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Picking a Park on the Riviera Maya — Xcaret or Xel-Ha?

River and grotto surrounded by trees.

Mexico’s Riviera Maya is a dream vacation spot. This 90-mile stretch of coastline offers endless opportunities for scuba diving, shopping, visiting ruins, lying on the beach, and eating all the tacos you can handle. Among the fun things to do around Cancun and Playa del Carmen is visiting a group of eco-parks and attractions–they all start with “X”–that introduce visitors to the nature and culture of Mexico. The most popular parks are Xcaret and Xel-Ha. Ideally, both will be on your list. But if your time is limited, how do you choose between Xel Ha vs Xcaret park?

We’ve had the good fortune to visit both of the parks twice at different times of year. Here’s a look at each one to help you decide where to go.

Xel Ha vs Xcaret Park: A Comparison

There are big differences between Xcaret and Xel-Ha park, from the physical setting of the parks to the location to the range of activities available. What else makes the experiences at Xel Ha or Xcaret unique? This is a detailed look at what there is to do and see at these distinctive eco-parks.

Visiting Xcaret Eco Park

Men hanging upside down from ropes.
The Papantla flyers’ ritual has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural importance

The sheer size of Xcaret (esh-ka-ret) is a little overwhelming. At 200 acres, this park rivals the size of the Disney properties – not something you expect to see in the middle of the Riviera Maya. And yet every inch of the grounds is full of fun or educational things to do for everyone in your family.

Purchase tickets to Xcaret and Xel-Ha here.

What is Xcaret Park?

Xcaret (Parque Xcaret, in Spanish) bills itself an eco-theme park. I would describe it more as a giant playground…if playgrounds included underground rivers, top-notch entertainment, animals, history, and cultural displays. The park is designed to highlight the colors, sights, sounds, and tastes of the different regions of Mexico, educating visitors and entertaining them along the way.

Orchids in an indoor rainforest.
Xcaret theme park is home to over 100 species of orchids

What is there to do at Xcaret?

As an eco park, Xcaret features a large number of animal- and nature-related attractions. Its impressive aquarium has over 500 coral reef structures and 5000 marine organisms – visitors can even interact with a few of them.

Just outside the aquarium is the home of one of the Xcaret’s biggest attractions–the sea turtles. Here, turtles of all sizes are kept as part of the park’s educational and conservation efforts. Many will ultimately be released into the sea once they are large enough to have a good chance of surviving on their own. (For an even closer experience, you can snorkel with sea turtles in the ocean just a half-hour away in Akumal.)

Indoor waterfall in a bird habitat.
Waterfalls contribute to the habitats within the aviary

Non-marine birds and animals also get a lot of attention. The humidity of the massive aviary hits you the moment you enter. This is intentional, though. Its multiple levels have different “environments” to be proper homes to the over 50 species of animals who live here.

Nearby is the butterfly pavilion (not quite as humid), the largest butterfly facility in Mexico, which is teeming with brightly-colored regional species. Throughout the park, there are also exhibits including spider monkeys, jaguars, flamingos, bats, and other animals. Once you’re done with the animals, don’t miss the orchid museum, which is home to nearly 100 different species of this beautiful flower.

Chapel with a tree trunk decoration on the wall.
The Chapel of Guadalupe

Around the park, there are also sites to teach visitors more about Mexican culture. The large colonial house, Hacienda Henequenera, is fully furnished with 19th-century antiques. Its adjacent Chapel of Guadalupe is designed to look like a countryside chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Images of her decorate the chapel, including one carved into a 39-foot-tall tree trunk that hangs at the front. 

You can visit the Mayan ruins on the property or stop by the replica Pre-Hispanic village, which is complete with a colorful cemetery and even an artisan making fresh tortillas.

People in lifejackets swimming in an underground river.
Entering one of the blissful underground rivers

If you’ve gotten a bit warm walking around the park, there are plenty of ways to cool off at Xcaret. There are several swimming areas, including a lagoon and natural pools.

My favorite swimming locations were the underground rivers–Blue River, Pre-Hispanic River, and Manatee River. Grab a life vest and some snorkel equipment and float your way through the tunnels and rock formations. Though the lengths vary, all the rivers are around 600 meters long with various points to exist along the way, if you wish.

There is also an area called Children’s World that is exclusive to kids under age 12. They can swim in a cenote and enjoy water slides, plus climb around on nets and obstacles. A wading pool, water jets, and a sandbox are available for kids under age 6.

Actors performing a dance with smoke on a stage surrounded by trees.
An elaborate afternoon performance of a Pre-Hispanic dance

What is the entertainment?

There are shows and demonstrations all day long. At appointed times, you can see the Papantla Flyers hoist themselves several stories into the air and come spinning back to earth. You can also watch the evening equestrian show where riders show off their acrobatic skills on horseback working with Aztec horses (bonus if you’re watching with a drink and a snack from the patio at La Cocina).

Every afternoon brings pre-Hispanic dances telling stories from Mexican mythology. Simply walking around the park, you’re likely to encounter dancers, parades, female mariachi bands, and other Xcaret shows and performances that will stop you in your tracks.

Man in an elaborate owl costume with feathers.
The owl is just one of many fabulous costumes that bring performances to life

By far the biggest show–and the one most guests look forward to all day–is the nightly Xcaret Mexico Espectacular (night admission). The show begins with fire and legend as performers on a Mayan ball court play an ancient game to honor the Fire God. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the awesome display that sucks you in right from the beginning.

The show also brings key events in Mexican history to life, including the Spanish conquest and the peoples’ forced conversion to Christianity, in a clear and engaging way. As the performances continue, more than 300 actors in elaborate costumes take you on a tour of the music, dance, and other culture aspects of the regions of Mexico.

When you’re deciding whether to visit Xel-Ha or Xcaret, if you want this kind of entertainment and shows, choose Xcaret.

Dancers performing in traditional Mexican costumes.
Dancers perform during the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, the 2-hour show that happens each night

Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead at Xcaret Park (Dios de los Muertos) is full of music, costumes, celebrations, and amazing food. Everywhere you look, there is something new to see.

Each year, the park focuses on a different Mexican state, highlighting their food, their culture, and their Day of the Day customs. There are special performances and a ton of special food at very cheap prices that is all authentic, made by residents of that state in the local food market.

Woman wearing skeleton face paint
Employees and visitors arrive in full makeup and costume for Day of the Dead

Throughout Xcaret Eco Park, there are decorations and people—both employees and visitors—dressed in all variety of costumes, many with their faces beautifully painted for the festival. There are altars (ofrendas) decorated with marigolds, candy skulls, and items that the deceased loved in life, all meant to entice them to the world of the living, even temporarily.

Visiting during the Day of the Dead celebration (Oct. 30-Nov. 2 every year) is to see the park completely transformed in the most magical way.

Is Xcaret all-inclusive?

The basic entry Xcaret tickets include use of life jackets, inner tubes, and access to 50 attractions and activities, but it’s not all-inclusive. Food, beverages, and snorkeling equipment can be added as a package in advance or paid for a la carte along the way. There are 10 restaurants around the park that serve various types of food and drinks.

Additional activities such as Sea Trek, snuba, spa services, and several different animal encounters are available for additional fees.

Swimming turtles in an enclosure.
The turtle area is one of the park’s most popular attractions

Conservation at the park

Part of Xcaret’s efforts are dedicated to caring for vulnerable and endangered species of animals and plants. The park’s work in sea turtle breeding and protection has helped thousands of turtles enter the wild over the last 20+ years. In the aviary, Xcaret raises certain bird species and prepares them for release into their natural habitats.

Conservation efforts even extend to organisms like coral–80% of the coral in the aquarium has been rescued after a storm and partially transplanted or propagated at the park’s laboratories.

Is it suitable for kids?

Yes, Xcaret is perfect for kids. Because most of the activities are not water-related, it even works well for toddlers, who may be entertained by the animals and the shows. As a bonus, kids ages 4 and under have free admission, and kids 5-11 are admitted at 25% off the cost of an adult ticket. Strollers are available on-site for young children.

When it comes to picking Xcaret vs Xel-Ha, we recommend Xcaret if you have young children or children who are not confident swimmers.

Ancient ruins of a stone building.
Some of the ancient ruins at Xcaret

How to get here

Xcaret is located on the coast about 15 minutes south of the center of Playa del Carmen on Chetumal – Puerto Juarez Federal Highway. The park is about one hour south of Cancun International Airport.

The easiest way to get to Xcaret is to add roundtrip transportation from your hotel to the park when you book your tickets online. If you choose to drive, free parking is available on-site. From Cancun, a taxi ride is about USD $80-$100 one way; a one-way taxi ride from Playa del Carmen is about $15.

How much are tickets?

The regular price of Xcaret park tickets is $120 for adults (age 12 and older) and $90 for children (age 5 to 11). Multi-day passes can be purchased and may be a great value if you have time.

Book your Xcaret tickets here or see packages including transportation available from independent tour providers.

Buffet with Mexican vegetable dishes on a tiled counter.
The delicious buffet at La Cocina, my favorite food in the parks

What should you bring?

Xcaret is meant to be a full-day activity starting in the morning and ending in the nighttime hours. Be well-rested and drink plenty of water because you will probably be walking a lot. However, all activities are at your own pace, and there are plenty of opportunities to stop and relax along the way.

Bring a bathing suit, dry clothes, good walking shoes, and cash for a deposit for the snorkel gear. A credit card or cash for snacks, souvenirs, and photos will also be useful.

Visiting Xel Ha Park

Ocean scene with a boat, palm trees, and rocks.
So much water

In Maya, Xel-Ha (shell-ha) means “the place where water is born,” and you can see why almost from the moment you step through the front gates. There is water just about everywhere you look. And it is absolutely heavenly after you’ve spent any amount of time under the Mexican sun.

What is Xel-Ha Park?

Xel-Ha is a nature park formed where fresh water from underground rivers meets the warm salt water of the Caribbean Sea. This aquatic network of rivers, grottos, caves, and inlets is brimming with sea life, including over 70 species of fish. Xel-Ha is also home to 120 species of birds, numerous land animals, and over 300 species of plants, some of which are endangered.

People swimming and playing in a large river .
If swimming isn’t enough, there’s lots to do in the river

What are the things to do at Xel-Ha?

Aquatic activities are sure to dominate your time at Xel-Ha. There are plenty of snorkeling and swimming options in the river and caves. Snorkeling equipment is included in the admission price, so this is a great place to give it a try if you’ve never had the opportunity. There are plenty of fish to see, and the currents are easy to manage, especially since a life jacket is required.

Whether you swim down the river or grab a tube and float along, you can stop at platforms in the water to try out the fun rope bridges. There are cenotes, but visitors can’t swim in them. For that, you’ll need to do a tour of other cenotes.

People in innertubes in river
Grab a tube and jump in

The water here is so clear and calm that it has a way of pulling you back in once you think you’re finished. One of my favorite activities came after the river swim when I tried out the zip lines. The ziplines at Xel Ha aren’t the extremely long, high kinds you might find over a tree canopy or at another “X park” called Xplor. Instead, they’re relatively short and end with you right back in the cool water. 

If that’s not quite your thing, you can also take a plunge from the 16-foot-high Cliff of Courage into the river. It’s higher than you think. If you want something even higher, head to the top of the 131-foot-tall lighthouse and take the water slide back down. Other water-based activities like power snorkel and a manatee encounter are available for an extra fee.

Iguanas on a trail surrounded by palm trees.
There are numerous animals throughout the property

When you’re ready to stick a little closer to land, there are more options. You can explore the trails and bike paths that run through Xel-Ha’s 200 acres of jungle. There, you’re sure to encounter iguanas, parrots, and some of the other animals that call the property home. When you’ve had enough adventure, grab a hammock and relax.

There is also a special area for children. It includes a wading pool, water slide, and playground, among other activities. However, if you have very young children or children who aren’t comfortable with water, we would recommend Xcaret compared to Xel-Ha.

Is Xel Ha all-inclusive?

All food and drinks are included. There are five restaurants and bars with different types of cuisine, non-alcoholic beverages, beer, and fruity cocktails open throughout the day. All-inclusive doesn’t stop at meals, though. The price also includes towels, lockers, snorkeling equipment, life jackets, and inner tubes–pretty much everything you need for the day.

River entrance shrouded in mangroves.
The river entrance is shrouded in mangroves

Conservation at the park

Xel Ha water park is involved in conservation and environmental protection practices in a number of ways. From providing guests with biodegradable sunscreen to eliminating straws in the park, Xel-Ha has sought out little and big changes that will make a difference to the environment.

One of the park’s biggest projects is a reforestation initiative done in conjunction with its parent company Grupo Xcaret, which planted more than 400,000 plants in 18 months throughout Cancun and Riviera Maya.

River flowing into a cave.
Take a swim through the cave on your way to the river

Is Xel-Ha suitable for kids?

Yes, Xel-Ha is suitable for children of all ages. However, your family will probably have the most fun here (compared to Xcaret) if everyone is comfortable with and really enjoys water activities.

As at Xcaret, children ages 4 and under get in free, and children ages 5-11 are admitted for 25% off the adult ticket price.

How to get here

Xel-Ha park is located about 15 minutes north of Tulum, Mexico. It is about 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen and 80 minutes (60 miles) south of Cancun International Airport.

The most convenient way to get to Xel-Ha is to add roundtrip transportation when you purchase your tickets online. Parking is free, if you prefer to drive.

How much does it cost?

Regular Xel Ha prices are $115 for adults (age 12 and older) and $86 for children (age 5 to 11). You can save by purchasing at least 7 days in advance.

Multi-day passes can be purchased and may be a great value if you have time.

Book your Xel Ha tickets here or consider packages including transportation from independent tour providers.

What should you bring?

The three most important things to bring to Xel-Ha park are a bathing suit, dry clothes, and cash to provide as a deposit for the snorkel gear (you’ll get it back when you return the equipment).

You might also want to bring a credit card or cash for souvenirs and the photos that are taken throughout the park. An underwater camera would also be useful, if you have one.

Xel Ha vs Xcaret Overall

Xcaret and Xel-Ha are both great places to spend time on a trip to the Riviera Maya. Which park is best for you depends on your specific interests.

Xcaret offers lots of entertainment, cultural attractions, exhibits for nature lovers, and water activities. Its a great choice for families with a broad range of ages and interests and is particularly easy if you’re already near Playa del Carmen.

The experience at Xel-Ha is focused on swimming, snorkeling, and generally enjoying all things water-related. With food and drinks included in the admission price, a visit here is carefree. It’s even easier if you’re staying close to Tulum.

Other Parks

In addition to Xcaret and Xel-ha, there are other parks in the Grupo Xcaret family. We’ve been fortunate to visit Xplor twice as well as Xenses and Xenotes. For (much) more detail, you can read our reviews of the other parks in these articles:

Where to Stay

Circular adults-only pool with path to the ocean.
Natural pool at the Occidental

Occidental at Xcaret Destination — This resort adjoins Xcaret ecopark and even has a private park entrance just for guests. The Occidental offers five pools, 11 restaurants, sports facilities, a private beach area, and more. It is also located within about five minutes of both Xplor and Xenses and 15 minutes of Xel-Ha. (Read reviews and book a room)

Hotel Xcaret Mexico — Hotel Xcaret Mexico is designed with an eye toward sustainability and integrating the natural surroundings of the Riviera Maya. It has 10 restaurants, a spa, and 3 gyms. Guests have access to an airport shuttle and transportation to all the parks and related tours. (Read reviews and book a room)

Iberostar Tucan — Closer to Playa del Carmen, the Iberostar Tucan is a 5-star, all-inclusive resort. With beachfront property, 4 pools, and spa facilities, there are plenty of places to relax. (Read reviews and book a room)

Grupo Xcaret, the parks’ parent company, hosted our visits. All opinions of the interesting, exciting, and underwater are our own.

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Manuel Gomez

Tuesday 21st of March 2023

Hi thank you for the detail. Not sure how many times you've gone but any recommendation on the best time to go? Trying to find a good non busy week but not sure if that exists. Preferably non during hurricane season

Laura Longwell

Wednesday 22nd of March 2023

I don't know if they have a slow season, per se, but I would suggest avoiding holidays and school holidays in Mexico. Day of the Dead is a VERY popular time to visit Xcaret, in particular, so it might be slower just before or just after.


Thursday 9th of March 2023

Hey Laura! Wow thanks for the in depth, but still keeping some surprises, of all the reviews..I read them all. We're headed down to Akumal in April and these parks have been something I've wanted to see since finding out about them, but I only knew of Xel-Ha, now seeing Xcaret and the others it truly is a tough decision, but I think Xel-Ha holds my heart first, just for all the water activities and since it's all inclusive, I always prefer taking that stress of finding food away from the decision making. So Xel-Ha it will be this time...but one question, do you recommend certain days of the week for less crowds? And is April usually a busy time down there? I don't really want to be part of large crowds going around the park, I want to be able to enjoy it ALL without waiting, and shuffling between tons of people like theme parks here. Also, looking at something else to do, I think the Cenote tour might be next...or Xplor..I like the adventure of them both. Thanks for all the info!

Laura Longwell

Friday 10th of March 2023

I haven't been in April, so it's hard to say specifically, though I would certainly expect it to be calmer than summer. The first week of April is school holidays in Mexico, which will dovetail with Easter this year, so I imagine that could be a much busier time than the rest of the month. I'm also not a fan of crowds, so I usually opt for visiting places Tues-Thurs, if that's possible.


Friday 30th of December 2022

I remember going down a underground river with fins and life jacket but, I did not go to XCaret??

Laura Longwell

Saturday 31st of December 2022

If you're referring to an X-park, you might have visited Xplor.


Saturday 1st of October 2022

We're trying to decide if we should go to Xcaret and Xel-Ha, or just Xcaret. We would really like to snorkel among colorful fish in a lagoon and maybe spend some time on a nice beach. I understand that this is possible at Xel-Ha, but is it possible in Xcaret?

Thanks, Victoria

Laura Longwell

Sunday 2nd of October 2022

Both have beach or lagoon areas and places for snorkeling. When it comes to seeing lots of colorful fish, I think you would certainly see some fish, but I wouldn't have super high expectations. Because the attractions are often full of people, reefs or rocks are easily damaged, which can deter a lot of fish from being in the area. To see a lot, I would suggest a proper snorkeling excursion.


Tuesday 16th of April 2019

What about for non-swimmers? Can we still participate in the water activities not knowing how to swim? Is it worth it?

Laura Longwell

Tuesday 16th of April 2019

If you can doggy paddle, you'd probably be fine, but I don't think I would recommend Xel-Ha for non-swimmers. There are many more options at Xcaret.

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