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Riviera Maya: My Bucket List Of Things To Do With Kids

Riviera Maya: My Bucket List Of Things To Do With Kids

I love Riviera Maya, Mexico. I’ve returned more than half a dozen times and it was one of the first places we traveled with Tiny Traveler. There are lots of neat things to do with kids if you want to, and it’s equally easy to chill out and relax if you don’t want to do much.

The Mayan Riviera has great beaches with long stretches of sand and resorts with kids clubs. But the greater Yucatan Peninsula also has cultural attractions and eco-park activities to engage older kids and teens. All you need to get off the beach and explore are sport sandals and a mild sense of adventure.

Here are what I think are some of the best things to with kids on a family vacation on Riviera Maya

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The Most Fun Things To Do For Families in Riviera Maya

Swim in a Cenote

The Yucatan is dotted with natural water pools and wells 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.

On a recent trip, I visited the Multun-Ha cenote as part of a day tour to Coba.

the sign for multun ha cenote

This site has only one cenote — other sites have a few — but it’s quite nice. You approach what looks like a well and go down a long spiral staircase to a cave with a cathedral ceiling and a wooden dock that extends out over crystal clear turquoise water about 30 feet deep. 

Look up the stalactites. Look down at the rock formations deep in water below, which is cool and a little unnerving. There were a handful of other people who came and went while we were there, but there were never so many people that we were in each other’s way. 

Tips: The stairs weren’t treacherous, but they’re rough enough to want shoes. There was a place to change and public showers. Everyone has to shower before swimming to remove all the sunscreen, bug spray and other products you have on, so they don’t pollute the clear water.   

When Tiny Traveler was a bit more than a year old we took her to Kantun-Chi , one of the more low-key “eco parks.” They have an underground river tour in tubes that would be awesome to do with older kids, tweens and teens.

But the is as cold as you expect it to be inside a cave and the guys at admission didn’t think a little one would tolerate it well. I’d go back now, though.

exploring yucatan cenotes with a toddler

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 pools 20 to 40 feet deep.

Tiny Traveler splashed in some of the shallow water and enjoyed wandering the trails and scrambling around on the rocks while we took turns swimming in the deeper pools.

Some of the cenotes had fish swimming deep down near the rocks. The water was so clear that we could easily see them with goggles or a mask, so be sure to pack some. 

With older kids and teens there would be more jumping and swimming in the deep pools, after you’ve warmed up from the cave tour.

Snorkel the Great Mayan Reef

The Riviera Maya’s coast runs parallel to the Mesoamerican reef, one of the largest reef systems in the world. If your kids are old enough to swim well in open water, make the effort to go snorkeling. 

Not that it will take much effort. Any hotel will help you book a tour — often 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. 

Keep in mind that the water near the shore is calm because the reef protects the coast. Out by the reef the currents can be strong and the water can be choppy. Kids have to be old enough to swim in those conditions and to be aware of their location, so they don’t drift too far.

Note: Like other parts of Caribbean, Riviera Maya has been fighting off an invasion of sargassum seaweed for a few years now. It tends to come and go and I don’t think it’s a problem in the open water around the reef, but check reviews of any beaches or tour companies you’re considering to see if the sargassum is impacting them.

shallow reefs for beachside snorkeling on the riviera maya

Tip: We didn’t see sargassum on the beaches in Cozumel, so you might consider a day trip to Cozumel for off-the-beach snorkeling and seaweed-free swimming. 

Explore Mayan Ruins

On my most recent visit to the Yucatan I went to the Mayan ruins at Coba. I’d always heard that Coba is underwhelming compared to the other complexes, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. 

Coba is more in ruins than Chichen Itza and areas around it are still being excavated.  It used to get far fewer visitors than sites. But its main pyramid is the only one in the Mexican Yucatan that you can still climb (for now) and I think this is drawing more visitors to it.

this is how far i got climbing the pyramid at coba

On the hot August day we were there, it wasn’t packed by any means, but it was definitely busy. You won’t be the only person climbing the pyramid as the photos posted on various tour websites seem to suggest.

This cluster of Mayan ruins is built alongside a lagoon and spreads out across a patch of jungle. There is a pyramid, a ball court and other small structures a short walk from the entrance. The big pyramid that you can climb is about two kilometers away.

detail from a maya ball court at coba

You can rent bicycles inexpensively to ride there and back or hire a cyclo driver.

The biking is flat and pretty easy. Any kid who can ride moderately well and can fit on the bikes available can do it. Take careful note of where you park your bike when you get to the pyramid. You’ll need it for the return ride and it’s easy to forget which is yours.

Even though it’s not that far, don’t walk. It’s hot and buggy and even if you’re fine on the way there you’ll wilt at the prospect of walking back again. Also, there are no ruins along the way; just jungle. If you’re lucky you might spot a monkey up in the trees.

tourists climb the ruined pyramid at coba

If you plan to climb leave your vertigo home and wear practical shoes. The stairs are rough, the incline is steep and many people come down on their bottoms. And stay hydrated; you want to keep your wits about you. 

Tulum is a smaller collection of ruins right on the coast. It’s not sweepingly grand like Chichen Itza or Coba, but it’s an easy half-day trip and your tour guide will relate a lot of what they’ve learned from Tulum about the Mayan way of life.

You learn what they built and why, and how large and sprawling their communities were across the Yucatan. I came away appreciating how much more advanced they were than European invaders gave them credit for. 

tulum's ruins are a manageable trip with kids and teens

It’s doable with kids who can deal with a 45-minute tour. It’s fine with a baby if you have a carrier and can protect him or her from the sun. 

It would frustrating to visit with a toddler or preschooler because you’re right next to the ruins but can’t touch or climb on them. And they would very much want to.

If you need to cool off, there’s a small beach below the ruins where you can swim (photo, top).

Tip: You can do Tulum and Coba in one day. They are close enough to each other each only takes an hour or two.

The complexes and what they tell us about Mayan culture are different enough, too, for both to be interesting and to complement each other. 

Chichen Itza, a large complex of Mayan pyramids and ruins, was the highlight of my first Cancun vacation in high school.

It’s also a full-day trip that requires a long, boring drive into the jungle (and back again). It attracts large crowds and you can no longer climb the pyramids or get that close to them.  

It’s still a unique and spectacular destination.

The sightseeing-to-driving-time ratio is better for Coba and Tulum. But if you’re traveling with teenagers who are at all willing to make the trek to Chichen Itza, go. Plan on giving a full day over to it.  Join a group so you don’t have to do the long drive yourself and you;kk have a guide when you get there.

Visit A Traditional Village

The last stop on our half-day tour that included Coba and the Cenote was a stop at a traditional Mayan village, which was easily the highlight of the day. One of the villagers showed us how they use raised beds with mixed plants to yield several kinds of produce in a small space.

kids saying hello in their mayan village

He explained how they build their huts, weave hammocks, grow medicinal plants, cook and keep a growing community of stingless bees for honey. 

Kids peeked out of huts at us curiously and women made tortillas that we got to sample with scrambled eggs from their chickens and herbs and salsa from their garden.

The Village was relatively new when I was there. As the bigger towns become too crowded and expensive some families are recreating traditional villages to live more economically. 

Go Wild at Eco Theme Parks

Xcaret (top) and Xel Ha are two of several “Eco” adventure parks that have opened across the coast. They’re pricey, but each has a huge variety of genuinely cool light adventure activities all in one place. They’re an especially great thing to do if you’re staying in a vacation rental and want resort amenities and convenience for a day.

They’re also 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). Older kids and teens can rock climb, zip line, kayak, snorkel, swim in cenotes and more.

xcaret is a resort-meets theme-park destination on the mayan riviera

They have packages that include meals and drinks, which are worthwhile if you plan to spend the whole day.

You can also book a stay a the Hotel Xcaret, where the room rate includes access to the half-dozen adventure parks that Grupo Xcaret has built.

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.

Mayan Riviera Hotels and Rentals

One of the reasons I’ve returned to Cancun and Riviera Maya as often as I have is that its resorts offer excellent value for families, especially compared to other parts of the Caribbean.

When Tiny Traveler hit her school-age years we returned to the Maya Riviera to stay at an all-inclusive resort and had a really fun time.

But with a toddler we didn’t think we’d get our money’s worth out of all the amenities and activities at a big all-inclusive resort. We also wanted to be able to prepare food for her and perhaps for ourselves as well. And we wanted space to hang out while she napped and after she went to bed. 

little kids play on the beach in playa del carmen

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 also rented a playard from an expat who runs a concierge service and shopped at the bodega on the corner for 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 reading and talking while our daughter slept. 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.

Basic Information Fora Riviera Maya Family Vacation

Geography & Beaches: While the water off of Cancun’s beach resorts can be quite rough, the further down the peninsula you travel, the calmer the water becomes.

toddler sitting on a beach in playa del carmen

Look for resorts on the east side of Playa del Carmen, down to Tulum and even beyond, where calm water allows easy-off-the-beach snorkeling for older kids and small waves for little ones to splash around in.

Safety in the Yucatan:

Cancun and the Mayan Riviera have largely avoided the drug and gang violence that have deterred tourists in other parts of Mexico. The State Department rates the Yucatan area a Level 1 in a scale of 1 to 4 (exercise normal caution).

Of course, tourists can always be targets of petty crime like pickpockets in tourist areas. Normal precautions mean that in busy areas you’ll want to keep your wallet, camera and phone secure, avoid crowds and be aware of who is around you.

Getting Around:

If you don’t want to find your way on your own, tours are easy to find (hard to avoid?), especially if you’re staying at a resort. Many of the tours will combine several activities like visiting ruins and a cenote. 

Driving is very manageable in this part of Mexico if you want to go around on your own. Aside from going to Chichen Itza, one main highway runs the length of the peninsula. It’s in reasonably good 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.

What to Pack For Day Trips:

Sport sandals or hiking shoes that can get wet are your best bet for most of these activities. Kids can probably wear their Crocs as long as you think they provide enough support on uneven and rocky terrain. 

No matter what you plan for the day, bring sunscreen, bug spray, hats, sunglasses, plenty of water and bathing suits, towels and goggles or snorkel gear for swimming. 

A Handy 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.

a playground in playa del carmen

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 or early morning. It’s 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.

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