Here at the Anderts, we generally thumb our noses as package tourism. Cruises? Never. Resorts? Not interested. Five days with everything included? No thanks. Booking a tour? We’ll do it ourselves.
Part of our disregard for the package comes from being cheap skates, but the other part comes from wanting an authentic experience, not one that has been polished and delivered to the few who can afford it.
I stand by these reservations, personally and parentally. While I strive to be generous, I’m also proud of my frugality. I like that when I’m at home with the girls that I often go a whole week without spending a single dollar. We ride the train (which is free with my student card), go to story time at the library, and make liberal use of our memberships to the Children’s Museum, Art Museum, and the Botanic Gardens. When the weather’s nice, we traipse through the gulch, find parks, and search for fairies and kitties. Fun needn’t cost a thing.
As for the polished and delivered experiences, those will always make me a little uncomfortable. It’s one of my things. I’m hyper-aware of class and privilege, and it occupies a lot of my thinking space. In terms of parenting and traveling, this presents an interesting conundrum. In one sense, we’re cashing in on privilege by traveling in a slightly less developed country with a weaker economy. I expect my dollar to go further, and I find myself irritated when I know I’m paying more just because I’m a foreigner.
In the past, I used to haggle for the lowest price and forgo just about every service except for those that were absolutely necessary. On this trip, I’ve adjusted my view. Not only have we decided to pay a bit more to make this experience more comfortable for the girls, but we’re also contributing to the economy. I know. I know. This sounds grandiose, but I guess I overthink everything. I like to think about where our money goes and what it stands for. I like to think about whether we’re making ethical decisions with our money.
So I don’t haggle anymore. I shop around and look for the cheapest price, and I might ask for a dollar or two off if I’m buying multiple items, but I’m not comfortable being as ruthless as I used to be when I have so much. The other thing that we strive to do is make sure that our money is going towards local companies or even better, local individuals. For these reasons, the hipster vegan restaurant owned by the blue-haired trustafarian from LA and the Chedraui (which is not a syndicate of Walmart but a similarly large corporation) are places that I would not return to in the future.
Oof! Get me off my soapbox!
All that to say that today we went to Xel-ha, and as you can see I’ve been overthinking (rationalizing?) the whole experience, but in sum, I loved it. The girls loved it. Joshua loved it. It was AMAZING, and you know what? In terms of my values, I don’t think it was too far off course. For the past five years, the Experiencias Xcaret has been named one of the Best Mexican Companies. Xel-ha employs 504 colaboradores, and from an outsider’s perspective, their jobs look incredible. What’s more, one of their missions is conservation education, and their grounds had composting and recycling available.
And before I completely move off my soapbox, another thing I’m mulling over: we’re in the jungle. The place is overflowing with plants and flower that come bursting out of the ground and race upwards towards the sun. The mangroves are a gorgeous and wild tangle of life. There’s the bluest, clearest water in the oceans and the cenotes, and the very rock you walk on is limestone and former coral reef, having emerged hundreds of years ago from the floor of the ocean.
And yet. The pueblos and cities and careterras are littered with trash. There’s a concerning stench coming from the streets, and it’s dismaying to see the refuse of our packaged lives accumulating in the tangled arms of the mangroves or dumped in the jungle. It’s not different from many of the places that we’ve traveled. Kathmandu, though we adored the place, was very dirty. So was Pokhara and Delhi and Rishikesh and Dharamsala. So was Cuzco and Cuenca. And Quito and so on. Part of it is cultural, and part of it is about infrastructure, but the truth is that we in the United States produce so much more trash than these places that we are exploring, but we just don’t have to see it. Our infrastructure tidily disposes of it, and once out of sight, it’s out of mind.
So what to think about these expensive yet pristine areas, landscaped so beautifully and really taking advantage of all that the jungle has to offer? It’s such a contrast. In a way, I saw what the cenotes, mangroves, lagoons, and jungles of the Yucatan could be today, but in reality, that’s not how they are. They’re littered with individual LaLa yogurt containers, styrofoam to go boxes, the wrappers of suckers, plastic bags, and on and on and on.
Ok. So this is where the real story of Xel-ha starts. In the midst of questioning our sanity and this trip, we decided to do something different. Something we thought the girls would love. We decided to go to Xel-ha, an adventure eco park – “the world’s most beautiful natural aquarium.” And we decided to do it on Lu’s birthday.
Xel-ha is open from 8:30 AM to 6 PM, and it costs $90 per adult to enter. Children under the age of 4 are free and older children are $45. We left Tulum at 8:30 via a colectivo and from where we were dropped off, it was a half mile hike to the entrance (price of colectivo 25 ps. per adult).
Everything at the park is included in the price of the ticket: towels, snorkel gear, life jackets, keys to lockers, all you can eat food and drinks (including alcoholic drinks). Most of the activities are also included but there are some special activities that cost more. When you think about all of the that, especially the food and drink, it’s actually pretty reasonable (especially for us because we only paid for two adults and brought in two kids for free).
On the way in, Lily was fascinated, watching the special tours swim with dolphins. For once, when she asked us her usual questions – “are dolphins nice?” “do dolphins like Lily?” “are dolphins scared of people?” – about wild animals (and, I suppose, these dolphins are no longer wild), I had different answers. Dolphins are very nice! They like people. They’re playful. Lily was totally awe struck.
We made our way to the lockers, and then we went to the kids area. Lily was thrilled with the shallow splashing pool and extensive playground that included swinging bridges high over the jungle. Along the lagoon’s edge, lounge chairs and palapas provided rest, shade, and a stunning view of the turquoise water.
Joshua and Lily played for a while in the shallow pools and the playground while Lu and I nursed under a palapa and then ventured out into the water. Luckily, there were little baby life vests (as well as all sizes, because they’re mandatory), and it was very easy to take her in. Unluckily, Lu was not exactly thrilled with the temperature of the lagoon – 77 degrees.
After an hour or so, we decided to have a late morning brunch. Joshua and I scooped up the chilaquiles y refritos and Lily predictably had pancakes. The vegetable and fruit juices were also a big hit.
From there, we walked through the shaded, verdant jungle to where we caught a little palapa train that brought us to the beginning of a “lazy river” that wound through the mangroves. Lu wasn’t too sure at first, but once I began nursing her in the innertube, she fell asleep. It was so beautiful, you guys. The water was so blue and the branches of the mangroves hung down to the water and you could touch their gnarled elbows and ankles. The light filtered through in dapples and spots, and it’s just not hard to continue this story of a magic fairy kingdom for Lily when we’re in places like this.
At the end of the river, we got out of the water and Joshua jumped off the “cliff of valor.” I waited in line to do it as well but totally chickened out.
From there, we explored the other side of the park, passing by a family of friendly coati, including an adorable baby coati (but in general they kind of freak me out because they look like raccoons, and you all know how I feel about raccoons).
We swam through a narrow grotto and into a cenote with a rope swing where we easily spent an hour jumping in and then climbing out of the water. Lily LOVED it, and Lu watched, laughing and shrieking when she saw the splash.
We walked some more, past cenotes and into caves. We crossed the floating bridge. We stopped back at the lockers to reapply sunscreen and Joshua and I picked up pina coladas on the way. From there, we caught the train again and headed to the start of the river once again.
This time we floated down to the adventure park where there were ziplines and obstacle coursed through the water. Joshua watched the girls while I attempted a few of them, and then I took Lily to swim through the lagoon back to the main area.
Lily loved floating in the innertube and I swam behind her. We looked at fish and she got braver and braver, eventually eschewing the innertube and climbing on my back. When we got to our rendezvous point, Joshua was holding a sleeping Lu, looking out over the water.
It was 430 already, so we made our way to dinner. The traditional Mexican buffet was impossible for Joshua and I to choose, what with all of the dishes that we’ve intended to try included. Mole, pozole, sopa de lima, ceviche, and so much more. I had the ceviche. We’ll see. Cafeteria ceviche kinda concerns me, but it tasted delicious.
For dessert we had margaritas (the adults at least) and chocolate cake for Lu’s birthday. The chocolate cake was actually pretty incredible, and you all will be happy to know that Lu enjoyed a few mouthfuls and then methodically wiping it all over her body, as is required on one’s first birthday. We sang Happy Birthday and Feliz Cumpleanos approximately three dozen times throughout the course of the day, shamelessly telling perfect strangers that the flirt with whom they were cooing was one today.
After dinner, we raced back to the children’s area to eek out the last 45 minutes of our day. Joshua was my hero and took the girls while I went for a long swim along the lagoon – shhhh – sans life jacket. Mom, I wish you had been there. We could have done one of our forever swims (those forever swims are some of my favorite memories of you and I).
I came back with about 15 minutes to spare and we traded off so Joshua could enjoy a little float.
At five to six, we went back to the locker rooms. We showered, changed, and walked out slowly, watching the employees clean and lock up and sneaking in a few more moments with the dolphins.
We walked back to the road, completely happy. Both of the girls were so amazing all day. Lily fell half a dozen times, and though she still cried, she dusted herself off and bounced back so quickly. She had this huge smile on her face the whole time. Lu’s favorite part had to have been walking the many paths through the jungle and relaxing in the innertube down the lazy river.
As we walked, we thanked Lu for giving us all a fabulous birthday gift.
We ended up taking a particularly persistent taxi back to Tulum, and then we all collapsed on the bed and flicked on the TV to let Lily watch Nickolodeon, completely spent. Oh, and then I ate a pink dragon fruit and some lychee.
Soooo, pretty much a perfect day. Now we’re scheming a week long vacation for when the girls are older and can swim. We’ll rent a place in Playa del Carmen, and we’ll buy a three day pass to Xcaret, Xplor, and Xel ha. It’ll be a “vacation-y” vacation, but if it’s this beautiful and this fun, we’re in.