I love the Riviera Maya area. I’ve visited at least 6 times and I fall more in love every time. The Yucatan Peninsula is exactly what I think of when I imagine vacation: soft sand, gorgeous turquoise water, a fun and relaxing atmosphere, and delicious tropical drinks. The region offers something for everyone, with options for both adventure and relaxation.
One of my favorite excursions in the Riviera Maya is Xel-Há. Xel-Há (pronounced “shell-ha”) is along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula an hour south of Cancun. In this post, I give advice on how to make the most of your excursion to Xel-Há, both in preparing for your day and what activities to see and what activities to skip.
Please note: this page does include affiliate links, which means I may make a commission if you purchase a product through the link, at no additional cost to you. For more information, please see my Affiliate Disclosure. I am not being paid to promote Xel-Há , however! I just love this excursion and want to share it with my readers. 🙂
Before you arrive at Xel-Há
Xel-Há translates from Mayan as “where the water is born”. According to the Xel-Há website,
Mayan gods joined together their wisdom, illusions and love for beauty to create a place that would bring together the best of nature, and that place was called Xel-Há. Once created, the gods were so pleased with this heavenly place that they decided to permit the entry of all mortals. To take care of it and the elements that surround it, the gods appointed three guardians: Huh, the Iguana, Guardian of the Land, Chuc Kay, the Pelican, Guardian of the Air, and Kay Op, the Parrotfish, Guardian of the Water. It is said that these guardians still protect and care for the Park and everyone who comes to visit.
The first time I went on this excursion, our transport dropped us off around 8:30 and told us to return to the parking lot by 4:45 for a 5pm departure. 8 1/2 hours?! How would we be able to keep ourselves entertained for that long?
Then I walked in. A gigantic, crystal blue lagoon was surrounded by walking trails, biking trails, animal encounters, restaurants, and bars. Locker facilities and gift shops dotted the walking paths. This place is huge. A map hints at the size, but it’s hard to grasp until you actually experience it.
#Nofilter, the water is legitimately that gorgeous. And it’s not just for looking… you can swim in it!
Things to bring to Xel-Há
If you’re staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, this will easily be an 11+ hour day so it’s very important to prepare. I recommend you bring:
- A spare outfit (including underwear!) to change into. Nothing is worse than sitting on a bus on your return back and feeling soggy and salty.
- A hairbrush and detangler. I don’t know what it is about saltwater, but it turns my hair into a rats nest. It’s genuinely difficult to brush without some detangler or hair balm.
- A bottle of water. I know water is free at the park, but it’s nice to be prepared on your own, too.
- Waterproof shoes or heavy-duty flip flops. If you wear waterproof shoes you’ll be able to just slip your flippers over them when you’re swimming. For flip flops, you can strap them to your life jacket. The goal is to bring everything you need when you’re swimming to avoid being tethered to one spot.
- Extra shoes. Again, being dry is nice!
- A headband. When I visit, I braid my hair and use a headband to help almost control the chaos.
- A waterproof camera. This lets you capture all of your adventures and it’s way cheaper than the photo package discussed below.
- SUNSCREEN!! I cannot emphasize this enough. I am pale and go through sunscreen like nobody’s business. Pack! Overuse! There is nothing worse than getting a sunburn… it’ll put a damper on the rest of your trip.
Regarding sunscreen… Xel-Há requests that you use biodegradable sunscreen. Standard sunscreens can harm aquatic life and, in order to explore responsibly, I think it’s important to follow this request. Xel-Há sells bio-friendly sunscreen all over so pick some up on your way in. I also recommend purchasing some of their after sun. This stuff is magical and I’m convinced it reduces the severity of sunburns, reduces pain, and makes bad sunburns heal faster. Buy a few bottles and keep some at home for after you return.
Getting to Xel-Há
I always recommend letting a tour company provide transportation. There are two options for transportation: booking direct on the website and booking through a separate tour company.
If you book through Xel-Há, more than likely a large, well-appointed tour bus will pick you up. They are air-conditioned and comfortable… my only complaint with these buses is you’ll have to stop at everyone else’s hotel on your way back. You may get lucky and be an early stop, or you may be literally the last stop.
If you’re not particularly patient, there are tour companies that offer private or semi-private transportation with your admission. I really like USATransfers. I’ve ridden with them multiple times and the drivers are always courteous, funny, and prompt. And you won’t have to deal with other hotel drop-offs with private transport!
Beginning your day at Xel-Há
Ok. So you’ve bought your tickets, booked your transportation, and packed all the necessities. You’ve arrived and are totally overwhelmed. Where to start?!
Select a locker
The first thing to do is to find a locker. Assuming you took some kind of transport, your driver or welcome concierge will recommend a certain locker room, labeled by color. In the locker rooms, you’ll find lockers, restrooms, showers, and snorkeling equipment check-out. The best part is… this is all included in the ticket price! At Xel-Há, everything you need to enjoy the excursion is covered: food, drinks (including alcoholic!), snorkeling equipment, and inner-tubes.
If you’re hungry, I recommend checking out a restaurant and grabbing breakfast. Keep it light because you’re going to have a really active day. There are restaurants and bars throughout the park so hunt down a local map and find one that looks appealing. Although alcoholic drinks are included in your ticket price, I personally don’t recommend starting your day off with drinking. I don’t really like swimming while buzzed, but if that’s your jam, then enjoy that tequila sunrise.
I always like starting off an excursion to Xel-Há with snorkeling. There are tons of little docks that you can start from, so carry your snorkel equipment over, grab a life jacket, and hop on in. The water may start off chilly but you’ll acclimate quickly.
Scroll back up to that picture up there – there is a lot of water space to explore. There are lots of nooks and crannies to check out, with little coves, caves, and cenotes all over the place. My first time at Xel-Há I stayed near the docks which was definitely a mistake.
As you adventure further and further away from the main area, you’ll find these little hideaways…
And other more wide-open spaces…
Make your way north towards the entrance until you reach the floating bridge. On the other side of that bridge is a photo op that works with your admission bracelet. There are photo ops throughout the park and you can purchase a photo package somewhat easily. All you have to do is scan your bracelet and a timed camera snags a picture and uploads it to an account linked to your bracelet. I think it’s worthwhile if you have a large group all sticking together, but otherwise, I find it a little bit overpriced.
All my photos were taken with a waterproof camera (mentioned above) which means I have more control over the photos. The initial cost may feel high, but the camera is super rugged and is great for other adventures and even catching pictures with the fish!
As you come down around from the photo op, there’s a trail that leads to the Mayan Cave. Carry your snorkel equipment down here and hop in the water, but be warned, it’s a lot more chilly! After checking out the cave you can continue exploring the lagoon or climb out and check out the walking paths.
Usually by this time I’ve worked up a pretty strong appetite… I really like swimming with the fishes.
Midday at Xel-Há
Grab a lite lunch
Every time I’ve gone to Xel-Há, midday quickly approaches. My guests and myself are always surprised: 8 hours seems like such a long time and, before you know it, your stomach is grumbling and it’s time for lunch (…or possibly second breakfast, as is often the case when you’ve snorkeled this much!)
At this time, I would head in and get some food. I’m a fan of the Mexican buffet, but honestly, every one of the restaurant options has choices to please a picky crowd. Watch your feet because the iguanas are brave and they seem to enjoy french fries.
Don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen! A good rule of thumb is to put sunscreen on everytime you visit the restroom. And put extra emphasis on your neck, shoulders, and back… when you’re snorkeling, that’s the most exposed area.
Feed the fish & explore the bicycle path
After eating, I recommend walking around the walking paths. From here you’ll find fish feeding stations. Turn a knob and fish food pours out. The fish know this is where the good stuff is so they flock quickly.
Keep wandering and you’ll come across the bicycle path. Hop on but be careful because there are critters exploring all over! Cute little rodents (lemurs or maybe anteaters, I think?) dart across the shadows on the path and iguanas warm themselves on rocks off to the side.
Take a peek at the animal encounters
Circle around the loop and hop off to walk by the water again. By now you’ve probably noticed that there are a handful of optional activities, like the manatee encounter, dolphin swim, Snuba dive, or stingray encounter. You can walk by the encounters without paying so it’s good to swing by the water and see if you can catch a peek at the animals.
I have done the manatee encounter and it was wonderful. It can get a little expensive, but I love that Xel-Há uses the facility to rescue manatees and work towards their conservation. There is so much to see and do at Xel-Há, though, so don’t feel pressured to partake. You will have a full day regardless!
Continue around the loop and you’ll find the adventure world. Here there are low-elevation zip lines and ropes courses suspended over the water. The adventure world will challenge your strength and your balance but it’s a lot of fun because, worst case, you fall into the water!
The lazy river
From here, I would recommend continuing to snorkel. You could hop out and continue up the path to the lazy river, but I definitely do NOT recommend that. I’ve done the lazy river once and that was more than enough. The water moves really slow and you’ll end up having to manually paddle to return your innertube. It was simultaneously really slow-moving and really hard work, so neither myself nor any of my family members enjoyed it. There are better things to do, so skip this one.
Anyway, by now you’re going to be in a new part of the park… go out and explore it!
Swim your way back towards the restaurants. You’re going to make your way to the Lighthouse. You can use the lighthouse to look at the views, or you can be brave and take the new water slide that circles the lighthouse. It gets fast!
Afternoon – winding down your visit to Xel-Há
By now it’s probably mid-afternoon. You’re probably thinking “how has time gone by so fast?!” Why else would I say Xel-Há is the ultimate excursion?!
Snack, shop, and relax
If you’re hungry, grab a quick snack or maybe some dessert. Take some time to peruse the various shops and see if you want to buy something. You can wander back up the walking path to the hammock farm located near the Children’s World to relax or take a quick cat nap (but don’t forget to grab a strawberry daquiri on the way there!)
Regardless, take the time to relax if you want it. You can check out some of the other activities, too – but it’s nice to have a fruity cocktail next to the water and relax after a full day of adventuring.
Prepare to depart!
Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get ready before you go to leave Xel-Há. You’re going to want to change, brush out your hair, and pack up any souvenirs you’ve purchased. Luckily Xel-Há offers plastic bags to store your wet swimwear in, so stuff that in your bag and make your way out to the parking lot.
The Xel-Há excursion is one of my favorites. I’ve been there a handful of times and still haven’t done everything. When you come back, consider checking out some of the optional activities!