Sparkling blue seas, white beaches soft as talc, a Caribbean breeze in your face. When people think of vacations in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, these are the things that come to mind. But on the Riviera Maya, south of Cancun, visitors are more and more venturing to parks inland to get a break from the (albeit blissful) monotony of lounging poolside at an all-inclusive resort.
But all jungle adventures are not made equal. Here, nature and adventure tours spring up where once un viejo sat at the gate of an underground pool, asking a few pesos to enter. Now, you’ll visit those same pools (called cenotes [sen-oh-tays]) but you’ll get there through the entrance of a full-blown theme park or via a “Mayan taxi,” a local joke for a glorified tractor and trailer pulling you through the jungle.
Here are three of the Riviera Maya’s best activities for when (or if) you get tired of jade oceans and soft sand:
This nature-as-theme-park attraction is one of the oldest in the area and also one of the best designed. While many such nature tours are not much more than a trail system surrounding an open-air palapa hut, Xcaret could rival any zoo in the U.S. Scarlet and green macaws fly through the park, howler and spider monkeys provide hours of entertainment, and the puma and jaguar pens give the park the kind of charismatic megafauna sure to thrill the young ones. The newest attraction lets visitors swim in the water with nurse sharks. Sure, the sharks are non-aggressive, but having one sit in your lap and snap as you drop fish into its mouth will surely get your attention. The park is also one of the best places to see sea turtles up close. Xcaret has run an extensive turtle preservation program since it began 16 years ago, and still saves some 250 baby sea turtles every year. Some of the turtles in the park measure six feet across.
Most visitors head straight to the underground rivers snaking through the park’s labyrinthine cave system armed with life jackets, snorkel gear, and waterproof cameras. Not to be missed are the Mayan dance performances put on nightly and at various times during the day. Fully dressed dancers drum, stick their feet in fire, burn incense, and appeal to the ancient gods in a rough approximation of the ceremonies that took place here thousands of years ago. The park is built around an ancient ruin honoring Ix Chel, the Mayan moon goddess, and every May the park hosts a ceremony honoring “the crossing,” where Mayan men would row in dugout canoes across the ocean from this temple to the oracle on the island of Cozumel.
The newest of the Riviera Maya’s family attractions, this one-year-old park has the best zip lines on the Yucatan. Two sets of lines are strung from three-story-tall towers built around the park, the longest hurtling you 131 feet over the jungle. Some zip lines crash through waterfalls before ending in a splashdown. But there’s more to do than just zip lines. The park has three additional attractions: rides through the jungle in amphibious vehicles and swimming and rafting in underground rivers through caves peppered with stalactites. An innovative system of cameras snaps your picture as you walk, wade, swim, or fly through the various activities, and monitors throughout the park read a chip in your helmet to display your pictures as you go. After your day is done, you can buy all of your photos on a USB flash drive for US$49. Admission covers all activities and a healthy buffet lunch featuring fresh-squeezed fruit juices, ceviche, local cheese, Mexican pizza, various salads and fresh fruit, and burgers and hot dogs for the kids. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this park isn’t high intensity; it’s simply walking through the park’s extensive cave system marveling at the limestone cavern chambers that took millions of years to create.
Check out the park’s video here:
Hidden Worlds Cenote Park
Started by an American diver many years ago, this PADI-certified dive center is known as one of the best spots in the Riviera Maya to learn cenote diving, thanks to its marquee Cenote Dos Ojos. But there’s more to this park than just the diving. Its mellow SkyCycle rides (think pedaling a bike along a slow-moving zip line) give you a tour of the jungle canopy, where you can see palms and rare orchids. A splashdown zip-line ride gives visitors a chance to cool off. But the most invigorating non-scuba thing to do at Hidden Worlds is to snorkel in its caves. A tight entrance through clear, cold spring water brings you to an eerie, faintly illuminated cavern where fish with no fear of humans swim and tree roots grow through the ceiling. It’s a long swim in cold water, so young children and older adults should wear wetsuits to stay comfortable during this activity. Soon to open is the Avatar zip line, the only zip line with banked turns as it whisks you through jungles and caves.
For more information about these places, check out Away.com’s Riviera Maya travel guide.
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