This was my first visit to Xel-Ha and my spouse's second. I've been snorkeling and hiking at nature preserves in Hawai'i so I kind of was expecting something similar, but with Mexican wildlife. And that's pretty much what this water park is about.
Xel-Ha is at the interface between several freshwater rivers and the ocean. Therefore the water has a curious halocline (interface between waters of different salinities) that gives an interesting visual effect (called schlering) when you snorkel or dive in the waters. The local ecosystem is interesting as well. You have a large mangrove forest which is maintained and largely planted, but nonetheless what I would consider naturally active and a saltwater coral reef. There are nets to keep large predators such as sharks out, but that admit colorful fish and rays. This means it's safe for all ages to snorkel in the park without worrying about sharks. Most areas of the park require life vests as a safety precaution. You will find some areas that allow free diving but it's at your own risk. Masks, fins, and snorkels are available for free after paying a deposit. You can also bring and use your own equipment.
The reef, for the most part, is quite healthy and you'll see a large variety of fish and rays. We also saw a lot of starfish and conches. The managers of property encourage the use of biodegradable sunscreen but people obviously sneak in non-bio sunscreen. And it's nearly impossible to keep so many people completely off the reef. But, again, for the most part the reef is healthy.
There is a walking trail that completely circumnavigates the property. It's a nice walk and you'll get a good view of the canopy, the cenotes, caves, and the local wildlife. We saw numbers of iguanas, coati, all kinds of birds, and little guinea pig-like rodents. Signs along the path describe and explain the local flora and fauna.
Other activities in the park include a lovely ocean front sugar sand beach, zip-lines, a rope walk, tubing through the mangroves, dolphin and manatee encounters (which cost extra), horticulture exhibits, shopping, and a short cliff dive. It's pretty much a huge, enormous swimming hole. In the best way possible. There are lounge chairs and hammocks everywhere in the park, but I never used one as I was enjoying the aquatic fun too much.
Strangely enough I also saw the prettiest outdoor bathroom I've ever seen. It's located at the top of the tubing river. Walk, ride, or bike and check out the facilities. It's unexpected.
As others have noted food and drinks are included with the price of admission. The food isn't gourmet but is exactly what I want when I've spent all day in the water and sun. The ceviche was really good (surprisingly good). Avoid the beer if you're inclined to dehydration and stick to the gatorade-like drink at the soda fountain. Also avoid fried food and sausage if your stomach is sensitive, as mine is. Salads and ceviche are a good way to recover from this type of activity. The ice and water are filtered. Speaking Spanish is helpful but not 100% necessary.
Lockers are also free, but get one early as they all get used first thing in the morning. One was big enough to hold my gear (mask, snorkel, SCUBA fins and personal stuff) but not my spouse's stuff.
We'll be back. Admission is pricey at around $80 USD per person, but it's worth it for a full day of fun. I advise against combining a trip to Xel-Ha with a trip to Tulum. You need to spend all day at Xel-Ha to see/do everything.
Note to those with extreme sun-sensitivity: if you're like me, and cannot go out in direct sunlight, purchase a dive skin (a thin all-over swimsuit) at any SCUBA shop before your trip and wear it over your regular swimsuit while you're at Xel-Ha. There is plenty of shade for breaks from the sun. Biodegradable sunblock is available in the park (about $20 a bottle). Biodegradable sunblock does not last all day so reapply often. And drink plenty of cold, non-alcoholic drinks throughout the day.
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