One of the activities my family was most looking forward to on our recent trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya was a day at Xplor, the totally awesome new adventure park near Playa del Carmen. My niece and nephews had visited the park last summer, and they raved about the exciting activities — ziplining, driving amphibious vehicles, and swimming and paddling through cenotes (underground rivers). Indeed, our full day at Xplor (which opened in June 2009) was amazing, and I highly recommend the experience to any families visiting Mexico’s Riviera Maya with school-age children.
As soon as we arrived at Xplor (around 9:30 a.m.) we descended underground to get in line to sign liability forms and retrieve our safety helmets, I asked Lizbeth, from the Riviera Maya Tourism Board, who accompanied us on our adventure, if the environment was real. That is, I couldn’t believe, that the caves and stalagmites and stalactites were all natural. I think I’m so accustomed to Disney World or similar man-made theme parks, that I was astonished that such an adventure park was truly built into and around such a natural environment. Indeed, Lizbeth said all of the rock formations and rivers in the 145-acre park are in fact authentic, save for some man-made waterfalls.
We stored our bag of dry clothes and towels in the provided lockers near the central “heart” of Xplor — literally, a giant mosaic heart. All of the activities can be accessed from this central spot, which is easy to find, as the closer you get to it, the more you’ll hear a loud actually emits a loud beating noise, just like a thumping heart.
Tip: Tell your kids that if you get separated to ask a roaming employee — all dressed in safari khaki and holding radios — to direct them or take them to the heart.
We started our day at Xplor on the ziplines. This is the activity that takes the most time in the park, as there are two circuits of 7 ziplines each, that sail over the park as well as jaguar and crocodile enclosures! Indeed, many visitors had the same idea, and at about 10 a.m., the line to even get fitted with a harness and begin a zipline circuit was quite long.
Tip: Instead of signing on with a group tour to Xplor, where a bus picks you and your family up at your resort with dozens of others, considering hiring a taxi to take you to Xplor (just outside of Playa del Carmen, near Xcaret, another adventure/eco/heritage park), so you can arrive right when the park opens at 9 a.m.
My kiddos know that waiting in line for a popular attraction is just part of the deal, and once we got through the “set-up” line we immediately headed to the first tower — a nifty, spiraling stone building, where the line diverged, and we chose the “Jaguar” circuit, with longer ziplines, taller towers, two hanging bridges and one zipline that goes through a waterfall. The other circuit, “Deer,” has shorter zips and shorter towers, but includes a waterslide, and not one, but two, water landings.
On some of the ziplines, we were encouraged to ride with our kids — or our chidren rode together, one hanging on to the other’s harness loop — as kids who don’t weigh much sometimes get “stuck” in the middle of the zipline. No worries if that happens, though — experienced staff just jiggle the line to get the child moving, or go out on the line and retrieve them.
I liked that we zipliners didn’t have to brake ourselves at the end of each line; staff helped to stop us (though it was a little disconcerting to come in a top speed and trust that someone would help stop you before hitting the padding at the end of each line)!
My kids, husband and I all thought the 14 total ziplines were awesome, and they were our favorite feature of Xplor.
After our zipline adventure (which totaled zipping across about about two miles of wire), it was 12:30 p.m., and we were famished after all of the exertion (walking up several steep steps and tall spiral towers was quite the cardio workout). But before we could hit the buffet restaurant, the kids wanted to check out the hammock ride they’d viewed from one of the towers. Here, you just sit in a webbed hammock for a ride over a cenote, making a water landing. Very cool.
When we did make it to the large open-air restaurant, I was impressed that Xplor had thought about where we might store our yellow helmets that we needed to wear throughout the park; there are little hooks at the end of each picnic table. The buffet spread was impressive — we chose from among typical hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers, as well as an array of excellent salads, cheese, meats and other hot entrees.
Tip: Be sure to check out the unusual juice offerings, such as chaya, a native Yucatan plant. You can find them at the buffet restaurant, and also at a large palapa near the hammock ride.
Next up: driving amphibious vehicles (4wd Jeeps) on a three-mile dirt trail through the jungle and underground and through caves. This was the coolest part — actually passing through some narrow rock openings, beside stalagtites and stalagmites and over some running water. I would have liked it if we’d had to drive through deeper water. The water we drove through wasn’t that deep, and I don’t think you’d truly need an amphibious vehicle to cross the running stream. It would have been a bit more exciting if a) we could have driven faster and b) there were more water crossings involved. But I also understand the liability problems that would arise if the track were too challenging and prone to accidents!
Tip: Bring sunglasses for the kiddos. The dust kicked up during this drive irritated our eyes.
When we entered underground rafts section of the park, we were told we could head out on either double- or single-seat rafts, and we could choose the short route (about 300 yards) or long route (600 yards). My sweet 9-year-old said he’d like a single-seat raft to paddle himself through 1,800 feet of cenotes, so we said, “Sure.” Alas, his arms weren’t quite long enough to reach across the width of the plastic raft (modeled to look like a log raft) to paddle easily. So, soon after we set out into the caves, my husband Quent snagged my son Ben off of his raft, put Ben in front of him on Quent’s raft, lashing Ben’s raft to the back with the elastic band included with the “hand paddles.” Thank goodness I have a McGuyver-like husband who can manage such things in a dark cave. They took the short route.
Meanwhile, my daughter and I were up ahead, on the long route, maneuvering past rocks and admiring all of the awesome limestone formations, as well as giggling at our awkward use of the hand paddles.
Tip: The depth of water for this activity is minimal, so we didn’t have to wear provided life jackets. Note that in all of these pictures we’re wearing water shoes — this is a key clothing item you’ll want to bring along to Xplor. You definitely don’t want to be walking through the park barefoot, and flip flops will fall off too easily. Bring a shoe that can get wet and that will stay on your feet.
For our final adventure of the day, we donned life jackets for a swim through the cenotes — about 1,300 feet long. This was such fun! We hung on to one another’s life vests, propelled the kids via their feet through the flowing water, and, once again, gawked the awesome natural limestone formations.
This journey culminated with us having to swim through a waterfall (“Hold your nose!”) into a circular “room,” where water was cascading from all sides. Here’s the view before we passed through the waterfall (which I snapped with my waterproof GoPro camera):
Once we entered, the noise inside was deafening, but the sensation of being surrounded by pounding water was really cool. We couldn’t stop laughing.
We recognized the area from earlier in the day; while ziplining, we had stood on a spiral tower above this very spot watching other visitors swim in and out. Here’s the view skyward from the water. Again, very, very cool. (I know I’ve said that at least five times in this post.)
By the time we left Xplor at 5 p.m. we were exhausted but exhilarated from such a fun day in the outdoors in such an inspiring natural environment. We’d been to sister eco-parks Xel-ha and Xcaret before, but neither had left us as thrilled as Xplor did. Again, if you’re traveling to the Riviera Maya with children ages 6 or older (the age Xplor recommends), you must take a day to enjoy all of the exciting activities at Xplor.
Things to know if you go:
Admission to Xplor is all-inclusive. That is, all food at the buffet spread is included, as well as juice at the palapa by the hammocks, and the juice and cookies you’ll find at a small stand after exiting the rafting circuit. This is a brilliant move by Xplor, as we were hungry again and thirsty and in need of a restroom — also right there — after rafting.
Adult daily admission fee to Xplor begins at $99, but if you purchase tickets online at least 3 days before you want to go to the park, you can get 10% off. Also look into the Xperience Passport, where you can get a deal on tickets to a combination of the Xplor, Xcaret and Xel-ha parks.
You can purchase admission tickets without transportation. Remember what I said earlier? If you want to arrive at the park in the precious few minutes before it opens, you might be better off paying for your own taxi ride from your resort. That way, you aren’t tied to the times of a group tour, for arrival or departure. But if you’d like the peace of mind that comes with traveling with a group, then book a tour — either online or via the tour desk in your Riviera Maya resort hotel.
Xplor photos are expensive. I had my GoPro HD camera with me on the adventure, and it took some decent pictures of us ziplining, but without a flash, the ones inside the caves didn’t turn out well at all. (I’d love a waterproof camera with flash that I could take on such adventures! Hint to husband for Mother’s Day.) I did end up purchasing the digital photos snapped by the automatic cameras stationed throughout the park. You just provide your helmet number, and you can buy them via flash drive before you leave the park (long lines at 5 p.m.) or via the Xplor website afterwards.
- Note: You will end up with photos of some random people! I have no idea why they showed up in the gallery of “our” helmet numbers.
- Note: We tried being cheap, and having the kids switch helmets throughout the day, because then I figured I could just order one helmet set of photos ($45) and have an array of pictures of each of my children. But, it ended up that I wanted photos from both helmets, after I viewed them online, so I spent $75 for two helmets’ worth.
- Note: Examples of the quality Xplor-provided photos are above — with the yellow www.Xplor.travel logo on them, plus the one of me and my kiddos in front of the red mosaic heart. They really are great souvenirs — just a bit costly, in my opinion.
Pack dry clothes and a fresh pair of flip flops. As I mentioned, you want a good pair of water shoes that will stay securely on your feet for the day’s worth of activities. I did all of the activities in a bathing suit and a quick-dry pair of shorts (though there were plenty of women ziplining in bikinis and Keens); I also had my sunglasses with me, and I zipped them in my shorts pocket when we were in the caves. You’ll definitely want to change into dry clothes and dry shoes for the ride back to your resort hotel; lockers are provided free of charge, so you can access a bag of clothes and towels with your own key throughout the day, as needed.
Thank you to the Rivera Maya Tourism Board for arranging my family’s stay in the area and to Xplor for hosting our visit to your incredible adventure park!