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Monday, July 30, 2007

Xel-Ha Natural Aquarium and Dolphin Swim

The second part of our tour today was to spend the afternoon at the Xel-Ha natural aquarium which is located just a few miles from the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Among the fun and exploring you can do at Xel-Ha, there is also the opportunity to swim with the dolphins provided by Dolphinos – that operate several facilities on the Mexican Caribbean.

Xel-Ha Dolphin Jumps over in Cancun, Mexico

Part of our “package” was the all-inclusive deal for the Xel-Ha. That meant we had not only had access to the park, but we also had use of showers, bathrooms, floats, life jackets, hammocks, river train, and bag to transport your belongings. Also, snorkel equipment with a free snorkel tube, towels and a family-sized locker. Best of all, meals and beverages in any of our restaurants, tips and taxes are also included. The cost for the all-inclusive package is about $20 more per adult, so if you have a meal and a drink or two – you come out ahead, especially if you use any of their equipment, lockers, etc.

Upon arriving shortly after 12:00 we were hungry, so we promptly sat down and enjoyed a Mexican buffet lunch. Service was good and the food was decent – pretty standard Mexican fair, tortillas, tortilla chips, guacamole, beef, pork, and an assortment of various vegetables and deserts. Corona beer and Pepsi products are also available – everything included.

After a quick lunch we gathered our belongings by our locker to head to the river float. A rude French lady (surprised?) squeezed in while we were putting our stuff in the locker and tried to lecture me about something. I was equally rude back to her as I was not about to take her unnecessary attitude. A little index finger waving at her fixed the situation and we were on our way.

Floating down the river is an excellent way to get more oriented to the park. You grab some snorkeling gear at the top for a $20 deposit, put your goods you do not want to carry with you in a locked bag that is taken downstream, and jump in either a single or double inner tube. From there, you can float down the river or swim & snorkel your way down through many attractions. You pass the cliff jump (Cliffs of Courage or Valor), the wall climb. In many cases you can bail from your floating session to check out some of the wildlife.

There were a decent number of fish when in the water, but either due to the current or the time of day with the wind, it was a little cloudy. The surprise of the float down was the fact that a rather large turtle 3-4 feet in size popped up right in front of Ashley’s raft for a few seconds. I bailed out of the tube to take a quick picture with the waterproof camera – he stuck his head out of the water for a few moments until Ashley’s tube almost floated over him and then made a dive to the bottom.

The snorkeling overall was ok. There was a good number of fishes, especially around the entrance zones where fish food was provided. However, today the conditions were pretty cloud, it may have been the later time in day and some wind that contributed to it. The only annoyance here were that a couple of tourist kids (actually from Orange County, I believe) pulled a couple of shells with living creatures in them and brought them back to shore. I made a comment about it being illegal, but was basically ignored. Unfortunately, no workers were near by. Unbelievable.

After exploring Xel-Ha, we headed for our highly anticipated event of the day, a swimming session with the dolphins. After a quick check-in we watched a 10 minute video describing the aquarium and how the dolphins came to be there. Then we headed into the pool to greet the dolphins.

We were grouped with 2 little girls from Pennsylvania, one that was chatty with Ashley and the other was a little more shy. Their mom was watching from the side and taking pictures. In addition a German couple completed our English speaking group of six.

The experience overall lasted about 50 minutes or so. We had a lot of fun, and while there were various types of interactions, my two favorite had to be the playtime with the dolphins as well as the foot-push.

Xel-Ha Dolphin Swim with Ashley in Cancun, Mexico

The playtime was great, because rather than it being just a quick trick or a pose for a photo – you interacted somewhat with the dolphins. Mainly amounted to feeling and touching them when they went by – still fun none-the-less. The foot push was a tremendous amount of fun, although a little painful. In our case, one of the dolphins was taking a break so it was a single dolphin foot-push rather than a double. What that meant to me is that all the nose pressure was on my left foot which left it a little sore afterwards. That being said, seeing the dolphin pop up behind you and then push you 150-200 feet through the water were impressive.

As with any experience such as this, there are a number of photos and videos that are taken with the opportunity to purchase. I am not a fan of purchasing pre-made photos at places like this because usually the photo quality of the prints is mediocre and fades over time. Luckily, a CD of a 7-megapixel (unfortunately not 10-megapixel like my G7) is available with 8 pictures for $89. A little on the expensive side, but more valuable than a $19 large picture with so-so quality. Costco photos, here we come!

The video was also available at $129 or more, but the video cameraman missed my foot-push so that was definitely out.

Xel-Ha was a fun experience, but next time I would elect to spend a little more time there. If you are not doing a dolphin experience with Dolphinos, then it is probably the right amount of time to spend there – a half day in addition to Tulum. With the dolphin experience added-in, we missed some of the notable sites. Not a huge deal, just something to keep in mind.

Another popular natural aquarium on the coast near Cancun is Xcaret, which is located in Playa del Carmen on the Mexican coast, and is closer to Cancun than Xel-Ha. However, if you are looking at doing both the Tulum Ancient Mayan City and one of the ecological experiences – then Xel-Ha is the right choice. There are also some thoughts on various reviews on the Internet that Xcaret is not fully recovered from hurricane Wilma. We did not visit it, so we cannot comment.