The Riviera Maya, that popular stretch of coastline on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, has enough attractions to keep visitors busy for weeks. Having seen most of them over the years, I highly recommend two classics, the hybrid amusement parks of Xcaret and Xel-Há. While both emphasize environmental awareness, they also aim to entertain — which they do handily. Families will find plenty of diversions to fill a full-day visit (and get their money’s worth).
Xcaret (pronounced ISH-ca-ret) calls itself an “Eco-archaeological Park,” but it also has all kinds of animals on display — parrots, jaguars, tapirs, manatees and dolphins you can swim with. Exploring the spacious grounds, you’ll catch performances throughout the day: rodeo tricks, ceremonial dances and the Voladores de Papantla, in which “flying men” swing from a pole on ropes, soaring like birds. Families love to float down the cool, freshwater underground river, wearing life jackets and passing through illuminated caves along the way.
It may seem odd, but one of my favorite places at Xcaret is the Mexican Cemetery. Here, Day of the Dead traditions are celebrated with colorful grave markers — including one with a faithful dog standing watch.
The grand finale to the day is the 7 p.m. show, the “Xcaret Mexico Espectacular.” It’s held in a massive 6,000-seat theater, with more than 300 costumed actors performing folkloric songs, dances and ceremonies. My kids were especially thrilled by the game of Mayan floor hockey, in which giant flaming balls take the place of pucks.
Xcaret is 37 miles (60 km) south of Cancun, 3 miles (6 km) from Playa del Carmen. Open daily; adults $99 (book online for reduced fee); children 5-11 50% off; 4 and under free.
The amusement park Xel-Há (pronounced SHELL-ha) has similar attractions as Xcaret, but here the emphasis is on water. Families can go on a lazy-river tube float, swim in a cenote (a naturally occurring underground pool), commune with dolphins, paddle kayaks and zoom above the water on zip-lines. Go snorkeling here and you’ll feel as if you’re swimming in a giant aquarium. If you have the guts to jump 16 feet (5 meters) off the Cliff of Courage into a pool of crystal-clear water, be sure to have your photo taken as you plunge.
The highlight for my son Evan was the chance to swim with manatees, one of his favorite animals. Xel-Há operates a rescue and conservation program to help save these endangered creatures, and guests can get in the same enclosure with the gentle aquatic mammals. We fed them heads of romaine lettuce while they held onto our shoulders with their flippers.
Xel-Há is 68 miles (110 km) south of Cancun. Open daily 8:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.; $89 adults (book online for reduced fee); children 5-11 50% off; under 5 free. The entrance fee includes all food and drink; some activities, such as dolphin and manatee swims, cost extra. Wear swimsuits and water shoes; bring towels and a change of clothes.