Xcalak National Reef Park

Often, visitors ask what type of water activities they can do in the Xcalak National Reef Park. Fly-fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are the standard answers, and less-obvious activities include kayaking, kite-boarding, and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

In this post, you’ll discover:

  • An overview of the Xcalak National Reef Park
  • How the national park status affects your visit
  • Water activities in the reef park

To start, we need to understand the geography that makes Xcalak special.

The coastal waters of Xcalak are not only warm, but they’re also calm. That’s because the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef protects the beachside from the beating surge that comes in from the Caribbean Sea.

The long, continuous, Mesoamerican Barrier Reef runs nearly 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, all the way down to Honduras.

Off the shore of Xcalak, the reef acts as a shield, breaking the energy of the waves.

Mesoamerican Barrier Reef seen from Xcalak

The result is that inside the Xcalak National Reef Park, there are miles and miles of gentle water, from the shore, straight out to the barrier reef (about 500 meters or 550 yards).

And this tranquil water is incredible.

What are the coastal waters of Xcalak like?

  • The water temperature in Xcalak ranges from 21C/70F to 27C/80F, year-round, with underwater visibility from 15m/49ft to 30m/98ft.
  • In Xcalak the color of the seawater is a light shade of aquamarine.
  • The water depth near the barrier reef ranges from 1m/3ft to 3m/10ft.

In the Costa Maya, plunging into these waters is pure joy.

The water of the reef lagoon (which is the area protected by the barrier reef) is warm, clean, and shallow. In the bright Mexican sun, the water shines with stunning aquamarine colors thanks to the white-sand seafloor.

Interested in beach, not water? See a perfect description of the Xcalak Beach.

Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Xcalak

In English, the “Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Xcalak” is better known as the Xcalak National Reef Park. However…

We’ve seen the reef park referred to by many names, including the Xcalak Reef National Marine Park, Xcalak Reef Marine Park, Xcalak National Marine Park, and Xcalak Reefs National Park.

So many names! But they all refer to one great place.

This map outlines the boundaries of the Xcalak National Reef Park:

Map showing Xcalak National Reef Park boundaries

What is the Xcalak National Reef Park?

The Xcalak National Reef Park is a protected marine region, covering 40km/25mi of seaside off the southern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The park’s total area is nearly 18,000 hectares / 44,500 acres.

  • Established in December 2000, the Xcalak National Reef Park starts 25km/15mi south of Mahahual (at the now-abandoned Playa Xahuayxol) and ends at the Mexico/Belize border.
  • The ecosystems within the reef park include: seaside reef lagoon, mangroves, rivers, coral reefs, inland lagoons, and freshwater bay. 

Inside the Xcalak National Reef Park, there are different zones for different activities.

Some zones safeguard the habitat of marine life, some zones are open to local fishers, and some zones are for activities, such as sportfishing and tourism.

Most of the beachside accommodations fall under the Xcalak National Reef Park’s authority. As such, visitors must purchase an access bracelet for each day they stay. The fee supports the park, and your accommodation owner will help you arrange payment.

Water Activities in the Xcalak’s National Reef Park

Fly Fishing in the Reef Park

Xcalak is a well-known destination for fly fishing as it’s one of those rare places where you can achieve a “Grand Slam” (catching a bonefish, permit, and tarpon, all in one day).

The Xcalak National Reef Park protects the peninsula area that divides the (freshwater) Bay of Chetumal from the (saltwater) Caribbean Sea. This mixture of “sea + bay” creates three exceptional areas for fly fishing:

  • The beautiful saltwater flats
  • The tranquil mangrove lagoons
  • The vibrant, blue Bay of Chetumal

The waters of Xcalak are typically translucent, allowing you to spot the flitting shapes of fish as they swim. Local guides, tour operators, and accommodation owners can help you find the most active areas for the day’s conditions.

Find out more about fly fishing in Xcalak.

Snorkeling & Scuba Diving

The water conditions of the reef park are ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. The water temperature is warm, and the underwater visibility can extend to 100 feet. Plus, there’s plenty to see. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef has impressive coral formations and is home to gads of colorful fish.

Three underwater highlights of the Xcalak National Reef Park include:

  • Seeing manatees, an at-risk species
  • Diving with schools of yard-long adult tarpon
  • Taking an overnighter to the pristine Banco Chinchorro atoll

Fantastic snorkeling is available by merely walking into the water from the beachside accommodations. The reef lagoon is thick with coral heads and tropical marine life. By just swimming around outside your accommodation, you can spot so many species.

A sampling of the marine life you’ll likely see includes angelfish, trunkfish, lionfish, eagle rays, squid, barracuda, turtles, and groupers.

Go here for more on DIY snorkeling in Xcalak.

SUP and Kayaking in Xcalak

Two areas of the Xcalak National Reef Park, the gentle beachside-waters and the inland mangrove-lagoons, provide a superb opportunity for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

Both kayaking and SUP are fun, active ways to explore the shoreside of the barrier reef.

From the comfort of these watercraft, you can easily spot coral heads and schools of fish through the clear water. If you take a snorkel with you, be sure to slide in and join those fishies up close!

You may also be interested in exploring the inland, mangrove lagoons. The lagoon area is a different world. Peaceful and quiet, with almost no breeze. The water here is a mix of fresh and saltwater and, because it’s brackish, it supports fish and bird species that the seaside doesn’t. Join a kayaking & snorkeling tour, get a kayak rental, or simply Do-It-Yourself; most beachside accommodations offer guests free use of their kayaks and SUPs.

Discover the beachside and the cool things you’ll see, click here: Xcalak Beach