I live in the Midwest and endure long, cold winters with many months away from the green and joy of gardening. This winter we decided to escape to the warm temperatures and beauty of Mexico. This trip did not disappoint with its green jungle landscape, warm sunshine, beaches and turquoise water. We decided to take in a day at Xel-Há Park, a beautiful natural aquarium located in the Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
The ancient Mayans named this natural site Xel-Há, which translates to “where the water is born.” During pre-Hispanic times, Xel-Há served as a port, trading center and a place for shelter for sailors during bad weather. Legend tells of Mayan gods joining their wisdom and love for beauty to create a place that would bring together the best of nature’s gifts. This place was called Xel-Há. The gods were so pleased with this place that they welcomed all mortals to come enjoy this heavenly oasis. The gods appointed three protectors: Huh, the Iquana and Gardian of the Land; Chuc Kay, the Pelican and Guardian of the Air; and Kay Op, the Parrotfish and Guardian of the Water. It is said these keepers still protect and care for the park and all who visit.
Visitors can swim and snorkel in the natural inlet and lagoon. Rafts are available to float down the mangrove lined river. You can stop and take a break along the river to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding jungle, rocks, caves and cenotes. Snorkel equipment is provided for all ages and sizes. The water is crystal clear and warm! The colorful tropical fish are stunning, and we also watched the protected queen conch slowly move across the floor of the lagoon. Sting rays swam around us with a gentle movement, leaving us gasping water in our snorkel tubes!
The natural reserve can be experienced walking on the paths through the park. The Path of Consciousness is said to arouse your sole, create reflection in your mind, and a respect and understanding of the need for conservation for nature and our planet. We decided to grab bikes and made our way to Chacah’s Garden. This is an area of Xel-Há that celebrates the Chacah tree in Mayan legend. Celebrities are invited to plant a Chacah tree and leave a thought engraved in stone by their tree. I wandered from tree to tree to read some of the inscriptions, which proved quite interesting.
Make sure you locate the mystical two Cenotes, Paradise and Adventure. These are protected, considered sacred sites where Mayan priests would communicate with the gods. These natural wonders are their own unique ecosystem and taking in all the native palms and orchids was an amazing place to connect with nature. After taking a well needed dinner break for some delicious food and drinks, we took a quiet walk to the plant nursery at Xel-Há. The nursery is home to an amazing variety of native plants, more than 270 species. The plants here are being raised to maintain the conservation of the reserve, as well as ensure the safety of many endangered plant species. All of the plants have historical value dating back to ancient Mayan culture and today’s communities all along the Yucatan Peninsula.
Xel-Há has a policy of plant relocation and not affecting vegetation in its development of buildings or structures. One example of this that was very clear were the paths around the park. Palm trees can be found in the middle of the paths. I was proud of my bike riding skills! The plants are growing in sections of the nursery and you can see the sequential sizes of each. Once the plants reach an acceptable size, they are planted out in Xel-Há, other parks or the communities. More than 135,000 are planted annually. Signs in the nursery give both common and botanical names, making identification easy for tourists. Little lizards and iguanas kept an eye on me as I moved through the nursery. I do have to admit being startled a few times when they scurried by me. The nursery is also home to an apiary.
Xel-Há considers beekeeping important, not only to preserve the Mayan traditions but the bees’ contributions to the plants and flowers. And Mayans considered the honey from the Melipona bee sacred for its healing properties. If you are lucky enough to visit Xel-Há in June or December, you can participate in the honey harvest. During the full moons on these months, the honey is collected and hives are cleaned. This ceremony is performed by a Mayan priest. One of the gardeners showed me the alter that is decorated with flowers and food during these ceremonies.