As I write this, the snow is falling and the wind is blowing, but my memories of fun in the Mexican sun are keeping me warm. If you are experiencing the winter doldrums, come along with me on a getaway to a tropical paradise. Below you will find all the details of my experience.
After an uneventful 3 hour 15 minute nonstop flight from Dulles Airport to Cancun, we passed through customs in 30 minutes. I was surprised at the mayhem once we proceeded to the exit where every travel guide and transporter in town was competing for our attention and dollars to book excursions and take us to our destination. Since I had arranged for private transport, we could pass through the gauntlet unscathed. However, we had to wait a good half hour for our vehicle and would have had to wait longer if I didn’t complain. This made me wonder if it would have been quicker to just use one of the many suppliers available, but I don’t usually leave anything to chance and always pre-book to avoid price gouging. Not a huge deal, and, finally, the minivan arrived, and we headed south on our journey to the resort.
We were greeted warmly as we stepped out of our vehicle, and our luggage was set aside under the watchful eye of the staff as we were escorted to check-in. The surroundings were impressive, an expansive open-air entrance hall with a thatched roof which gave an indigenous feel. There was a striking mosaic of a jaguar behind the desk, and my first impression was of a polished, clean place with attentive staff. Though there were others around, all was quiet and serene.
One of the most unique features of this resort is the shallow river that runs through the lobby all the way to the entrance to the Xcaret Park. Whimsical boats shuttle guests to and from the park. The cutest drawbridges open up to let them pass through.
You can choose to walk right along the river to Xcaret’s entrance, which would take the same amount of time, about 10 minutes. The lobby river is the site for the Mayan ceremony that takes place every night from 7-7:30. The Occidental is the only resort easily accessible to Xcaret by river or by foot.
Our baggage was waiting for us in our rooms, which appeared to be recently updated. The space was clean, decorated simply, and modestly-sized. The sheets felt slightly damp, but I have to say it was the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in. Some days the sheets felt more damp than others, surely related to the jungle humidity. My daughters had the same issue in their room, and I wondered if all resorts in the area have this issue with the dampness, a small price to pay for the lushness of the jungle. I loved the clay-colored countertop in the bathroom, and the shower was sleek and roomy.
The resort has 5 freshwater pools, several connected by bridges, an adults-only saltwater pool, a children’s pool at the Kid’s Club, a swim-under-the-waterfall bar and a lagoon beach with soft white sand. We got into a rhythm of breakfast around 10 AM, then spent the morning and early afternoon at the beach. We’d then migrate to the main pool with bar to spend the afternoon. I did have one complaint: you have to be an early riser to get a chaise lounge at the beach or you will be sitting on your towel in the sand. The pools didn’t have this problem.
My girls watched a ceviche-making demonstration. I played regular Bingo and Mexican Bingo. Other offerings: aqua zumba, ping-pong tournaments, beach/pool volleyball, archery. There is a decent gym and onsite spa as well as 2 tennis courts. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening entertainment. The Christmas, Michael Jackson, and Circus shows exceeded my expectations.
There are 11 on-site restaurants, 3 are buffets, five fancier a la carte requiring men to wear long pants like La Hacienda (Mexican), L’Oriental (Asian), Los Olivos (Italian), El Pescador (seafood), Sonora Grill, and a couple very casual like Pacos Tacos and a pizza place. It is very difficult to get a table at the a la carte restaurants which may be due to Covid since the tables appeared to be spaced farther apart than usual. But after a day or two of struggling to get in and resorting to the buffets, I figured out the magic secret.
Alcohol flows freely at the Occidental, and there are bars everywhere – a sports bar, swim-up bar, at the beach, at multiple pools, in the lobby. There is a night club too, but that was closed due to Covid. I discovered that my favorite drink was the Riviera Maya.
No vacation would be complete without picking up a few souvenirs. The Occidental has a great on-site shopping area and Frida Kahlo was everywhere.
Xcaret encapsulates everything I love about travel all rolled up into one: an exotic setting, time to relax at the beach and natural pools, great food, culture, religion, wildlife, history. You name it, Xcaret’s got it. Though it is a tourist attraction, it has such an authentic feeling. I enjoyed this park so much that I might have to break my one-and-done rule and go back.
The night-time Mexican Spectacular show is not to be missed. With 300 actors in colorful outfits, it takes you through 500 years of the culture of Mexico: the pre-Columbian era, the Conquest of Mexico, the Colonial Era, the first years of Mexico as an independent country, the Revolution years at the beginning of the 20th Century, all the way to the present. My favorite to watch were the ball of fire game and the candle dance. I’m beginning to think I may be obsessed with fire.
The rivers are fresh, crystalline waters. You swim through a maze of caves and tunnels, lit by natural light from air vents. There are three underground rivers in Xcaret to choose from: the Blue River, the Mayan River, and the Manatee River. The three of them flow into the sea, next to mangroves. The rivers of Xcaret flow about 16.4 ft below the ground and are 5 feet deep. There are intermediate exits in case you don’t want to swim to the end, and the use of a life jacket is mandatory.
One of my favorite experiences was the massage at Xcaret Park. It was unlike any massage I’ve ever had because we took an adorable gondola-like boat to a waterfall which we had to cross under, where our massage tables awaited us in a cave.
Another highlight was swimming in the natural tidal pools. I especially enjoyed the slide. You could spend one entire day here lazying under a tiki hut and another seeing all the shows and cultural attractions.
So much to do and so little time. There’s the Papantla flying men, a horse exhibition, archaeological ruins to climb, a Mayan village with artisans at work, chocolate making and coconut leaf craft workshops. There is an aviary, butterfly pavilion, jaguars, sea turtles, manatees, sharks, and dolphins to see and meet. I was fascinated by the Mayan cemetery and its colorful gravesites which reflect how the Mexicans bring life to death.
It has the shape of a spiral shell, in remembrance of the ancient Mayans, who used conch shells to communicate with the gods by blowing their breaths into them.
This spiral cemetery has seven levels that symbolize the days of the week, and 52 steps, which represent the weeks in a year, while its 365 tombs are a representation of the days of the year. Each tomb has unique adornments.
There is another spiral inside the hill, which you can visit too. It has 365 niches and canals that carry water from the surface to the cross in the center, creating the relaxing effect of a waterfall.
As I mentioned above, I love the nighttime lit with fire – I suppose it brings out the primal in me. And I love adventure. Xplor Fuego combines these two perfectly. When I read about this park about a year ago, I knew this would be my next travel priority. This trip was planned around spending time here.
Brian and I seemed to be the oldest people present. The ziplines are not for the faint of heart, especially at night where it is harder to see where you are going and each line ends with such an abrupt stop that your teeth clack together. There are two ziplining courses, each with about 7 lines. You’ve got to climb up huge towers for each one, so your leg muscles get an extreme workout. This place has a sense of humor with lots of funny photo-ops like the evolving man with Brian in it below. Our excursion included the buffet dinner which was delicious. My favorite things were the ATVs and the fastest water slide I’ve ever been on.
This was one of the best vacations our family has ever taken. We saw many multigenerational groups, and that’s because this is one destination that has so many experiences that people of all ages can enjoy. I felt immersed in all the region had to offer-its people, history and culture. The Occidental Xcaret is a solid 4 star resort which did a great job in these trying times of COVID. I give Xcaret and Xplor 5 stars for level of enjoyment, varied attractions, commitment to safety, cleanliness, and crowd control.
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