Award-winning travel writer Sue Campbell recently escaped the cold Canadian winter for a trip to the beautiful Mexican Caribbean. Traveling with her daughter, Sue had the chance to experience a fun-filled day at Xel Ha in the Riviera Maya. She shares her experience with Amstar readers.
It was a frigid February in Montreal, and my daughter Jessica’s 28th birthday was looming. As a lover of all things Caribbean, I wanted to take her somewhere hot to escape our brutal winter; a tropical escapade to celebrate yet another year in my beautiful girl’s life journey (being the daughter of a travel journalist does have its perks!). Because she hadn’t been to Mexico yet, I thought she would really enjoy a few days spent exploring Cancun, Tulum, the Riviera Maya and Isla Mujeres.
I was right!
Traveling in Style & Comfort
After a few more weeks of anxious waiting and cold Canadian winds, the day of our journey finally arrived and before we knew it Jess and I were on a plane heading toward Cancun. About four hours later we stepped out of the plane and into the warm, balmy weather of the Mexican Caribbean. Once we passed through customs and picked up our luggage we headed out the door and were immediately met by the friendly representatives from Amstar dmc. The nice people in the blue-flowered shirts took us straight to a modern van and before we knew it we were whisked away in our private transportation to our next destination: Tulum.
Unlimited Luxury in the Mexican Caribbean
I chose all AMResorts brands for our accommodations because I’ve always had such awesome experiences with them; they really bring a whole new level of class to the “all-inclusive” concept. But because we wanted to travel around a bit and visit several of the wonderful destinations of the Riviera Maya, I divided our week between Dreams Tulum, Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres and Dreams Riviera Cancun. As expected, all three excellent properties offered a level of service and comfort that can only be described as outstanding in every conceivable way.
Riviera Maya excursions
But as all-inclusive as these resorts are and unlimited their luxury, we approached the Amstar representatives in our hotel to ask for their recommendations regarding the best Riviera Maya excursions. I ALWAYS use Amstar for my airport transfers and local tours and activities whenever I can, wherever I go. And because I often travel solo, it’s important to have someone like Amstar who I know will provide me with safe, on-time transportation staffed by well-informed and professional drivers. And to date, I’ve had nothing but excellent experiences with them; not just throughout Mexico, but in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic as well.
A Visit to Xel Ha Nature Park
Our Amstar representative suggested we spend a day Xel Ha nature park (pronounced shell-ha!) because of everything that it has to offer as well as how close it was to our hotel in Tulum. I have to admit that I was somewhat reluctant at first. I’d been to Cancun many times and always noticed their big billboards on the highway, but thought that what they promoted seemed too “amusement park” for me and not the kind of thing we would enjoy much. But I’m so glad I took their advice anyway, because, wow, was my perception ever wrong! Xel Ha is a truly a “paradise” for ALL ages.
A Snorkeler’s Paradise
Both Jess and I are HUGE snorkeling fans, so on arrival, we headed straight to the water sports shop to gear up. It was quick and easy to get outfitted—with five stations there are rarely wait times. It’s also a nice touch is that they let you keep the plastic snorkel hose to take home. After that, it was fins first into the refreshing waters of this protected bay.
To be honest, we were not at all prepared for how massive the “natural aquarium” or even the park was. I thought it would be small man-made pond stocked with colorful fish. Wrong!
The grounds cover a massive 84-acres and boast the world’s LARGEST natural aquatic park! Flowing through it is also the longest system of underground rivers in the world; one of the few places on the planet where you’ll find two types of fish in the same place, freshwater AND saltwater fish. The Mayans named this place “Xel Ha” which means, “where the water was born”, and they revered it as a sacred site. We could certainly see why—it’s absolutely heavenly!
The snorkeling area has many spots to enter the water via wooden stairs and racks full of life jacket racks (required before submerging) are readily available at all times. For our snorkel adventure, my daughter and I decided to split up and meet later so that we could compare notes on where our fishy friends were most plentiful. Well, Jess won. Smart enough to notice that there are flags showing where all the fish are, which I somehow missed, she headed straight to the rocky outcroppings located in the middle of the bay.
Meanwhile, I played hide and seek with schools of cobalt blue sturgeon fish on the other end. Sadly, my underwater camera’s memory card became corrupted by saltwater so I no longer have video proof of how magical it was. But who needs a camera when you can easily spot the fish from solid ground 20 feet above anyway? The water is THAT clear!
Though we can rarely get enough snorkeling time, hunger eventually got the best of us. Luckily, there are many food and beverage spots including massive all-you-can-eat buffets. But because we wanted to take advantage of our time, which we realized wouldn’t be enough to see everything this wonderful nature park has to offer, we grabbed some tasty takeaway options and headed off to the other end of the park so that we could try out something I had never heard of before: zip bikes.
So this is Zip-Biking!
I’d noticed a cool new activity when we entered- a kind of zip-line on a bike, and Jess really wanted to try it. So we went running up past “Courage Cliff”, where brave souls jump off about 25 feet into the cenote below, then sprinted up the steep stone stairs through the lush green forest to the zip-biking operation. Following a short safety briefing, our time had come!
Though you start slow, pedaling like a maniac just to get anywhere, which made me feel like a clown on a tricycle, I was a little concerned about what might lie around the bend… a daredevil dip through the branches… a wild careen over a cliff waterfall … a den of hungry lions? But as it turned out, my fears were totally unfounded. In fact, you simply keep pedaling along at a slow clip and you can’t go any faster no matter how hard you try. But that’s the point.
You see, this is not one of those “extreme” rides where everything whips past in a blur while you scream. Instead, it’s an opportunity to really SEE the nature surrounding you from 23 feet above. Touch, feel, inhale, and experience it. The ability to stop and take photos or videos whenever you want is also a plus. Especially when we had hoped to run into a creature we had never seen before, the white-nosed coati, whom we were able to get a picture of from above.
Our journey also took us right beside a small waterfall, over a narrow ravine and then right down into a cave. It was pitch dark, and spooky with the sound of piped-in “ouga bouga” music as Jess called it, probably used to help recreate the vibe of the ancient Mayan tribes that used to inhabit it. But just as your eyes get accustomed to the dark you become almost blinded by the spectral brightness of natural skylights at the end of the tunnel. Surreal.
Later, we traveled over the lazy river ride, and so sad that we had not done that, but we were just out of time since it takes almost an hour to complete. And though we really rushed back to see the manatees at their sanctuary, and I hereby confess that it’s always been on my bucket list to meet one, alas, we were too late to do so as well because they’d gone back to their underwater homes.
We left Xel Ha with a multitude of wonderful memories, and already desperately yearn to return again soon to discover more of this fascinating park. Next time, we would definitely plan to spend a full-day rather than a half-day at the park, as there really is too much to see and do than is humanly possible in just a few hours. For instance, here are just a few of the things we missed out on:
- Bike rides through the park
- The temazcal, a sort of Mayan steam bath
- A training ground for the Mesoamerican Reef Program
- Queen Conch and Melipona bee nurseries
- Secret grottos and rope-swings
So, yes, we’ll definitely be back. Jess and I had a wonderful time celebrating her birthday while together exploring the breathtaking beauty of the Mexican Caribbean.
Thanks, Amstar. You got it right. Again.
And our thanks go out to you and your daughter for sharing your wonderful experience and beautiful pictures with our readers. Thanks!