Riviera Maya’s ecological parks are among the region's biggest attractions. The main parks – Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Tres Rios – in many ways are representative of the region. Here you’ll discover amazing marine life in spectacular lagoons and crystal-clear rivers (above and below the earth), remnants of Mayan civilization from archaeological sites, white-sand beaches, and even some resort amenities such as kayaks, bicycles, restaurants and evening entertainment to enhance (and capitalize on) your enjoyment of these natural wonders. Thus what were once quiet, gardens of edens are now popular nature theme parks – thankfully Mother Nature still thrives and these parks remain among the Riviera’s great attractions.
Just five miles south of Playa del Carmen is the eco-archaeological park Xcaret (pronounced ish-car-ett), meaning “little inlet” in Mayan. This popular 25-acre park offers natural attractions and ecological displays, cultural shows, and water activities. The nature and ecological attractions include waterfalls, pristine rivers (one underground), turtle nursery, butterfly pavilion, aviary, aquarium, bat cave, orchid farm and botanical gardens. The cultural activities (highly recommended) include displays of traditional Mayan rituals, a reconstructed Mayan village and a fantastic evening-time dance show including the famed Mayan ballgame. There are several great water activities such as snorkeling in an underground river – lit by daylight from overhanging holes. Additional options (not included in admission fee) is dolphin swim, snorkel and dive tours to nearby reefs, and snuba, a cross between diving and snorkeling. To snuba an air-fed dive helmet is worn to allow participants to explore the fascinating underwater world from the ocean floor.
With the number of interesting activities, including evening dance performances, it is easy to spend the whole day at Xcaret. Please note that outside food, beverages, and non-biodegradable suntan lotions are prohibited in the park. You won’t go hungry though as there are plenty of restaurants inside, and the Park sells its own mandatory 100% natural lotion – used to minimize polluting the waters given the number of visitors. Xcaret is open April to October daily from 8:30 am to 10 pm. Admission prices for adults is US$49, children 5-11 US$25.
Another spectacular park, located just south of Puerto Aventuras, is Xel-Há (pronounced shell-ha). Xel-Ha means “where the water is born” - the story is that the Mayan Gods gave Xel-Ha to mortals following human creation. Dubbed as the largest natural aquarium in the world, Xel-Ha is a paradise for divers and snorkeling as the waters host large schools of multicolored fish, as well as the opportunity to swim with dolphins. The 10-acre park consists of an exotic blue lagoon with coves, creeks and cenotes, where you can swim or snorkel in crystal-clear waters among a variety of tropical fish. Just as enjoyable is laying on an inner tube floating down a sparkling river amid the sights and sounds of fauna and wildlife.
Change and locker room facilities are available (for a separate fee), as is diving and snorkel gear rentals. Like Xcaret, outside food, drinks and non-biodegradable suntan lotions are forbidden. Xel-Ha is open daily from 8 am – 5 pm. Admission prices for adults is US$25, US$19 for children under 12 and free for kids under 5.
Tres Rios, located 7 miles north of Playa del Carmen, is a large 370-acre tropical forest named for the four (not three like its name implies) underground rivers that surface about a mile from the coast and flow to the ocean. These magical-like rivers are fed by cenotes - natural pools used by the ancient Maya for ceremonies. Visitors can ride a bike to the cenotes and then snorkel down the river to the Caribbean Sea. The banks of the waterways are covered with lush green vegetation and birds are abundant. In addition to snorkeling, visitors can kayak down the rivers. The park has a nice white-sand beach and horseback riding is also available. Tres Rios is less developed than the other major parks. It also receives less visitors as it not as heavily marketed. The park is open every day between 8:30 am and 5 pm. Admission is US$20.
All of the above parks are easily accessible. Almost all area travel agents sell park tours which are offered at most hotels. In addition to taxi rides, shuttle bus services are a convenient and inexpensive way to reach the parks.