One of the things I cherish the most about my marriage is our shared spirit of adventure. We love to encounter new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. I will admit it, though: we are total tourists. While some people may want an entirely immersive, cultural experience, our travel preferences lie in carefully constructed worlds dreamed up by engineers and artists (Disney World, anyone?) So it should come as no shock to anyone that when we learned during our first foray to the Caribbean that there was a Mexican Disney World equivalent, we planned our second voyage south in the form of a pre-packaged, all-inclusive, full resort access trip to Experiencias Xcaret.
Although entirely unique and not Disney World, there were similarities that allowed us to feel quite comfortable transitioning from Disney World vacations: a cozy room in a resort hotel (Hotel Xcaret), shuttles to our choice of park (Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xenses, Xplor, Xetera), a “magic band” that gave us access to our room and all of the parks. For us Disney Junkies, it was a smooth way to travel internationally while still feeling at home.
Join me on our journey…..
From Plebeian to Plush:
When an unexpected luxury falls into your lap, it makes it all the sweeter. We are fortunate to travel in general, but not so much to fly first class, which is why when we approached the flight desk and our seats were changed, I was more concerned we would be separated than aware of what was really happening. Boarding the flight, I continued on past the plush section to join my fellow plebeians and heard Ross clear his throat. He was pointing to two spacious, comfortable seats in first class. I checked my boarding pass and, sure enough, those were our seats.
Never having traveled first class, I had no idea the treats in store for me as we crossed the gulf toward the Caribbean. I was just thrilled to have such a comfortable seat. So – each subsequent surprise was a whole new delight. As the flight attendant handed out hot towels, I held mine unsure of what to even do with it. A voyeur into a new class, I observed the experienced first class flyers dabbing at their faces and necks, so I awkwardly followed suit.
Then, as I chose from a full selection of DirecTV channels on the screen in front of me (also a first on a flight), I overheard the attendant explaining two meal options to choose from to those around me. My initial inclination was to ask how much it would cost and politely decline, but I saw no one handing over their credit card. When my turn came around, I ordered juevos rancheros with habanero sauce and a mimosa (all included). Ross ordered a berry soufflé. Both meals were delicious and all the more so because we were only expecting peanuts.
So, now I know what I’ve been missing (and will continue to miss) all of this time, but I knew one thing for certain after our first experience: we were in for a fortuitous trip.
We were shuttled from the airport to Hotel Xcaret, an eco-friendly nature reserve equidistant from three of the parks: Xcaret, Xplor, and Xenses. As we waited for our room to be ready, we explored the hotel and began to realize exactly how massive it was – so massive, in fact, that we didn’t see the entirety of it throughout our trip. We followed the maze of rock walls and rivers with one goal in mind: the sea. We found a path through the jungle that opened to the humbling majesty of the ocean. Bright green flora melded into turquoise water, leading into the deep blues of the open ocean, a line separating the sky and clouds. We had found it: paradise.
Cuckoo for Coconuts:
Once we settled in, I eyed my prize: a coconut full of rum. On our honeymoon in the Bahamas, I sat in the surf with a coconut full of rum in hand, and ever since, I’ve been trying to recreate that same serene scene to no avail. This time, however, I immediately spotted a coconut stand. Once my rum-filled coconut was in hand, I made my way to the cool, clear water. Day one could not have been more kismet. Flying first class… Finding my coconut… I waded around, sat in the surf, sipped on my coconut, and enjoyed the afternoon sun beating down on my sandy skin.
Xperiences at Xcaret
The next day was my 27th birthday. We woke up early and headed to Xcaret, a nature park full of various flora and fauna, teeming with hidden lagoons and picturesque, post-card views. We made our way to the back of the park, reveling in the quiet serenity. We had our choice of private lagoons, settling on a secluded beach with still, translucent water. Finding a waveless beach was another thing I have been searching for since the smooth waters of the adult beach on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, during our honeymoon. We spent the morning wading in the lagoon, watching armies of minnows swim near our feet and the park begin to wake around us.
Once we had soaked up some sun, we were ready to find the prime snorkling spots. People were slowly beginning to trickle in, so we wanted to explore some of the coves while we had the place mostly to ourselves. We slipped into the deep waters and snorkled around the lagoons, taking in the colors and various species of fish, even some with rainbow scales. When we were done snorkling, we floated blissfully in a hidden swimming hole usually reserved for “snuba” divers that wasn’t being used since the excursion wasn’t open yet.
By the time we had finished snorkling and eaten lunch, waves of people were surging into the park. We are a bit of a contradiction – since we love theme parks but dislike crowds. We were ready to head back to the resort where most people were leaving to wander out into the parks. On our way out, we were behind a group of people each holding a brilliant McCaw. They congregated at the end of a trail, then released the McCaws to fly around the park. I snapped a picture mid-flight, quite proud of myself for not running screaming, considering I’m quite orthinophobic. In fact, I even braved my fear enough to hold one of the lovely birds for a picture.
When we got back to the resort, most people had cleared out, giving us the perfect opportunity to explore. We strolled along the coast, which varied from sandy beach to craggy cliff-face. Some parts of the surf were crystal clear with uninterrupted blue, while other terrain was more rocky with darker spots. While some people strayed away from the more rocky parts of the beach, it was here that I found my hidden oasis.
In between the rock and coral was a small section of sandy beach, leading into a lagoon surrounded by rocks. It was easy to avoid the rocks and wade out into the surf and observe the fish at home amongst the rocks. One of these fish was a large needle-fish, which was, admittedly, intimidating, but, luckily, just as intimidated by us. After a while, I lied down in the surf, letting the waves wash over me, not minding the itch of the sand in my hair, feeling the rays of the sun heat my skin. It was one of those moments you capture in your mind to recall on rough days, one of the most perfect moments in my 27 years.
The next day, we set off to tour the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, one of the packages included in our stay. We had a tour guide who was very knowledgeable and explained to us that the Mayans were not warriors, but astronomers. He showed us the buildings constructed specifically to align with the summer and winter solstices and helped us understand that the Mayans’ math revolved around the number 20, our number of fingers and toes (Don’t ask me to repeat the calculations, but even though I don’t math well, it was fascinating). Although I appreciated the guided tour, by the time it was over, crowds of people were flocking throughout the ruins, and the heat without the beach was becoming intolerable. We snapped a few pictures, then headed for the brackish water of Xel Ha.
After the crowds and heat at Tulum, we were happy to arrive at the open waters of Xel Ha. Xel Ha is Mayan for “mixed water” because it is a naturally occurring lagoon where a river meets the sea, creating brackish water. This was our second trip to Xel Ha. On our first trip to the Riviera Maya, it was the only Xcaret park we visited, and we enjoyed it so much that we knew we not only had to come back to Xel Ha, but experience more parks that Xcaret had to offer.
When snorkling in the lagoon, the brackish water is unpredictable. Sometimes, you feel the warm waters of the gulf, and then it transforms into the icy water of the river. In certain places, your feet will be warm, while your upper body is cold since the salt water is heavier and sinks closer to the bottom. No matter where you are, however, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
We snorkled across the lagoon and found a place where our feet could touch to have a rest. Then, we continued our quest closer to the warm waters of the open sea since my husband is not a fan of cold waters. Eventually, we located the perfect place to spend the rest of our time – right next to buoys that separated the sting ray exhibit. Originally, we just liked it because it was on the corner of the lagoon, so it was isolated with a beautiful view, but it didn’t take long to discover it was also the route the sting rays would take to get to their snacks in the lagoon. Huge sting rays circled through, on the same, circuitous route. We waded around in awe of the giant sting rays swimming around us.
The last thing we did in Xel Ha was ride the giant slide. Last time we were here, the slide was still being built, so it was a new experience for us. The best part about the slide was the view from the top. You could see miles upon miles of the Caribbean beach, a long ribbon, on one side of the platform, and on the other side you could see the entire lagoon and river.
Teatro Del Rio
We made it back to our resort just in time for Teatro Del Rio, an exclusive dinner show celebrating Mexican culture. We had a wonderful view of the show while making our way through a six course menu, and the food/music did not disappoint. The musicians and dancers were all exceptionally talented. I appreciate music, but my husband truly has an ear for pitch. Even he was impressed, which says it all.
Xploring our Xenses
Originally, we planned to spend our last full day back at Xcaret. When we learned during our last trip about Xenses, a park that celebrates the senses by playing with your perspective, my husband, ever the fan of Ripley’s Believe it or Not and other oddities, expressed an interest in going. I was leery at first, but I knew how much he wanted to go, so I suggested we try it out instead of going back to Xcaret. Sometimes, we are rewarded for our sacrifice, and this time, karma was definitely on my side, making for one of the weirdest, yet most enjoyable days of my life.
When you enter Xenses, you walk into a large chamber shaped like an oval, with tunnels leading out in each direction leading to other chambers. I knew, even as we made our way through the tunnel headed for our lockers, that I was in for a bizarre day. There was a bridge through a spiraling tunnel that made you feel dizzy. There were toilet thrones (literally, toilet thrones).
The first exhibit we were directed to was called the Xensatorium. We sat down and watched a brief video. Midway through the video, we saw a woman who had entered the Xensatorium come right back out, which made us wonder what we were walking into. The video explained we would walk through different habitats and were encouraged to keep our hands in front of us at all times. I thought that was odd, but I quickly figured out why: the entire Xensatorium was pitch black. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t see the smallest source of light. It was also a highly personal experience, so my husband and I were separated and sent down different trails.
The first habitat was the desert, which was my least favorite. Not only was I mildly claustrophobic and adjusting to the omnipresent darkness, but I was guided through the small tunnel by the feel of “cacti,” which was not pleasant. By the second part of the exhibit, which felt like the rainforest, I was beginning to get the hang of it. You truly had to rely on your senses to navigate. I began to trust my body to move me where I needed to go, and felt the trickle of water from the rain down my back. I made my way through an icy cold river, across a warm bridge, through a lush forest, into a damp cave – all in the pitch black. As I traveled through the ecosystems, I relaxed and appreciated how heightened my other senses were when my sight was taken away. Finally, in the distance, I saw a flame, and it guided me into an open cavern with soft music and inspirational quotes. At the end, it played “Wonderful World” and opened further to a well-lit, lush rainforest with a waterfall, where I met up with my husband. I felt completely relaxed.
Just when you think it can’t get weirder…
After the Xensatorium, we were eager to find out what other wonders this magical place had in store for us. We were directed to another chamber, which led us to the “town.” I still am not sure exactly what was going on – were we going uphill.. downhill.. were the buildings just slanted? I have no clue, but the water flowed uphill (or appeared to), and it was impossible to stand straight. We stumbled around the town, laughing and enjoying ourselves, trying to figure out what the HECK was going on. The town had many rooms, some were made to look upside down. Some were full of trampolines. Everything was wild and unexpected.
Descent into Madness
The house led us to our last, multi-faceted exhibit. We climbed a spiral to the top of a building and began our descent with a typical waterslide. It was fun, but nothing was super odd about it, unlike everything else. (It was deceiving, making you think you were about to encounter some normalcy. Wrong.). From there, we were ushered into another chamber full of people who were strapping us into harnesses and putting helmets on our head in preparation for our “bird flight.” We had no clue what was going on, but we nodded our heads and followed instructions. We came to a cliff-face, and our harnesses were attached to a zip-line. It felt like we were lying on a hammock on our stomachs. Then, we pushed off and flew down the zipline to the next stop on our adventure.
We were unstrapped and taken to a dimly lit cavern where we were instructed to push off and then float down a small river, relaxing on our backs. We followed the river to an opening at the end, then moved onto the next step on our journey, where we had the same task, but this time, we were floating in slimy mud while listening to pig noises (which was surprisingly relaxing..). At the end, there was a small mud-pit where we could lounge around for a bit. When we were sufficiently muddy and slimy, we followed a multi-colored path with water raining down on us, cleansing what was left of the mud. As we exited, we walked through a sauna, and our skin felt refreshed. From there, we explored the smaller chambers, each with a different theme or perspective before making our way back to the resort as, once again, the crowds were beginning to flood in for their own Xenses experience. Our timing was wonderful.
We made it back from what felt like being lost in wonderland just in time to enjoy quiet time at the beach. The tide had receded a bit, revealing a new place for us to relax in between the sandy beach and craggy lagoon we enjoyed on my birthday. We climbed down the rocks into the shallows while the sun beat down at the perfect angle, painting the water a vivid shade of turquoise. All around us, parasails floated like balloons in the sky. We waded in the water, sipped bottomless, tropical drinks, and enjoyed each other’s company.
Hasta La Vista
On the day of our flight home, we woke up early to watch the sun paint the sky the color of papaya and apricots. If you closed your eyes for a few moments and re-opened them, the sky had re-painted itself, somehow becoming more brilliant than before. Although the sun was rising, it felt as though it were setting on our holiday. It didn’t make me feel morose, but rather felicitous to have experienced the wonders of the last few days. Moreso, I felt truly fortunate that I didn’t dread going home – that the life we have built for ourself is not one we need an escape from, even though we still enjoy our adventures. So, we said hasta la vista to the beach and headed back to our self-made paradise: home.