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Several of the parks major displays double as research and rehabilitation facilities. The spacious coral reef aquarium is used by marine scientists to study the interaction of species in a variety of reef environments from shallow lagoon to deep outer reef. The aviary provides a protected breeding environment for 44 species of indigenous birds, many of them on the endangered list. Scarlet macaws, the magnificent multi-coloured parrots that symbolize the tropical jungle, are notoriously poor parents that frequently abandon their nests. In Xcaret's incubators young macaws are hatched and raised in captivity in an effort to augment their dwindling numbers. Xcaret is also deeply committed to a regional sea turtle conservation program. Each year camps are set up to protect the adjacent nesting grounds where the turtles come ashore. Eggs are collected, hatched in Xcaret's nurseries, and the young turtles are raised in captivity for one year before being tagged and released back into the wild.
We had seen only a fraction of Xcaret's displays when the sound of drums and conch shells heralded the evening performance and we made our way through the Valley of the Aromas to the Gran Tlachco theatre. Groups of Mayan warriors gathered in the forest beside the path. Strange creatures from the spirit world stand motionless and menacing in rocky clefts above us and on a balcony above the main entrance a Mayan priestess is enveloped in the smoke of burning incense. The show has begun even before we enter the theatre.
The tiers of seats inside the huge Gran Tlachco surround a full size replica of a Mayan ball court, which serves as the stage. When the last of the candles in the audience flickered out spotlights picked up the players as they rushed onto the court and the performance began with a ball game that was once an integral part of Mayan culture. Using only legs and thighs the traditionally dressed athletes battled to send a 4-kilogram latex-rubber ball through a small stone ring high up on the sloping sides of the court. It was the first in a series of tableaus celebrating Mexico's history and folklore. From Mayan culture and mythology to the coming of the Spanish and the battle of the indigenous people to survive, the story moves on to the influence of the church and the cultural fusion that produced the Mestizo culture of modern Mexico.