5 Family Activities on the Mayan Riviera
By Eileen Gunn
I love the Mayan Riviera. It was one of the first places we traveled with Tiny Traveler because it’s just so darn easy.
It’s tempting to while away your vacation doing nothing but playing in the sand and splashing in the water (the further you travel away from Cancun the calmer the water is). But it’s worth getting off the beach and exploring. All you need are a pair of sturdy water shoes and a sense of adventure.
Tours are easy to find (hard to avoid?), but driving is actually manageable in this part of Mexico. One main highway runs the length of the peninsula. It’s in reasonable condition and clear signs direct you to the major tourist destinations and resorts.
Here are few activities worth considering.
The Yucatan is dotted with natural water pools called cenotes. Some are underground or partly sheltered by rocks, others look like rocky, shallow ponds.
You can explore the cenotes by scuba diving, kayaking or swimming, both above and below ground, on our your own or via guided tours. They’re worth experiencing. How old your kids are and how well they swim will have to determine how you do it. No matter, be prepared for some very cold water.
When Tiny Traveler was 15 months we took her to Kantun-Chi one of the more low-key “eco parks.” They had an underground river tour that we passed on. Instead, we took life jackets (some pools are pretty deep) and a map showing us a path through the jungle to more than half a dozen cenotes.
There were shallower pools where TT could have splashed safely, but she preferred wandering the trails, picking up pebbles and leaves and scrambling around on the rocks while we took turns swimming. She napped soundly on the way home, always a sign of a good time.
The Yucatan coast runs parallel to one of the largest reef systems in the world. So if your kids are old enough to take along (or you can arrange baby sitting), make the effort to go snorkeling.
Not that it will take much effort. Any hotel will run tours—probably leaving right from your beach. You’ll take a zodiak a short way out to the reef, get your fill of snorkeling and be back in less than two hours.
Be aware though, while the water near the shore is usually calm, there is a very strong current out by the reef.
Chichen Itza, a large complex of Mayan pyramids and ruins, was the highlight to my first Cancun vacation in high school. It’s also a a full-day trip that requires a long, boring drive into the jungle (and back again). If you’re traveling with high school or college-age young people, talk them into it. You won’t be disappointed.
Tulum is a smaller collection of ruins right on the coast. It’s not sweepingly grand like Chichen Itza, but it’s an easy half-day trip and it reveals a lot about the Mayan way of life. It’s doable with school-age kids who can deal with a 45-minute tour. It’s also fine with a baby if you have a carrier and can protect him or her from the sun. If you need to cool off, there’s a small beach below the ruins where you can swim.
Eco theme parks
Xcaret and Xel Ha theme parks are pricey and more than a little gimmicky. But each has a huge variety of genuinely cool eco-adventure activities all in one place.
They’re a convenient if you need to entertain kids of different ages. Preschoolers and toddlers will be happy with the playgrounds, wading pools and tamer wildlife attractions (Xcaret has a butterfly pavillion and turtles) while older kids can rock climb, zip line, snorkel or swim with dolphins.
They have packages that include meals and drinks, a convenient option if you aren’t staying at an all-inclusive resort.
A less commercial option is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site that offers bird watching, kayaking, fly fishing and small boat tours.
A cool little playground
If you’re in Playa del Carmen with kids under 10, head for the southwest end of town. Make your way passed the frat boy bars to the water between Avenida Benito Juarez and the ferry dock. You’ll find Parque los Fundadores , a pocket park with a colorful, relatively new playground. There are small climbing walls, swings, a twisty slide and cheap snack vendors nearby when you need to cool off.Tiny Traveler was too small for much of it but still loved the chance to climb and swing in a place just for kids.
On a vacation with kids, sometimes the little finds are the best.