Venture: Xel-Ha

John Ross, Columbus Alive

One of the most exciting things about traveling in the Yucatan, Mexico's rocky and rugged toe, is that nature is never kept at bay.

Swift, black great-tailed grackles greet you outside Cancun International Airport, endlessly flitting about to squawk and grab crumbs. Multicolored frogs and lizards line the walls and trees of the resorts along the eastern coast, developments shrouded by palms and flowering shrubs.

Two years ago, I did some birding from my hotel balcony. Two weeks ago on my honeymoon, my wife and I met a lovely pair of iguanas sunning themselves next to our favorite swim-up bar.

The people of the Yucatan value natural beauty and live intertwined with it.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Xel-Ha, the world's biggest natural aquatic park and heaven of sorts for anyone who likes to be in or around water.

Located where the Caribbean Sea meets several of the region's storied underground rivers, Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-HA) essentially is a giant cove ringed by thick jungle, nature trails and sinkholes, known as "cenotes."

Instead of building a bunch of rides or slides in a pretty setting, developers simply built a frame around what was already there.

Most resorts in Cancun and along the Riviera Maya offer day-trip packages for around $100 that include transportation, food, drinks, admission and numerous activities.

Xel-Ha's biggest draw is snorkeling, and docks around the park access diverse geological features - submerged outcroppings, rocky shorelines and, the kicker, underwater caves. Parrotfish, stingrays, conches, snapper, butterflyfish, angelfish and other aquatic animals school calmly in the undulating currents, and it's easy to spot several thousand fish in an afternoon.

After viewing the natural aquarium, there's Trepachanga, an overwater ropes course, and Salpichanga, ziplines that end in the drink.

If you're daring, jump 20 feet or so off the Stone of Courage into water so clear that it looks as though you'll smash onto the rocks beneath. If you need a break, float on rafts through a mangrove forest.

When you're done for the afternoon, take time to plop into the lounge chairs placed strategically in pairs in front of the beautiful vistas.

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