Alive and Aware: Experiencing Xcaret By Brooke Jorden You’ve been to other amusement parks. You’ve seen the long lines at Knott’s Berry Farm, the high-tech rides at Six Flags, the commercialized attractions at Disneyland. But you’ve never experienced a place quite like Xcaret. Located near Riviera Maya, Cancún, Xcaret (eks-kah-RET) celebrates the natural and cultural beauty of Mexico’s past and present. It contains a wealth of natural wonders and authentic experiences. Like watching a butterfly, experiencing Xcaret connects you to nature— something far more real than cheap thrills, electric lights, and motion sickness. History of Xcaret Before its metamorphoses into the thriving eco-tourism destination it is today, Xcaret was simply a dream in the mind of Mexican architect Miguel Quintana Pali. Originally, Pali intended to build his home on the 12 acres he purchased in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. But when he discovered the location’s diverse ecology and the chain of underground caves and rivers, he resolved to share Mexico’s natural beauty with the world. “Xcaret is a corner of Mexico that touches the souls of thousands of people,” Pali says. Daniela Muñoz, director of public relations for Xcaret, says, “We want to be the best tourist destination that shares the experience of the natural and cultural richness of Mexico.” Natural Attractions Xcaret is home to the largest butterfly pavilion in the world—nearly 38,000 square feet. The ancient Aztecs believed that butterflies held the souls of brave warriors. To them, each fragile creature contained within its tiny form the strength and beauty of a rich cultural moment in Mexican history. Visitors follow a winding path through the humid dome, greeted by native butterflies of every imaginable size and color. There are more than five thousand butterflies in the pavilion, so you are bound to make at least one beautiful friend as they land on your shoulders, your hat, and your hands.
After you see the butterflies, grab your life jacket and goggles and head to Xcaret’s mysterious underground rivers. Some parts of the rivers are so dark that you can’t see the cave walls around you. You cling to the rope that guides swimmers through the deep caves until you see the light streaming down through the sinkholes that periodically light the way through the river system. Other parts of the rivers are open to the sky. According to Muñoz, “All the rivers have a natural flow. A characteristic of Quintana Roo is that a lot of underground rivers are connected, and in some little towns they are still used to provide fresh water.” With friendly tropical fish swimming at your feet and the tropical sun shining above you, you’ll never want to leave. There is no better way to connect with nature than interacting with the amazing creatures that live at Xcaret. Spend an hour swimming with the dolphins. Or if you are brave, swim with the sharks—taking this kind of risk takes more guts than riding even the most terrifying rollercoaster. Cultural Connections When the sun goes down, watch an amazing spectacle of song and dance in the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular. Nearly three hundred performers reenact the history of Mexico, beginning with the Maya and the Aztecs. Performers even play Maya ballgames. In one game, players use their chest and hips to bounce the ball through vertical hoops. In another game, players hit flaming balls around the court with poles, trying to get them past the “goalies” on either end. When one flame goes out, the “ball boy” lights another and sends it flying into the game. The show ends by celebrating the unique cultural flavor of each of Mexico’s largest states. Every act celebrates the interwoven importance of Mexican culture and geography. “Xcaret cares as much about the cultural traditions of present-day Mexico as we do about ancient Mexico,” Muñoz says. In fact, Xcaret is built on an ancient Maya archeological site, and
many of the structures have been preserved. The show and Xcaret itself are monuments of Mexican pride.
Conservation Efforts Muñoz says that despite Xcaret’s amazing attractions and adventures, what makes this archaeological park so unique can be summed up in one word: “awareness.” The creators of Xcaret are keenly aware of the need to preserve the natural beauty of the world. They even ask that you wear chemical-free sunscreen to minimize the impact on the environment. Xcaret works closely with nonprofit organizations like Fauna & Flora International to facilitate the revival of endangered animals and plants and has taken special care to protect green and loggerhead turtles. Between 1996 and 2011, the wildlife wing of Xcaret Park released a total of 5,539,355 sea turtle hatchlings into the wild. Xcaret also takes pride in its breeding programs for the Scarlet Macaw (also known as the Ara Macaw) and the Military Macaw. Each day at noon, a flock of these endangered red and green macaws fly over Xcaret, squawking their blessing over the park and its visitors. Xcaret holds the only Guinness World Record in history for an endangered species reproduction program—the record of “most macaws born in the same location in the same year.” According to Muñoz, “In November 2012, the first 27 macaws were released back into the wild. These 27 macaws have a new home in Palenque, Chiapas. And every three months, Xcaret is going to release 30 more to contribute to the repopulation. This shows how Xcaret is working every day to create magic and unforgettable experiences for our visitors, even for those who still don’t know us.” She hopes that some day in the future her children will be able to see macaws flying free through the sky. Although tickets into Xcaret cost $71.10, you can be sure that the park is putting the money to good use. Xcaret represents the symbiotic relationship between culture and nature. With its natural attractions and its commitment to the preservation of Mexican ecology and culture, Xcaret is a one-of-a-kind experience. Taking its mission from the butterflies, it stands as a gentle
reminder of the beauty of nature and the importance of a cultural past that may be gone—but must never be forgotten. www.xcaret.com
Sidebar: Fall Events at Xcaret Although most people visit Cancún in the summer months, hoping to work on their tan in the Mayan Riviera, three of Xcaret’s major cultural events take place during the fall season. So avoid the crowds and participate in an authentic Mexican experience. •
October 30–November 2: Festival de Vida y Muerte (“Festival of Life and Death,” a celebration through art, music, and food)
December 12: Mañanita de Flor y Canto (“The Morning of Flowers and Songs,” a song-filled day of praise to the Virgin of Guadalupe)
December 14–25: Las Posadas (“The Inns,” a candlelight procession celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ)