Going wild in Mexico isn't always about crazy spring-break parties, tequila-fueled nightlife and going to bed at dawn (although you can if you want!). The party capital of Cancun, to many people's surprise, is also not too far away from a wildlife of a very different kind.
Swap "la vida loca" for a more eco-friendly trip and you could find yourself diving with dolphins, silently watching giant turtles, surrounded by thousands of pink flamingos or exploring subterranean rivers and estuaries, home to a myriad fish.
Mexico's most popular destination for international travelers, attracting more than 3.5 million tourists a year, is Cancun and the area to the south called the Riviera Maya. For many, the beach and Caribbean Sea are what brings them to the area. However, for those of you that like to explore you'll also find dense jungle, natural springs dotting the landscape, mangrove swamps and the world's second largest barrier reef that teems with life.
The majority of the Yucatan Peninsula is a large slab of limestone topped with a dense jungle. Over millions of years the seasonal rains have gradually seeped into the incredibly porous rock forming sinkholes, known as cenotes and also underground rivers. This fresh water travels under the ground until it finally meets the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, creating the perfect conditions for an abundance of exotic wildlife. Giant iguanas, ocelots, manatees, herons and even the rust rump tarantula can all be found making their home in this natural paradise.
Travelers and families with children, who want to heed the call of the wild without straying to far off the beaten track, should definitely check out the fantastic eco-parks of Xcaret and Xel-Ha. They are both easily accessible whether you are staying in a hotel in Cancun, Playa del Carmen or the Riviera Maya. The best way is to book a tour online before you arrive to ensure you get a great price and it also takes the hassle out of trying to organize excursions when you are here.
Xcaret is definitely the more developed of the two parks. Located around an hour south of Cancun this fabulous eco-park is great for the whole family. Most people tend to visit on an all inclusive tour but there are several other options as well. There are so many activities to do at Xcaret from snorkeling in an underground river, walking on the bottom of the sea or exploring the aquarium to watching howler monkeys playing in the trees, a butterfly atrium and not forgetting the unbelievable experience of swimming with dolphins.
Xel Ha has a distinctly less manmade feel to it and is based around an enormous lagoon where the saltwater mixes with the fresh spring waters. There's plenty to do here as well, including bike trails, the cliff of courage, floating down the ''lazy river'' on an inner tube and exploring ancient Mayan ruins. One of the main reasons people visit Xel Ha, however, is to snorkel or dive with the thousands of tropical fish that call this area home or swim with the dolphins, a truly wonderful experience.
For the more adventurous tourist a visit to the sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sian Ka'an comes highly recommended. Encompassing approximately 1.3 million acres the area includes everything from cenotes, lagoons and tropical forests to pristine beaches and a stretch of coral reef that has to be seen to be believed. You can take a guided tour through the park or, for those who like a little more freedom; you can rent a rugged jeep and really have an off-road adventure.
If you are considering a multi-center vacation, then a great option is to tack on a few nights in the colonial city of Merida or stay for a while at one of the beautiful hotels in Campeche. From either of these cities you'll be able to easily get to the quaint villages of Celestun and Rio Lagartos. These are two of the best places in the world for watching flamingos in their natural habitat. You'll literally be able to see thousands upon thousands of these beautiful birds feeding, mating and socializing in the wild.
Mexico is a country that's very aware of the importance of its ecological parks and reserves, both for the preservation of the environment and also to promote tourism, thus generating employment for the more remote rural communities. So, if you want to getaway from the beach for a day or make eco-tourism the main focus of your entire vacation, Mexico's tropical wildlife is waiting for you.
Going Wild in Mexico: Eco-Parks near Cancun
- Matthew Kirk