Snorkeling through the grottos and caves at Xel-Ha in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, is a great way to take a break from the heat | Xel Ha vs Xcaret park

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

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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 two most popular parks are Xcaret and Xel-Ha. Of course, ideally, both places will be on your list. But if your time is limited, which one should you choose? Here’s a look at Xel Ha vs. Xcaret park. 

There are big differences between Xcaret and Xel-Ha park, from the physical setting of the parks 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.

Purchase discounted tickets to Xcaret and Xel-Ha here.
The Papantla flyers performing a cultural ritual at Xcaret Mexico Riviera Maya. Different types of entertainment are available throughout the park.
The Papantla flyers’ ritual has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural importance

Xcaret Eco Park

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.

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.

Xcaret eco park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, is home to over 100 species of orchids
Xcaret theme park is home to over 100 species of orchids

What are the activities?

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.)

A waterfall at Xcaret park near Cancun, Mexico, contributes to the habitats within the new aviary
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 Xcaret, 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 140 different species of this beautiful flower.

The Chapel of Guadalupe at Xcaret Riviera Maya
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 Mayan village, which is complete with a colorful cemetery and even an artisan making fresh tortillas.

Entering the blissful Xcaret underground river in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. A day at the park gives visitors access to water-based activities, culture, and entertainment.
Entering one of the blissful Xcaret 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, Maya 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.

An elaborate afternoon Xcaret show in the Mayan village at Xcaret Riviera Maya
An elaborate afternoon performance in the Mayan village

What is the entertainment at Xcaret?

There are shows and demonstrations all day long at Xcaret. 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 (bonus if you’re watching with a drink and a snack from the patio at La Cocina).

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

Performances around Xcaret park bring Mexican mythology and legends to life
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 (with 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 perform during the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, the 2-hour show that happens each night at Xcaret park
Dancers perform during the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, the 2-hour show that happens each night

Does Xcaret celebrate 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, Xcaret 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 at Xcaret Day of the Dead in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
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 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 Xcaret 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 and inner tubes. 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.

Xcaret park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, focuses on turtle conservation
The turtle area is one of the park’s most popular attractions

How is the park involved in conservation?

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. The addition of the aviary is expanding Xcaret’s capabilities in raising and releasing certain bird species into their natural habitats. Conservation efforts even extend to organisms like coral–80% of the coral in Xcaret’s aquarium has been rescued after a storm and partially transplanted or propagated at the park’s laboratories.

Is Xcaret suitable for kids?

Yes, Xcaret is perfectly suitable 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 50% 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.

Some of the ancient Xcaret ruins in Mexico
Some of the ancient ruins at Xcaret

How to get to Xcaret?

Xcaret is located on the coast about 15 minutes south of the center of Playa del Carmen on Chetumal – Puerto Juarez Federal Highway. Xcaret 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 Xcaret tickets?

The regular price Xcaret park tickets is $125 for adults (age 12 and older) and $62.50 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 discount tickets here or see packages including transportation available from independent tour providers.
Mexican buffet at Xcaret park
The delicious buffet at Xcaret’s La Cocina, my favorite food in the parks

What should you bring when visiting Xcaret?

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.

Xel-Ha nature park formed where fresh water from underground rivers meets the warm salt water of the Caribbean Sea | Picking a Park on the Riviera Maya -- Xelha or Xcaret
So much water

Xel Ha Park

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. At Xel-Ha, 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?

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.

There are many activities in the river at XelHa park
If swimming isn’t enough, there’s lots to do in the river

What are the activities?

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 at Xel-Ha, but visitors can’t swim in them. For that, you’ll need to do a tour of other cenotes.

Tubing down the river is one of the best ways to spend time at Xel Ha Cancun, Mexico
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 five-meter-high Cliff of Courage into the river. It’s higher than you think. Other water-based activities like snuba and a manatee encounter are available for an extra fee.

There are numerous animals throughout the Xel Ha Riviera Maya
There are numerous animals throughout the Xel-Ha 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 in Xel Ha tickets. 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.

The river entrance at Xel-Ha park is shrouded in mangroves
The river entrance is shrouded in mangroves

How is the park involved in conservation?

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 Experiencias Xcaret Group, which planted more than 400,000 plants in 18 months throughout Cancun and Riviera Maya.

Swimming through a cave is one of the interesting experiences at Mexico's Xel-Ha park | Xel Ha vs. Xcaret
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 50% off the adult ticket price.

How to get to Xel-Ha?

Xel-Ha park is located about 15 minutes north of Tulum, Mexico. Xel-Ha 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 at Xel-Ha, if you prefer to drive.

How much does a visit to Xel-Ha cost?

Regular Xel Ha prices are $115 for adults (age 12 and older) and $57.50 for children (age 5 to 11). Using the links in this article, you can get Xel Ha or Xcaret tickets at a discounted price.

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

What should you bring to visit Xel-Ha?

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. Xcaret offers a broad range of entertainment, cultural attractions, exhibits for nature lovers, and water activities. The experience at Xel-Ha is focused on swimming, snorkeling, and generally enjoying all things water-related. Which park is best for you depends on your specific interests.

Other Experiencias Xcaret Parks

In addition to Xcaret and Xel-ha, there are other parks in the Experiencias 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:

Adults-only pool near the ocean at Occidental at Xcaret Destination in Riviera Maya 

Where to Stay Near Xcaret and Xel-Ha

Occidental at Xcaret Destination — This resort adjoins Xcaret ecopark and even has a private park entrance just for guests. The Occidental at Xcaret Destination 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. (See reviews | Check prices and book)

Hotel Xcaret Mexico — From the same company that runs Xcaret and Xel-Ha, Hotel Xcaret Mexico is designed with an eye toward sustainability and integrating the natural surroundings of the Riviera Maya. The hotel has 10 restaurants, a spa, and 3 gyms. Guests have access to an airport shuttle and transportation to all the parks and related tours. (See reviews | Check prices and book)

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. (See reviews | Check prices and book)

Experiencias Xcaret, the parks’ parent company, hosted our visit. All opinions of the interesting, exciting, and underwater are our own. Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Have you been to Xcaret or Xel-Ha?

Xcaret and Xel-Ha parks both offer great ways to spend a fun day in the Riviera Maya. But which one is best for you? Take a look at this review of everything each attraction has to offer.