Playa del Carmen Intrigues With Archeological Parks

Family-friendly venues emphasize conservation, education and interaction

By: Dawna Robertson

A region filled with distinct ecosystems rich in wildlife, flora and fauna, the Riviera Maya is graced with natural diversity. That’s what makes the area so appealing to travelers with varied interests and tastes. Add in family-friendly venues, and Riviera Maya offers more than just a little something for everyone.

White sand beaches, thriving coral reefs, a network of underground rivers, jungles, savannahs, mangroves and cenotes can be found throughout the area, each offering a different view into its ecology. The region is strongly commitment to protecting the environment while showcasing its natural habitats. As a result, it has created a number of eco-archeological parks dedicated to sustainable tourism development and resource preservation.

Xcaret, the largest and best-known of the region’s eco-archeological parks, celebrates Mexican culture, history and the ecological diversity for which the Riviera Maya is known. Located just four miles south of Playa del Carmen, Xcaret presents visitors with a variety of eco-adventure activities, including snorkeling in underground rivers, swimming with dolphins, horseback riding, scuba diving and touring archeological sites. Its most popular attraction, the underground rivers, are part of a vast network of streams in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Set amid a jungle and bordered by a white sand beach, Xcaret also features a natural aquarium, botanical garden, aviary and Mayan village, plus a number of restaurants and snack bars. Guests will also find activities such as a demonstration of the legendary 2,000-year-old Mayan ball game called Pok-ta-pok, Mariachi bands and an evening folkloric show highlighting the individual states of Mexico.

Located further south is the snorkeler’s haven of Xel-Ha, a natural aquarium where the ocean combines with freshwater springs and natural underground rivers. Situated 27 miles from Playa del Carmen and surrounded by jungle, Xel-Ha is a chain of inlets, lagoons, cenotes and underground rivers. Here, visitors will find a rare opportunity to float down the waterways in oversized inner-tubes. The site is located outside the grounds of the eco-park.

Tres Rios is an expansive tropical reserve situated on 370 acres with a one-mile white sand beach. Named for the area’s three fresh water rivers, it offers a vast tropical jungle, thriving coral reef system and numerous mangroves.

Guests have several options for discovering over 100 species of wildlife in the park - touring on bicycle along jungle paths, horseback riding on the beach, and canoeing, snorkeling and kayaking on the river.

Aktun Chen, which means “cave with an underground river inside” in Mayan, lies in the jungle between Akumal and Xel-Ha. All ages can enjoy guided walking tours through underground dry caves with stalactite and stalagmite formations. Some 1,000 acres of subtropical forest, spider monkeys, white tail deer and wild turkeys are among the wildlife they’ll witness. The area also features a serpentarium with poisonous and non-poisonous snakes for viewing.

Kantun Chi Eco-park, which means “yellow stone mouth,” is located in the heart of the Mayan Riviera. Legend has it that the cenotes at Kantun Chi provided water to the ancient Mayans and local wildlife. The Mayans believed that cenotes could purify their souls. Before entering one to drink or bathe, the Mayans would perform a ceremony to ask permission of mythical creatures like the God Chaac, who was believed to be the rain and water god, and the aluxes, human-like beings that inhabited the forests and hid from view. While everyone slept at night, they emerged to walk through the forests. The Mayans believed that if they were treated well, the aluxes would take care of the forest plants, ward off plagues, protect the animals and keep away negative energies.

The 81-mile stretch known as the Riviera Maya is situated in the Mexican Caribbean on the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Beginning 11 miles south of the Cancun International Airport in Puerto Morelos, it extends to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a small town near the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. In addition to the archeological sites, the region features accommodations, golf courses, shopping and gourmet dining.