish I could go back and shake my twenty year old self for not making more of a fuss about her selfless gift. Tulum had been her home. Tulum had been the home of her ancestors. The poster, especially in a pre “smart phone” era, was all she had of home and she wanted ME to have it. I’ve never had more remorse nor love for a bygone friend then when we stood on the hallowed ruins of Tulum and I considered Betty transplanted far from this paradise and yet thinking enough of me to share her world with mine.
Tulum is a Mayan fortress that kisses the coastline and yet welcomes, with its historical embrace, all who would go back in time to hold on to its storied past. One can’t come this far south and not quickly forget the westernized world we’d just left. Even before arriving at Tulum’s gabled walls, locals showcase their Mayan heritage and fare (this was, perhaps, the best place to souvenir shop for local goods while in this region of Mexico). We’d highly recommend this excursion and/or ones like it including Chichen Itza (another Mayan-era ruin further north) or any of the many additional options/excursions that Experiencias Xcaret has to offer.
Our time in Tulum was short but ample as we were headed to Xel-Ha for the day. Xel-Ha is truly representative of all for which Cancun and Playa Del Carmen have come to be known. What might not be so well known is the high number of adventures one can have in such a small geographical area and within mere minutes of each other while at Xel-Ha. While here (as in all of the Experiencias Xcaret parks) we took advantage of the many photo opp stations to record the memories we were having. Using these stations was simple. Stand in the marked area for a photo. Scan one of your party’s bracelets (all receive a bracelet upon entry into every park). Then, look to the camera and smile. Photos are captured and awaiting your approval for purchase (collected on a flash drive) at the end of the day as you leave the park. This perk often kept us from needing to worry about our cameras throughout the trip. While at Xel-Ha, we wasted no time in trying the Zip-Bike through the canopies of the park, in floating the Mayan river through the archway of Mangrove trees, in exploring the caves and caverns of the area, and in snorkeling in the crystal clear, river-fed waters as we emptied out into the open bay.
Xel-Ha is for romantic couple time, frivolous family fun and certainly for large groups of thrill seekers, sand loungers and sun soakers. Buffet options here were exceptional as well. I particularly enjoyed the array of fresh local “jugos” (juices) like mango, lime, and coconut while we feasted on local and U.S. staples. We ended our day at Xel-Ha relaxing in hammocks with one foot planted in the sand for propelling while staring up at billowy cotton-like clouds, coconut palms and azure skies. What a way to end our trip! We’ll readily return to this region, but definitely not without paying homage to Xel-Ha.
Our week closed much like it began. Yes, as reported, ten inches of snow awaited us at home. There’d be no September weather in December in Salt Lake City. Cold may have returned to our bodies and we may have been torn from our Yucatan haven. Yet, what’s ten inches of snow when the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and the Mexican Caribbean, with the sun and fun of Experiencias Xcaret still burns bright in our memories? Famed singer James Taylor might have put it best in his hit “Mexico” when he said, “The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home, guess I’ll have to go now.”