Xcaret is special for several reasons. Not only is it one of the most visited attractions in all of Mexico, but it’s also a place which has become a pioneer for eco-tourism worldwide.
The Yucatan Peninsula was one of the first places where eco-tourism found its roots. In the 1970s, academic Claus-Dieter Hetzer organised eco-tours to the region for overseas visitors, which proved popular.
Two decades later in December 1990, Xcaret opened its doors, demonstrating the potential of a sustainable tourism project for a mass audience.
Conceptualised as an environmental attraction rather than a traditional tourist attraction, Xcaret – which is named after the Mayan word for a small inlet – was originally a Mayan port, with the park’s location boasting as much history as it does natural beauty.
Love at first sight
Surveying the land to build a luxury home several years earlier, furniture salesman and Mexican architect, Miguel Quintana Pali fell in love with the area, so much so, that he decided to develop what would become Xcaret on the 65-hectare plot.
“There are around 2,000 relics of Mayan culture around Xcaret,” Pali tells Attractions Management. “As we discovered these relics and worked out where we could and couldn’t build, I decided that one house was too little for the five hectares I’d purchased.
“With these continual discoveries, I said that this couldn’t be a private investment, that it had to be something open to the public because of the site’s archaeological significance. This had to be something which would be open to everybody.”
Returning to the landowners – Oscar, Marcos and Carlos Constandse – on the hunt for more land, Pali explained his vision for Xcaret. Instead of selling him the land, the brothers were so excited by the concept, that they ended up becoming business partners on the venture.
“We started to build the park in the 1980s,” says Pali. “We opened the first part – a small part of the park – in 1990 and it continued to grow from there.”
While offering its own unique experience, the concept for Xcaret takes inspiration from the Polynesian Cultural Centre – one of the most popular attractions in Hawaii.
“My mother is Hawaiian,” says Pali. “When I was younger, every couple of years we would be taken to visit there, which is how I got to know the Centre.
“If you go back three decades, they were already receiving maybe 1,000 visitors a day. Mexico is a much larger country with a bigger culture offering. I saw an opportunity and the chance to create a park showcasing Mexico in a location already rich in history, local flora and fauna, and culture. It was the perfect melting pot to create a place to show the whole culture, history and attractions of our country. When I envisioned Xcaret, I saw it as an embassy for Mexico.”
Theme park meets eco-attraction
The concept for Xcaret is simple and works well thanks to its stunning location.
Rather than traditional rides, the nature park instead offers up its underground rivers, jungle trails and the vast Caribbean Sea, with exciting natural experiences built into those elements. Wildlife also plays an important role as well, with a coral reef aquarium, butterfly pavilion and tropical bird aviary among the offerings. Finally, Mexico’s culture is played out with daily shows, while the whole park is wrapped in Mexican tradition, from dress style to the brands of chocolate bar on sale.
“It’s a real Mexican experience from the ground up,” says Pali. “The difference between a regular theme park such as Universal Studios or Disney is that this is real history on a real, natural historical site. Those kind of parks are fantastic. They’re built to create fantasies. Xcaret was created to show you the real thing in its real environment.”
Pali’s architecture background has shaped Xcaret’s very foundations. With a clear vision in mind to put nature first however, it can often prove a challenge.
“We aim for a natural aesthetic,” he explains. “You don’t see our behind-the-scenes installations and any cables. Everything is hidden within the landscape. The land tells us where we can build and we respect that as much as we can.”
From Xcaret’s initial foundation in the late 1980s, several more parks would follow, with eight different experiences set up under the Xcaret Experiencias Group umbrella. A new adventure park is also set to open later this year.
“In terms of capacity, Xcaret is our main park and can fit in 12,000 people each day. Xel-Há is our second-largest and has a capacity for 6,000 and Xplore can fit 2,000,” says Pali.
The natural order
Finding a balance between nature and guests’ needs across Xcaret’s park portfolio is a constant challenge. Visitors, for example, might ask for a non-natural element to be added to the park. For Pali, it’s about introducing these things without compromising the park’s aesthetic or its eco-friendly philosophy.
“A lot of visitors had been asking us to introduce water slides to our parks. It presented a challenge because they’re very difficult to keep in with our natural look,” Pali explains.
“Our Xel-Há park is centred around a large inlet leading out to the Caribbean Sea. Historically it was a port, so we have a very tall lighthouse, which is more than 40m (131ft) high. We took its traditional spiral design and wrapped the slide all the way around in that style. The main purpose of that lighthouse was to see the panoramic view of the whole park but this solution, we felt, didn’t cross a line for us while satisfying the demand from our guests.”
Conservation is also at the heart of everything Xcaret does. In its history, which now spans nearly three decades, it’s seen more than 100,000 sea turtles raised and released into the ocean, with many now returning to Xcaret to breed.
It’s a similar programme for the endangered scarlet macaw, with nearly 1,000 raised in its aviary and many later released into the wild. This is coupled with Xcaret’s efforts to maintain the natural environment around it, allowing its millions of visitors each year to witness the area’s beauty without causing harm.
“Our rivers have natural water flowing from the underground, so you will never see still water,” says Pali. “To protect the plant life, we have rope sidewalks, with everyone circulated around the parks on these, so you’re never stepping on nature and you’re never actually in the jungle.”
A place to stay
One of Xcaret’s more recent developments is its all-new hotel – a five-star 900-suite behemoth sitting right on the Mexican coast line and surrounded by a wild jungle.
“When our new hotel was first conceived, the engineers made a plan from an office, almost never visiting the site. In their plan, they would have taken out all the trees, built the hotel and then planted the trees again,” explains Pali.
“Using our development philosophy, we did it the other way around. We inspected the land and made a map with all the areas main trees. We worked out their size and position, then worked around them so as not to hurt the environment in respect of our eco-friendly mission.”
Opened in December 2017, the carefully designed, nature-centric destination, is split into five “casas”, each with its own unique theme: adults only, luxury adult, family, luxury family and wellness.
Marketed as “All-Fun Inclusive”, guests receive a full resort experience alongside complimentary access to Xcaret’s eight nature parks and tours. Shuttle buses run from the lobby every half-hour, taking guests to as many parks per day as they wish. Gastronomy is also a key part of the hotel experience, with everything served as part of the all-inclusive menu in its 10 restaurants and eight bars based on traditional Mexican cuisine.
“We will take care of you for your whole stay – from the airport all the way to the parks and back,” says Pali. “Every day, hotel guests can use a wrist band to visit any of our parks and take our tours to archaeological sites. We aim to take charge of your holiday because we want you have the best vacation of your life.”
In addition to its new Xavage park, recent announcements from the company include the expansion of an additional 12 hotels – the first of which broke ground in January – a convention centre, shopping plaza and a 12,000-seat stadium.
Worth an estimated US$2bn, the 8-year plan will allow the operator to diversify its visitor portfolio.
There are also considerations to expand Xcaret outside of Mexico: “I’d like to replicate it in countries such as Columbia and Venezuela,” says Pali. “It could be done, but you can’t do it on just any piece of land. It has to be special, meaning it has to have a rich landscape with rivers, caves and lagoons and has to be a very natural, beautiful place.
“For Xcaret, 500 years ago it was a Mayan port. Back then, people from across Central America came to visit. This is a historic place with a natural backdrop. To make something similar for a new culture would be the main challenge.”
Beyond the Xcaret masterplan, Pali revealed plans to expand into the neighbouring state of Yucatan, as well as create a new boat service from the neighbouring island of Cozumel 18km away.
“Right now, we’re planning to develop new parks at our home site,” he says. “We’re also looking at expanding into Yucatan, which has a rich history, with colonial towns, churches, monasteries, cenotes and haciendas. Xcaret doesn’t have a lot of these things, so it’s something different we could offer.
“We have a number of new offerings also in the works, including fishing experiences and tours to the island of Isla Mujeres. We’re also soon buying a couple of 600-passenger boats, to bring passengers from Cozumel, which welcomes cruise ships on a daily basis, so could be a big draw for us.”
A round of applause
At this year’s IAAPA show in Orlando, Xcaret was recognised as being among the world’s elite attractions, picking up the prestigious Applause Award (see p56).
Joining a list most recently featuring Busch Gardens, Puy du Fou and Ocean Park, the biannual award honours a park whose management, operations and creative accomplishments have inspired the industry with foresight, originality and sound business development.
“90 per cent of the world’s theme parks are represented by IAAPA, so it was an honour alone to be named one of three finalists,” says Pali.
“To get this prize for doing what I love to do every day and to represent my country, made me feel very rewarded. It was something that I never expected.”
The award comes at a choice moment, with Xcaret this year set to reach a major milestone, welcoming its 50 millionth guest since launch.
“I’ve never really thought about it in terms of the number of people,” says Pali. “I want to show my whole country to the rest of the world.
“We still have a lot of things to do to grow. I’m 72 years old and my plan is to continue doing what I’m doing until God permits me and I have the health to do it. I plan to never retire and be working hopefully until 80 or 90 years old.”