It’s been at least 10 years since my last trip to Cancun and I have to admit, I wasn’t all that excited for my return visit over the 4th of July holiday. But when my friend (and regular travel-buddy) Shannon and I were looking for somewhere “beachy” to spend the holiday week, a $94/night rate at the Westin Cancun was just too tempting to pass up.
My memories of two previous trips to Cancun (the first with an ex-boyfriend and the later on business) were ambivalent at best. Two distinct memories prevailed…beautiful beaches and near-constant harassment from timeshare hawkers & club promoters. But I decided to focus on the beautiful beaches and turquoise Caribbean Sea and was determined to give the area another try.
Originally called the Cancun-Tulum corridor, the tourist district along the coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo was re-named the “Riviera Maya” in 1999. The region includes (among others) the bustling resort town of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and the island of Cozumel. Dominated by extravagant all-inclusive resorts, the Riviera Maya is rich in both activities and culture. Fringed by the Belize Barrier Reef (the world’s second-largest), water-based sports like diving and snorkeling are the primary attractions. But the area is also home to significant archaeological sites like the coastal ruins of Tulum. Not to mention a tri-fecta of gigantic eco-parks known as Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Xplor.
When we arrived at the beautiful Westin Resort & Spa in Cancun on Tuesday morning and got our first look at the magnificent ocean-front view from our balcony, Cancun was starting to seem like a brilliant idea. We spent the whole first day lounging on the hotel’s nearly-empty beach sipping margaritas and enjoying the solitude of the far end of Cancun’s hotel zone. (Perhaps this was the key to avoiding the persistent and industrious sales people working both the streets and the beach?)
After a restful night’s sleep enhanced by the sounds of crashing waves from the beach below, we had a big day planned for our first full day in Cancun. While at the travel blogger’s conference in Colorado a few weeks ago, I’d met Josh Berman, the writer for the Riviera Maya Moon Guide. Since I was planning to be in the area soon, I picked his brain for travel tips. He highly recommended Xcaret Park and mentioned that their PR folks were actually there at the conference. After an introduction, they were gracious enough to invite me down to see the park and try out their “Swimming with Sharks” experience. I mean, when someone asks you to come on down and swim with some sharks, can you really say no? I think not!
So after following the simple instructions from my Xcaret contact, Leo, on how to reach the park using the local bus system, we arrived at 9:30am ready for a full day.
Located along the Riviera Maya, Xcaret Park is the centerpiece of a trio of eco-archeological parks (the others are Xel-Ha and Xplor) that showcase the natural beauty and culture of Mexico. With more than 200 acres of activities including snorkeling in underground rivers, swimming with dolphins, rays and sharks, a butterfly pavilion, a coral reef aquarium, sea turtles, a Mayan village with local craftsmen and countless restaurants and shows, Leo had a full day in store for us.
We began with a visit to the Chapel of Guadalupe and a tour through a typical Mexican home. Next up, we headed over to visit with a few of Xcaret’s mascots, the red macaws. Sustainability and conservation are top priorities at the park and their Reproduction Program of Endangered Species was recently awarded the Guinness World Record for the most macaws born at a single location in the same year. More than 700 red macaws have reproduced at the park in the past 6 years. Leo was actually able to take us inside the nursery where we saw a tiny macaw that was just 2 days old.
From there, we stopped at a mushroom farm, an orchid house and toured some of the park’s sustainability efforts. Next, it was time to cool off with a float down the cool waters of the underground rivers. After a delicious buffet lunch overlooking a lagoon of sea turtles, it was time for the highlight (depending on your level of anxiety) of the day…swimming with sharks!
Shannon and I were both a bit nervous about this part of the day but since it’s not every day you get a chance to try something like this, we were determined to enjoy it. After a detailed presentation involving the finer points of shark safety (utilizing a stuffed shark to demonstrate where it’s OK to touch the shark and how not to become food) it was time to dip our toes into the water with five nurse sharks.
For the first part of the experience, we sat on a bench in the water while a trainer held the shark and allowed us to touch it – one at a time – on the back and then the stomach. We were able to touch the gills and even experience the frightening power of the shark’s jaws while feeding it a piece of fish dropped from above…yikes! Then it was time for the all-important “just me hanging out with my shark” photos…priceless.
After thirty minutes or so of familiarization with the sharks and getting comfortable in the water, it was time to don snorkel gear and actually swim with them for 15 minutes. Amazingly enough, by that time I was completely at ease. I have always been terrified of sharks but I grabbed my waterproof camera and took several photos and videos (all included in the gallery below!) while they circled just below me. So proud of myself! I’m hoping this experience has helped me overcome my fear of sharks enough to try diving in Honduras later this month.
After conquering our shark fears, we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Mayan village and taking in the show, exploring the butterfly pavilion, archaeological ruins and even a Mexican cemetery before heading into the large amphitheater for the “Mexic0 Spectacular” show that ends each day at Xcaret. The show is a musical journey through Mexican history featuring more than 300 performers in colorful costumes. It also features a thrilling performance by Mexico’s Paplanta Flying Men, one of the country’s most unique cultural traditions. It was the perfect way to end a full day of nature-filled activities. I really enjoyed Xcaret and hope to return again soon to visit the other two parks, Xel-Ha and Xplor. Huge thanks again to Leo for spending his entire day showing us such a great time!
By the time we made it back to the Westin it was just after midnight. We were both exhausted from our action-packed day but decided to sit out on the balcony and have a cocktail before calling it a night. As we looked down at the beach, we spotted something amazing. A giant sea turtle was making her way out of the water and up onto the beach to lay eggs! Now, before I finish this story, I should say that I grew up near the beach in Florida and I’ve spent countless days on beaches all over the world and I have never, ever been lucky enough to witness this incredible event before.
We watched the turtle in awe from the balcony as she selected a good spot and then tirelessly began digging a very deep hole to deposit her eggs. As we watched, we noticed other turtle shadows circling in the sea just offshore and before long another turtle was approaching the beach! Is this really happening, I thought? First swimming with sharks and now nesting sea turtles? It’s a nature extravaganza!
Well, when the second turtle emerged we just couldn’t take it anymore and headed down to the beach to watch from a closer but respectful distance so as not to disturb her. We’d already seen Westin security admonish a couple who happened to be walking down the beach when turtle #1came out of the sea and got a little too close taking pictures so we were happy to see that someone was looking after the turtles and knew to keep our distance.
We ended up watching the turtles on the beach until almost 2am (at which point both were still digging and clearly had more stamina at that hour than we did) before calling it a night. It was such an amazing thing to watch that I really just couldn’t pull myself away. Way cooler than being in a bar at that hour with the rest of party-loving Cancun. Nature…sometimes it really just takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
The next morning when I looked out from the balcony, I could see that momma turtle #1 had clearly eventually finished her task because in addition to her original tracks leading to the nest there was now another clear set of tracks leading back to the sea. Hotel staff were carefully examining the nests created the night before and marking each one with flags to keep beach-goers away from them. I was fascinated by the Westin’s obvious commitment to the turtles and stopped by the concierge desk later to ask a few questions.
It turns out we had arrived just in time for turtle season! Helpful concierge, Rafael, explained that the turtles had just begun to arrive in the past week or two and that the hotel actually later removes the eggs from the nest to protect them from harm while they gestate. Several weeks later when the turtles are ready to hatch, the hotel releases them in a ceremony on the beach. The Westin notifies guests when this will happen so that they can be lucky enough to witness it during their stay. How awesome is that? We were thrilled to have seen the female turtles laying eggs but I can only imagine what an incredible sight it would be to see the babies scurry into the sea. (If you were trying to come up with a good reason to visit Cancun in August or September…you’re welcome.)
Kudos to the Westin Resort and all of the other Cancun hotels who protect these gorgeous creatures in their natural habitat despite the massive amount of visitors to the area.
After such a late night on turtle-watch, we decided to spend the next day diligently securing lounge chairs to beach sand again with the invaluable aid of strategically chosen adult beverages. It was also a good opportunity to develop a plan for our last full day in the area.
By day 3 we had mastered the local transportation system and decided to forgo the expensive group excursion options and make our way down to Tulum and Playa del Carmen on our own. Though it takes a bit longer than the direct route by pre-arranged transport, it was a piece of cake to catch the local R-1 bus from the hotel along the hotel zone to the downtown Cancun bus station. From there, the clean, comfortable and (most-importantly) air-conditioned ADO buses run regularly to Playa del Carmen and take a little under an hour. From Playa, we caught a connecting ADO bus to Tulum (another hour) and were exploring the ruins of the world’s only seaside Mayan temple by lunchtime.
One of the last cities to be inhabited and built by the Mayans, Tulum may have served as a port city for the Maya site of Coba. Protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the other by a wall that averaged about 16ft in height, Tulum is the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall. With access to both land and sea trade routes, it is those walls and natural barriers that defended the city from invasion. Today this stunning archaeological site is the most popular tourist attraction along the Riviera Maya. In addition to the temples, there is also a picturesque public beach.
We wandered the temples in the high heat for as long as we could bear it before hopping a bus back to Playa del Carmen for some lunch. I’d never been there before so it was a good chance to explore a little while we were in the neighborhood. We found a beachside spot for lunch and a cerveza before boarding a bus back to Cancun.
Since that night was our last in Cancun, we decided to get out of the hotel to experience a little of the resort town’s infamous nightlife. I was hesitant as the nightlife was my primary source of annoyance from previous trips but I figured maybe things had changed since the last time I was in town.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. The streets in the bar district were thick with the same aggressive club promoters and cloying street vendors that made it impossible to walk down the street un-accosted 10 years ago, perhaps even worse than before. This experience was annoying at 20-something and I found it even more annoying at, well, let’s just say…older. I’m not sure what age you’d have to be to find this fun, maybe 18?
We managed to stay long enough to have some dinner but decided to forgo the nightclub options and head back to the hotel around 11pm to resume “Turtle Watch.” Luckily the turtles were unfazed by the nightlife commotion just down the beach and several once again returned to the Westin’s beach to lay eggs. So much fun to watch!
The next day we spent the morning lounging on the beach before eventually departing for the airport to fly back home to Atlanta. I’m so glad I decided to make this return visit to the Riviera Maya, it’s given me a whole new appreciation for the region. I know lots of people come to Cancun for the 5-star hotels and exuberant nightlife but this trip made me realize that there’s so much more here to experience. I am really looking forward to a future trip, perhaps I’ll even stay in the Playa del Carmen area next time. Visits to Cozumel, Chichen Itza, Xel-Ha and Xplor are definitely in my future.
It just goes to show that sometimes it’s possible to see an old destination with entirely new eyes. If you haven’t visited the Riviera Maya lately…I’d say it’s time to give it another try. Say “hi” to the sea turtles for me.
Disclosure: Park admission and shark experience were provided courtesy of Xcaret Park.