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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

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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.

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