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.