Xcaret Eco Park: History, Culture, Ecology and Water Play

story and photos by Kayte Deioma

Although much of what Xcaret Ecological and Archaeological Park has to offer is outdoors, there are a variety of indoor activities that can keep you dry on a rainy day, and you won’t care if it’s raining if you are in the water.

Architect Miguel Quintana Pali came up with the idea of building a theme park around some of the Mayan Riviera’s natural wonders and archaeological ruins, which would give people access to these resources, while educating them about the dangers we humans pose to the natural world.

Xcaret, Mayan for small inlet, was once a significant port. Ruins from the ancient village have been restored by the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) with funding from Xcaret and are incorporated into the park.

There is a natural inlet with turquoise blue water, which has become a tropical playground surrounded by beaches with rock formations to explore. You can swim through underground rivers, where on a crowded day, you may find yourself bumper to butt with others on the same dark journey between patches of open daylight.

For an additional fee you can try Snuba diving (attached to an air hose) or Sea Trekking with a weighted air helmet in cenotes, which are underwater sinkholes formed when the roofs of underwater caves were eroded away. There is also an independent vendor providing the opportunity to swim with the dolphins.

All of these activities continue under normal rain conditions, but they may be cancelled if there are strong winds.

The wildlife in the park, which includes deer, panthers and jaguars, howler monkeys, birds and butterflies, to name a few, will probably take cover, but you can always find plenty going on inside the Coral Reef Aquarium.

For a decadent and relaxing escape from a sudden shower, a massage under a palapa or in a river cave at the Xpa could do the trick. A little pink boat rows you across the river to the cave. Overhanging green tree branches separate you from a waterfall, whose constant symphony drowns out any other sounds from park visitors.

The outdoor shows, like the Mexican Charreria cow girls, the Mayan fire dancers and the Papantla Flyers may be cancelled if there is significant rain, but the evening Xcaret Spectacular Night Show will go on in the indoor Grand Tlachco theatre and ball court.
The Xcaret Night Spectacular is worth the trip to Xcaret, even if you don’t spend the day at the park. The show is included with the cost of admission, or for an additional fee you can have a three course dinner during the show, which was one of my favorite meals of the trip.

Although the narration is all in Spanish, you won’t have any trouble understanding the historic presentation. The show begins with Mayan children enacting the legend of the story of creation. Offerings to a leopard-skin-clad dignitary from a citizenry of painted men in elaborate headdresses and women in colorfully embroidered robes provide the prize for the winners of the ancient ball games.
Team scores a goal in the Mayan game of Pok ta'pok during the Xcaret night Spectacular.The first pre-Hispanic game, called Pok ta’ pok, is played by barefoot men wrapped in leather and fabric loincloths, each with unique body paint, bearing carved and feathered creatures on their heads. The goal of the 3000-year-old game is to get the rubber ball through a vertical stone hoop by hitting it with just the hip. Although it appears to be a team sport, just one man is honored as a winner at the end.

The pre-Hispanic burning ball game, Uarhukua at the Xcaret Night Spectacular. In the Burning Ball Game, or Uarhukua, from the Pur├ępecha people of Michoacan, they light a wooden ball on fire, then use hockey-like sticks to propel it though the same stone hoops. The fireball represents the sun and honors the god of fire in this ritualistic sport. Despite also being barefoot, I was glad to see that these players wore a much thicker protective layer of leather around their midsections displaying team colors.

The ball games are followed by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, which begins peacefully and escalates into battle. Spanish knights on horseback accompany monks in brown robes to convert the Mayans to Christianity. The indigenous people and Spaniards intermingle once more creating the Mexican culture.

The second half of the program on Mestizo Mexico is a showcase of regional Mexican folk music and dance from around the country. A colorful array of costumes, music and dancing take you from the Gualeguetza of Oaxaca, to the Vaqueria of the Yucatan. The Old Men Dance represents Michoacan, while Veracruz celebrates its Carnaval with feather-clad showgirls. Papantla fliers swing from the rafters. Sinaloans dance a polka; and drummers beat out a peasant tune from Tabasco. Mariachis, a flirtatious Jarabe Tapatio dance and rope tricks from Jalisco round out the cultural tour. The grand finale brings them all back together, with giant puppets leading the parade. It is a really impressive exhibition of Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Xcaret is located just south of Playa Del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera. At publication, prices start at $69 for adults and $34 for children 40″-50″ tall for basic park entry, 10% off for online purchase. Packages are available including meals and transportation. Xcaret may be included or have special rates from some all-inclusive Cancun or Mayan Riviera resorts. For more information and current prices visit www.Xcaret.com.