5 Great Family Activities on the Mayan Riviera
I love the Mayan Riviera, Mexico. It was one of the first places we traveled with Tiny Traveler because it’s just so darn easy to get around and do things with kid if you want to, and to relax if you don’t want to do much.
The Riviera Maya has great beaches and the further you travel away from Cancun the calmer the water is and the better they are for young kid. But it also has fun and interesting activities to do with kids and teens. And all you need to get off the beach and explore are a pair of sturdy water shoes and a mild sense of adventure.
Tours are easy to find (hard to avoid?), but driving is very 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.
Note: Car seats are not required for kids in Mexico. The one we got from Hertz was older than I would have preferred and the staff didn’t know how to install it. If you still use a car seat this is one place I would recommend bringing your own.
Here are few activities worth considering for a family vacation.
5 Things To Do on the Mayan Riviera With Kids
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 both above and below ground, by scuba diving, kayaking or swimming, on our your own or via guided tours. They’re worth experiencing. How old your kids are and how well they swim will determine how you do it. No matter which you choose, 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 we would have liked to do but we thought it would be too cold for small child. Instead, we took life jackets and a map showing us a path through the jungle to more than half a dozen cenotes; some were ankle deep and others were crystal clear water 30 feet deep or more.
Tiny Traveler splashed in some of the shallow water, but she preferred wandering the trails and scrambling around on the rocks while we took turns swimming in the deeper pools. She napped soundly on the way home, always a sign of a good time.
The Mayan Riviera’s coast runs parallel to one of the largest reef systems in the world. So if your kids are old enough to swim safely in deep ocean (7YO and up), make the effort to go snorkeling. Not that it will take much effort. Any hotel will run tours—probably leaving right from its own 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 are strong currents and water can be rough 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). It attracts crowds and you can no longer climb the pyramid. But it’s still a unique and spectacular destination. If you’re traveling with teenagers, go.
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. It would a frustrating place to visit with a toddler or preschooler because so much of it is hands-off. Make sure to hire a guide who can explain what the ruins are and why they’re significant.
Eco theme parks
Xcaret (top) 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 great thing to do if you’re staying in a vacation rental and want resort amenities and convenience for a day. They’re also very handy 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 and teens can rock climb, zip line, snorkel or swim with dolphins. They have packages that include meals and drinks, which are probably worthwhile if you plan to spend the whole day.
A less commercial option with kids and teens is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site that offers bird watching, kayaking, fly fishing and small boat tours.
A handy 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 beach between Avenida Benito Juarez and the ferry dock. You’ll find Parque los Fundadores, a pocket park with a colorful playground. There are small climbing walls, swings and a twisty slide. It’s best on a cloud day and hot in the sun. Bring water and look for the cheap snack vendors nearby when you need to cool off. Tiny Traveler was too small for much of it but kids 5Yo and up will love the chance to climb and swing in a place just for them.
Where To Stay in Playa del Carmen
When Tiny Traveler hit her school-age years we returned to the Maya Riviera to stay at an all-inclusive resort (read our review of Grand Bahia Principe). But with a toddler we didn’t think we’d get our money’s worth out of all the amenities at a big resort. We also wanted to be able to prepare food for her and perhaps for ourselves as well. We rented a vacation condo one block off the beach, just beyond the end of the main strip in Playa del Carmen and it was just the right thing. We rented a playard from an expat who runs a concierge service and shopped at the bodega on the corner (which had organic milk, fresh eggs and cheese and good tortillas). We made lunch and brought in dinner a few times, and we had a living room and large patio for hanging out after our daughter went to bed. Every time we went to the beach local kids came over to play with her, which was probably the best part of the trip as far as she was concerned.
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