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Travel Story - Xcaret

A sprawling Yucatan Theme Park dedicated to environmental protection and a celebration of Mexico's history and culture

The sun was just beginning to set when we filed into the Gran Tlachco Theatre and took our seats under the canopy of its lofty thatched roof. A warm breeze wafted through the open sides of the building as we watched the sky turn from turquoise to amber. Several thousand people had come to watch the evening performance and each of us held a small candle in a cardboard holder. By the time the last person was seated the brief tropical sunset had faded to the blackness of night and the candles were lit. An usher started the flame at the beginning of each row of seats and it was passed down the line from candle to candle until the entire theatre was filled with dancing points of light.

The show we were about to see was the climax of our day at Xcaret, a natural theme park on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Meaning "small inlet" in the Maya language, Xcaret (eshk ar et) sprawls over an area of 200 acres, most of which is preserved in its natural state. On previous visits to the Yucatan we had studiously avoided anything calling itself a theme park. But passing up Xcaret was definitely a mistake. Our day there turned out to be the high point of our recent visit to the Maya Riviera.

Getting to Xcaret from almost anywhere along the Caribbean Coast of the Yucatan is easy and cheap. From our hotel near Tulum we flagged down one of the "collectivos," gave the driver a few pesos and squeezed in among the local commuters. Half an hour later we switched to an elaborately festooned open-air shuttle bus that took us through a limestone tunnel to the park entrance.

There is no escaping the fact that Xcaret was created for tourists, but the emphases is on education rather than thrills. The landscaping and architecture blend harmoniously with the surroundings and the multitude of attractions, scattered through the forest and linked by winding footpaths, provide insights into both the local history and ecology. There is an archeological site, a restored Mayan village, a dolphin lagoon, a coral reef aquarium, an aviary, a sea turtle pool, a butterfly pavilion, and a manatee lagoon to name but a few. There is, in fact, much more to see and do in Xcaret's sprawling Eco Park than one can fit into a single visit.

We began our day with a half kilometre swim, or more correctly a float, down the Rio Maya. An attendant provided a sealed bag for our clothes and assurances that it would be waiting for us at the other end of our trip. Wearing snorkels and mandatory life jackets we entered the underground river at the bottom of a deep sinkhole near the park entrance. After the heat of the jungle the cool clear water was refreshing and for the next hour we drifted with the current through a series of natural and man-made caves. Here and there the dim interior is pierced by shafts of sunlight streaming in through jagged holes in the roof and, for those inclined to claustrophobia, there are several exit stairways leading back to the surface.

Near the end of our swim the fresh river water mingles with that of the ocean and the first marine life appears. Moments later the current swept us out of the last cave into a brackish lagoon teeming with tropical fish of every imaginable shape and colour. It took several moments for our eyes to adjust to the intense sunlight glinting off the water and sand. Along the shore, bright pink flamingos balanced on stick-like legs while they fed on invisible plankton with their chattering, upside-down beaks. As promised, the bag with our clothes and wallets was waiting for us as we come out of the water and nearby hammocks, slung between palm trees along the beach, provided a luxurious place to dry off.

From the mouth of the river it's only a short walk to Dos Playas, one of five on-site restaurants. Like many of the park's buildings it has a conical roof of palm thatch and open sides. We found a table with a view across the lagoon to the palm-lined beaches of La Peninsula and lingered for at least an hour over beer and nachos while listening to a talented local musician pluck out Latin rhythms on his harp.

The rest of the day was spent roaming the jungle paths and taking in as many of the venues as possible. Archeological sites, scattered throughout the grounds, date back to the period AD 1200 to 1500 when the area was a Mayan seaport. The culture and history of that period are beautifully displayed in the park's museum and the Maya Village display is an authentic full-scale replica of a pre-Hispanic settlement.

Many of the park's displays bring the visitor right into the natural environment of other species. Those so inclined can swim with dolphins, touch the shells of sea turtles, feel the rough spiny surface of a sea star, or stare into the doleful countenance of a manatee and marvel that any sailor could be lonely enough to mistake this graceless creature for a mermaid.

Detractors, and there are many, have likened Xcaret's hands-on policy to that of a petting zoo and criticized the displays as being artificial and distorted. With 800,000 visitors annually the park is undeniably a huge commercial success but unlike Disneyland, to which it has been compared, there are no lineups, no jostling crowds, no fast food concessions, and no blatantly artificial venues. With its emphases on the veneration and preservation of the environment the park provides a blend of fun and learning designed to sensitize visitors to the beauty, diversity, and vulnerability of nature. And as part of its education initiative each day of the school year 100 children are invited to spend a day at the park free of charge.

Several of the parks major displays double as research and rehabilitation facilities. The spacious coral reef aquarium is used by marine scientists to study the interaction of species in a variety of reef environments from shallow lagoon to deep outer reef. The aviary provides a protected breeding environment for 44 species of indigenous birds, many of them on the endangered list. Scarlet macaws, the magnificent multi-coloured parrots that symbolize the tropical jungle, are notoriously poor parents that frequently abandon their nests. In Xcaret's incubators young macaws are hatched and raised in captivity in an effort to augment their dwindling numbers. Xcaret is also deeply committed to a regional sea turtle conservation program. Each year camps are set up to protect the adjacent nesting grounds where the turtles come ashore. Eggs are collected, hatched in Xcaret's nurseries, and the young turtles are raised in captivity for one year before being tagged and released back into the wild.

We had seen only a fraction of Xcaret's displays when the sound of drums and conch shells heralded the evening performance and we made our way through the Valley of the Aromas to the Gran Tlachco theatre. Groups of Mayan warriors gathered in the forest beside the path. Strange creatures from the spirit world stand motionless and menacing in rocky clefts above us and on a balcony above the main entrance a Mayan priestess is enveloped in the smoke of burning incense. The show has begun even before we enter the theatre.

The tiers of seats inside the huge Gran Tlachco surround a full size replica of a Mayan ball court, which serves as the stage. When the last of the candles in the audience flickered out spotlights picked up the players as they rushed onto the court and the performance began with a ball game that was once an integral part of Mayan culture. Using only legs and thighs the traditionally dressed athletes battled to send a 4-kilogram latex-rubber ball through a small stone ring high up on the sloping sides of the court. It was the first in a series of tableaus celebrating Mexico's history and folklore. From Mayan culture and mythology to the coming of the Spanish and the battle of the indigenous people to survive, the story moves on to the influence of the church and the cultural fusion that produced the Mestizo culture of modern Mexico.

The second half of the show, with more than 260 elaborately costumed performers on stage, is an extravaganza of song and dance from the many diverse regions of Mexico. The show takes us from the Peninsule Festival of Yucatan to the Carnival of Veracruz; from a harvest celebration in Tabasco to a demonstration of rope twirling by mounted gauchos from the pampas – and all to the melodic rhythm of live Latin music that continued to haunt us long after we had taken the late-night collectivo back to the reality of our hotel.