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Xel Ha (Mexico)
Member Name: grahamt
Xel Ha (Mexico)
Advantages: Wonderful location; great entertainment
Disadvantages: Long journey from Cancun or even Playa del Carmen; Deserves a whole day
One the locations which was definitely on our schedule was Tulum, at the southern end of the Riviera Maya. Tulum is a fascinating site but probably not a place where you would want to spend a whole day under the glare of the Mexican sun. We felt that a half-day, preferably a morning, would be quite long enough, but what to do with the rest of the day, having travelled so far to see it?
The answer was found amongst the various excursions on offer at the agency desk at our hotel For $125 US per person we could enjoy a morning's guided tour of Tulum and follow that with an afternoon at the natural open-air aquarium of nearby Xel-Ha, all inclusive, with all transport provided.
Xel-Ha is a natural freshwater lagoon which is fed by the underground water system (cenotes) that lies beneath the surface of the entire peninsula. The Yucatan is a limestone plateau that is almost entirely without rivers on the surface. Yet below the surface runs a subterranean river system which is accessible from the surface wherever the cenotes open up as surface lakes. Xel-Ha is just one such.
Xel-Ha has been exploited as a leisure centre for those who enjoy underwater activities because of the abundance of marine wildlife that is found there. It has been done, though, with some sensitivity to the potential for damage to this extraordinary natural feature. Much effort has gone into trying to ensure that pollution is eliminated as much as possible. To that end, things like normal commercial suntan lotions are banned from use and only bio-degradable versions are permitted.
When you arrive at Xel-Ha, the first thing you see is the dolphin pens. Now, I have to say that I'm not much in favour of keeping these beautiful creatures in captivity although I have to admit that my wife and I did do a "Dolphin Encounter" when we were last in Mexico, in Puerto Vallarta. The pool there was very large; the one here is less so, and divided up into multiple areas with a few dolphins in each.
The encounter experience is pretty much the same as you will find in most such locations. However, it is not included in the Xel-Ha entrance so costs extra, the amount depending upon the package chosen. As we had done it before we decided not to indulge this time.
Carrying on past the dolphins you then come to the main part of Xel-Ha, and first you come across a whole bunch of string hammocks, suspended from palms. This is where you can chill out and snooze if things get to much, protected by the shade of the palm leaves above. I guess if you were here all day then you could afford the time to relax like this; we couldn't as we were only here for an afternoon.
Finally you see the lake and alongside it the main facilities. Here are the changing rooms, lockers and also the place to get your supplied towels. Also here is where you get your snorkel equipment; you will be required to pay a $20 US deposit for your goggles, flippers and snorkel tube but you get to keep the tube when you leave. The lockers are key-operated and you get your key first from the same place you get the snorkelling equipment; you can take as many lockers as you need.
You enter the lake from a number of different wooden stairways. At the start of each stairway you can also choose to take a floatation jacket if you wish. I suppose it really depends upon whether or not you want to do a lot of underwater swimming. Bear I mind that the lake is generally not very deep so it is possible to see as much as there is to see by simply snorkelling on the surface. I chose to do so; my wife did not, but then she's a better swimmer than I am.
If you want to go a bit deeper then they also offer what they call SNUBA. This is different to SCUBA in that there are no air tanks involved. Instead you wear a helmet over your head and shoulders and this is connected by air tube to an inflatable raft that you tow behind you in the surface and which ensures a continuous supply of air. We didn't try this but I would have liked to have done so but, with a limited amount of this equipment available, there was no telling how long we would have had to wait for our turn. Nevertheless, it looked great fun and perhaps a better way to see the underwater life than just snorkelling.
However, the snorkelling was still amazing. We spent a couple of hours in the water watching the fish and other creatures, such as rays and, apparently, turtles, though we didn't actually see any of those ourselves. The lake is huge and even with the time we spent in the water we didn't get to cover all of it. The best place is near the middle, where some rocks protrude out of the water. It was around and between these that most of the fish seemed to congregate.
Other than the fish though, the bottom of the lake has little of interest. There is little by way of vegetation and no freshwater corals. The bottom of the lake seems to be quite sandy so that may account for this. The various rock outcrops are definitely where all the action takes place, together with the little inlets around the edge of the lake.
In addition to swimming you can also borrow bikes and ride around the dry land part of the site, visiting other smaller lakes and especially the underground river that feeds the lake. Once again, had we had more time we probably would have done this as well, but we didn't.
Other than the activities, refreshments are also provided as part of the package. There is a lakeside bar where all the usual alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks you would expect, are available. We stuck to our usual favourites, beer and fruit based drinks. All were pretty much the same as you find anywhere and perfectly acceptable.
Drinks are provided in plastic containers so you don't have to consume them in the bar, though to do so is very enjoyable. The sides are all open and so if you get a table on the edge of the lake you can sit and watch the masses of iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks. Some even venture along the bridges to the very entrance to the bar! Not sure if they expect someone to get them a drink!
Around the edge of the lake there are ranks of deckchairs wher you can also relax, drink and watch the scenery. Most of the front row "best seats" were taken by the time we arrived but these were also mostly in the sun. The ones further back were under the shade of the palms, if the heat gets too much for you.
Making your own way over the bridge from the bar, taking care not to tread on the iguanas though, by the looks of the damaged tails some have, maybe not everyone is so careful, you then come across the restaurant. A good selection of Mexican and International dishes was on offer when we visited and I would expect this to be typical. The food is supplied buffet-style so you can take what you like and as much as you like, as often as you like. We mostly ate Mexican and the food was tasty and enjoyable though not as spicy as we had expected.
With your food, waiters will bring you drinks of your choice, including house wines. Fortunately the red wine that we had was considerably better than we had been "enjoying" in our hotel though still would have to be considered little better than average.
We very much enjoyed our visit to Xel-Ha but I would recommend that in order to get the most out of your visit, should you choose to include it in you itinerary, it really deserves a whole day. There was so much we could have done, for which we simply didn't have time. We would especially liked to have had a go at the SNUBA. Without doubt, Xel-Ha is an extraordinary place and a worthy addition to the delights of the Riviera Maya.
Summary: An amazing natural water feature with plenty to see and do.
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