Sunday, September 22, 2013

Swim in a Mexican cenote at Akumal's Xel-Ha Water Park


There are tons of things to see and do in Mexico's Akumal region.  While staying there in May, my husband and I figured this fact out right away. Snorkeling, exotic beaches, ruins, pool parties - the entertainment options are endless.  I don't know if many people realize this about the Akumal area.

Part of the Riviera Maya region on the Yucatan peninsula, Akumal is more famous for its natural beauties and wildlife than it is for tourist sight-seeing opportunities.  On the opposite end of the peninsula is Cancun, the more popular tourist destination and more populated area.  As you move up the peninsula from Cancun, the beaches become less crowded and the resorts less frequent.  Akumal, located on the tip, is an outpost when it comes to destination standards.  But I loved it.

Akumal resort, things to do in Akumal
The beauty of Akumal, Mexico.

Just because Akumal is not a 'hot spot' for tourists doesn't mean there isn't anything to do in the region.  As I have already mentioned in my blog, we spent part of a day touring the beautiful ruins of Tulum and its spectacular beach.  That was a great way to spend a morning!  Even better was how we combined that tour with our afternoon adventure - exploring the water park of Xel-Ha (pronounced Shell Ha).

animals at Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Getting to know the wildlife at Xel-Ha water park.

Xel-Ha is basically a giant natural aquarium on the Mexican coast, designed for family outdoor adventures and tons of swimming activities.  The water park offers experiences such as ziplining into the water, cliff diving, riding an inner tube down a river, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, and much, much more.  We only went to Xel-Ha for an afternoon after visiting Tulum, but I know we certainly could have spent an entire day there.

Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico, Marti Ingram
That poor iguana was cooking - his tongue was hanging out and he was panting!

Prices to attend the park vary according to how you acquire tickets - you can purchase online, at the door, or through a tour package, which is what we did.  You can also purchase half day tickets or full day tickets.  You can ALSO choose all-inclusive or less.  Rather than listing out all the prices, you can check out the website for yourself.  With the tour package we purchased, we received an all-inclusive half day ticket - that meant food, drink, and most experiences were part of our deal.  (There were still some activities that cost extra - I'll explain that later.)

We arrived at Xel-Ha around 12:30 p.m. which gave us about 4 hours to enjoy the park.  Our guide led us into the building, explained the rules about included and non-included activities, gave us a map of the park (and the park is huge, so take a map if you go!), and led us to the locker area.  Lockers are included in the entrance fee, and it is recommended you use them - you can go back and forth into them to grab cameras or shoes or whatever at no extra fee.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The beautiful bicycle pathway leading to Xel-Ha's River Run.

Once we had donned our swimsuits and were ready to roll, Joey and I decided to try the inner tube ride down the river first.  There are three ways you can reach the river entrance from the locker area: a trolley, a long hike, or a bicycle ride.  We chose the bicycle ride.  It was very peaceful and fun to whip our bikes through the jungle canopied pathway (I think most people take the trolley).  Once at the inner tube pick-up area, we parked our bikes, grabbed life jackets, and packed our stuff into bags, which were sealed with a lock and then transported to the end of the river to await our pickup.  It is a very nice system they have to prevent you from losing your belongings in the river.

The beginning of the river run is pretty cool - you must go one-by-one down a narrow creek that has been carved out of some thick, woody bushes.  There is absolutely no current here, so you have to launch yourself from branch to branch like a water-logged Tarzan in order to get out of the wooded area.  It was quite fun.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Swinging from branch to branch at the beginning of the River Run.

Unfortunately, once you escape the woody creek, there is not much more current to project you along on the so-called river.  The river run took absolutely forever, and I nearly exhausted myself paddling frantically to get... anywhere.  Often you'd drift to the edge of the 'river' and get tangled in the jungle vegetation.  Joey had to come rescue me more than once.  I was so pooped by the time we hit the halfway point that we ditched the tubes and swam to shore to try something new.  That was my only low-light of Xel-Ha.  It was a nice way to see what there was and how the park was organized, since the river runs through the middle of the park, but man, it is a slow and tiring process to make your way downstream.

Next up, Joey and I tried our hands at cliff diving.  Please keep in mind I had no idea I was a month and a half pregnant at this point, but no harm, no foul.  Joey leapt right off the cliff, fearless and bold.  For myself, I let about 10 people butt in line in front of me, pretending to be outraged but secretly relieved as my knees were literally knocking I was shaking so bad.  Finally, two tiny little kids jumped the cliff right before me, and I knew I couldn't chicken out then.  When it was my turn, I took a little run and leapt from the escarpment.  The fall took about a millisecond and then I was plunging into the cool waters, unscathed.  I was pretty proud of myself - but I didn't go twice.  (If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you'll know I have a love/hate relationship with heights.)

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Joey mid-leap at the Cliff of Courage in Xel-Ha water park.

We tried the rope walk, but some overgrown idiot was hanging in the middle trying to knock everyone off by bouncing and flipping the rope. He made me very angry, so I let go and just swam away.  About 30 seconds after that, the lifeguards kicked the moron off.  Some people's children...

The main area of Xel-Ha near the river run was quite crowded as this is where most of the family activities are located.  Joey and I wanted to experience the beauty of the area without the roar of screaming kids and splashing noises, so we took the long hike around the outer edge of the park and headed to the cenote areas.  There are about five cenotes in a row, possibly connected by an underground water source, that offer snorkeling and swimming.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The peaceful cenotes of Xel-Ha water park in Akumal.

The cenotes were basically deserted.  We encountered only two other families while swimming in them, which made it very peaceful.  My favorite was the Aventura cenote that allowed you to swing on the "Flight of Mo" rope swing and jump in, then swim down a narrow crevice to a small passageway that led you through the rocks and back to the main path.  I felt like Indiana Jones.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The rope swing of Aventura cenote in Xel-Ha water park.

Further down the trail, we snorkeled through the Mayan Cave, where you can see beautiful rock formations carved out by the sea and get your photo taken through a hole in the cave's roof.  You exit the cave right into the lagoon, and can snorkel across the lagoon to get back to the main park, or shed your snorkel gear and walk across the precarious pontoon bridge, called the "Path of the Wind".  We chose to walk the bridge, which was difficult since it sways so much due to the ocean waves.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Inside the Mayan Cave at Xel-Ha water park.

There were a few activities that I wanted to do, but due to the extra cost that Xel-Ha tags onto them, we opted not to try.  (Of course, these are all the really fun and exciting ones!)  Extra cost activities included the 'snuba' excursion, which is a snorkeling trip using scuba breathing tubes that connect not to a tank on your back but to tanks up above, controlled by people who actually know what they are doing.  That way you don't actually need any scuba experience.

One of the experiences I didn't get to do - the Dolphin Sea Walk.  Image via.

I also really wanted to try the Sea Walk adventure, where you get to wear deep-sea helmets and dive down to the ocean floor, where you can interact with dolphins or manatees.  That excursion looked amazing, and I was a little bitter that we couldn't afford it at the time.  Oh well, maybe next visit.

Possibly the best part of Xel-Ha was snorkeling inside the interior of the lagoon.  Due to the lagoon being a giant outdoor aquarium, there were myriads of fish schooling and swimming about, oblivious to their human guests.  No matter where you snorkeled, you could find some pretty exotic species going about their daily business, and in a few places, literally schooling in massive clumps.  You could swim right through them.  It was pretty amazing.  Rather than me attempting to describe the experience,  I have put together some video footage that says it all.

2 comments:

  1. Great post - my family and I are planning on a trip to the Akumal region and were wondering about things to do with kids. Are there any other places you'd recommend in the area??

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    1. There are tons of things to do in the region! Apart from enjoying your resort, there is Half Moon Bay where you can snorkel with turtles, Yel-Ku Lagoon which is a natural ocean sanctuary, Tulum ruins, Playa del Carmen for shopping and much more! I have a few posts on this site outlining some Akumal adventures so feel free to check them out for more information! Have fun on your trip!

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