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5 Family Activities on the Mayan Riviera

I love the Mayan Riviera. It was one of the first places we traveled with Tiny Traveler because it’s just so darn easy.

the beach in playa del carmen on the Mayan RivieraIt’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 (above), 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 Mayan Riviera’s 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.

Visit the FG Lodging Guide for Mexico


 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

a playground on the Mayan Riviera

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.

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  1. April 21, 2017 at 4:48 pm — Reply

    […] Maya boasts endless opportunities for family fun, including miles of sugar-sand beaches, excursions through the jungle to Mayan ruins, and an array […]

  2. Mommamia
    February 3, 2015 at 10:09 am — Reply

    I happened upon this conversation today and couldn’t resist the opportunity to solicit your advice. In a few months my 3 girls and I will be taking our FIRST trip abroad. I REALLY want the trip to be fun AND educational. However, choosing from the myriad of tours offered is OVERWHELMING!!! We are resorting in Tulum so I’ve narrowed our choices down to a Tulum/Xel-ha day tour and a Chichen Itza day (12hrs!!) What do you think? Thanks soooo much!!!

    • February 3, 2015 at 11:37 am — Reply

      Hi there, congrats on venturing out with your girls! Hope it’s the first of many trips. I don’t know how old your kids are. I would not attempt Chichen Itza with kids younger than 10. It’s a long and very boring 3-hour drive (one way). If you are staying in Tulum and want to see ruins consider Tulum itself. Not as grand as Chichen Itza, but I think it has a lot to offer in terms of learning about the Mayan culture. and it has a nice little beach. There is also Coba, which is not as extensive as Chichen Itza but does have a big pyramid and is not as far. you can also spend an afternoon in Playa Del Carmen and consider visiting Cenotes or if all your girls swim try some of the excellent snorkeling. the trip might leave from your resort. if all are not old enough, maybe the youngest can go to the kids club while you take the older ones? Enjoy!

  3. Natalie Nevares
    March 2, 2012 at 9:16 am — Reply

    Claudia B,

    We go to the Mayan Riviera every year with our family and have tried a few of the excursions listed above, but we’ve discovered that the best family holidays for us are the ones where we do nothing but check into the resort and just hang out at the pool and beach, eating and snorkeling right there. We’ve gone every year since our kids were 1 and 3 (they’re 5 & 7 now). Last year we discovered the kids club and our kids love it so much they don’t want to leave when we pick them up. Though we’ve tried a few other all-inclusive family resorts, our favorite is the Gran Bahia Principe Coba, near Tulum, about 1.5 hours from the Cancun airport. Beach is perfect, water is calm, food is great great, they even have proper espresso drinks! Safety is NOT an issue at all.

    I book the hotel with http://www.cheapcaribbean.com, book Jet Blue flights directly, and take a private taxi from the airport. If you negotiate, a private taxi should be no more than $90 from the airport, vs. $35 pp for the group bus transfer offered by Cheap Caribbean. Typically the whole thing including air for 7-10 days for a family of 4 is about $3k.


  4. Simona D
    March 2, 2012 at 3:41 am — Reply

    Totally agree on the Mayan Riviera, have had 3 family vacations there over the past 6 years with our 3 kids while they were all under 4. Couldn’t advocate more for the location as a prime toddler/young child spot for relaxation and adventure.
    Fantastic post.

  5. Claudia B.
    February 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm — Reply

    Terrific description of your trip. I am thinking of visiting the Mayan riviera this summer during our vacation. It must be awesome and even more beautiful than words can describe. I would only be a little nervous about crime since we’re traveling with our two young boys.

    Thanks for the post.
    Claudia B.

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