Xel-ha, Where The Water (And Magical Memories) Are Born
We are excited when family comes to Playa del Carmen for a visit because we get the opportunity to play tourist! Although we live here, just like in any other city of the world, life happens and we slip mindlessly into a monotonous daily grind – work, carpools, soccer practice, gymnastics class, laundry, grocery shopping, and the list goes on. It is not every day that we have a chance to go and explore the unrivaled beauty of the Mayan Riviera.
There is one particular place that recaptures my heart every time I am fortunate enough spend time there. Xel-há is a natural aquatic center located 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. This majestic Eco-park was established around a picturesque inlet, turquoise lagoon and fresh water cenotes, all habitats to a plenitude of vibrant marine life.
I had been here once before and remembered this tranquil paradise fondly, but nearly a decade had passed and there was much more to explore! It was a perfect Mayan Riviera day, azure skies with the Mexican sun smiling radiantly down upon our crew which included 3 kids, aged 6, 4 and 3. The glistening waters beckoned us, so with snorkel sets in tow, we began at Children’s World.
This section of the park was a hit with not only the kids but the adults as well! We snorkeled, slid down Flinstone-like water slides, and leaped from one giant lily pad to another which turned out to be much more of a challenge than the children made it appear to be! After a couple of hours of enjoying the refreshing water, the adults hydrated with some cool cocktails and lazed in the hammocks while the kids traipsed the bridges from one tree-house station to another.
Next we hopped on bicycles and rode through lush jungle paths lined with thick, native vegetation. The short journey led us to the mouth of the lazy river where we were given tire rafts. Two by two, we allowed the slow-moving current to carry us along the river through elaborate tunnels formed by intertwined mangrove trees.
The subsequent leg our journey brought us to the Cliff of Courage. I was the first one to scurry up the ladder rungs which ascended to ledge of a 5 meter cliff. Apparently, I left my courage back in the boat because when I arrived at the top and looked down, my mind screamed “NO WAY!” I regressed back to the ladder and was about to scramble down, but noticed my mother, who in her 50’s, was climbing out her raft! I begrudgingly thought to myself that if my dear mom was brave enough to do it, then I had no other option but to take the leap as well. After each of us (minus the kids) had experienced the exhilaration of the temporarily heart-stopping jump, we sailed on to the aquatic zip lines.
At this pit-stop, my 6 and 4 year old were thrilled to take the plunge and shrieked as their feet left the platform and their behinds dipped into the cool, awaiting waters. The zip lines were the highlight of their day, with swinging on the jungle rope into the crystalline cenote, a close second. To conclude our action-packed, laughter-filled afternoon, we dined on a Mexican feast overlooking the water.
Since we had not fully researched the activities available beforehand, we were surprised to discover the abundance of attractions Xel-há offers. From swimming with dolphins, manatees and stingrays to zip biking above the jungle canopy, the breathtaking setting is optimal for admiring the finest of the region’s many species of flora and fauna within their spectacular habitats.
There are some who scoff at the mention of these commercial excursions, however, I was very impressed by the company’s passionate approach to creating environmental awareness through conservation efforts, as well as through staff and public education programs. Xel-há has worked hard to preserve its fragile ecosystem and the on-site nurseries have helped contribute to a massive re-forestation effort which planted more than 400,000 plants in 18 months in public areas throughout the Mayan Riviera.
According to Mayan legend, Xel-há, meaning “Where the water is born,” was the result of a collaboration between the gods, a combination of their ancient wisdom and reverence for nature’s splendor. Once their work was complete, the gods stood over their creation and were pleased. In order that their treasure be protected, they appointed 3 guardians to watch over it. “Huh” the iguana, would become guardian of the land, “Chuc Kay,” the pelican was guardian of the air and “Kay Op” the parrotfish, was to guard the water. It is believed that these guardians to this day, maintain their watch over Xel-há and all of its visitors. Perhaps this is the reason for the mystical ambience which continues to lure me back time and time again.