Cancun's Family Eco-Adventures

By Pat VandenHeuvel

Cancun has always been a favorite vacation destination for many families, with its beautiful beaches, attractions and family friendly resorts. The arrival of Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005, put a damper on many families’ travel plans and forced them to take their vacations elsewhere. Almost one year later, reports are that Cancun is back and just as appealing as ever.

I hit the white sand and turquoise water of Cancún in August of this year with my twelve year-old son Jamie on a simple mission: to check out the recovery efforts post-Wilma and explore the ‘tween/teen appeal of some of the region's more popular attractions.

I’m happy to report that the beach is back. A $20 million recovery project has restored the damaged coastline, and all 15.5 miles of public beach are now open for families to enjoy. Jamie had a grand old time splashing around in the surf, which during our visit was much rougher than in past visits (a bit too rough for this nervous-nelly mom).

On the hotel front, as of August 2006, nearly 85% of Cancún’s 27,822 hotel rooms are up and running, as are most restaurants, nightclubs, marinas and other attractions.

Jamie is not quite old enough to fully "appreciate" the Senor Frogs-Margaritaville-Hooters scene littered along Cancún's main drag, and I hope he never does. Frankly, it's a venue that is wasted on me, as well. Instead we happily immersed ourselves in some of the area's soft adventure/eco attractions -- and neither mother nor son was disappointed.

Xel-Ha (www.xel-ha.com) is an impressive eco-park or "natural aquarium" with 22 acres of jungle, river, lagoons and coves. Although Xel-Ha is an hour and a half from Cancun, it's well worth it.

Arrive prior to opening time, grab your gear (life vests, snorkel equipment, locker rental, etc.) and stake out a spot at one of the rock outcroppings surrounding the lagoon, far from the park's crowded entrance. The lagoon's waters stay calm even on the windiest days, making for some decent and easy snorkeling, great for a novice like me. You should see all kinds of tropical fish, parrot fish, blue wrasse and possibly the occasional stingray, barracuda and conch on the lagoon floor.

For the non-snorkeler, Xel-Ha has countless pathways, waterways and viewing platforms to observe the sea life below. There is also a floating bridge, the opportunity to go inner-tubing down the River of Dreams, and a Mayan Cave to swim in and around. Older kids and the young at heart love jumping off the 15-foot "Cliff of Courage" into the water below.

Jamie and I also checked out the ever-popular, hour-long dolphin program (additional charge). Following a 10-minute instructional video, our group of ten donned life vests, hit the water and met our guide and three dolphins. From a floating platform we petted the slippery creatures, took turns receiving kisses (big photo opportunity), learned hand commands to make them jump and watched them swim around each of us at astonishing speed. Our guide then had us form a line while the dolphins leapt from the water, soared over our heads and splashed down right in front of us.

Xel-Ha does not allow up-close photography of the dolphin program -- a photographer and videographer capture the whole thing to sell at the end of your program. So be prepared to drop $15 for each 5x7" photograph or $50 for the video. Or maybe just etch the experience permanently in your memory!

Forty-five minutes from Cancun is Xel-Ha's sister park, Xcaret (www.xcaret.com). In addition to some wonderful beaches and a dolphin program, Xcaret also offers nature exhibits such as a bat cave, aviary, butterfly pavilion, sea turtle and manatee exhibits, plus an archaeological zone to explore.

I have visited Xcaret three times over the years and have thoroughly enjoyed each trip. Floating and snorkeling down the park's famed Underground River is one of my fondest Mexican travel memories. On this vacation, Jamie and I ventured into the park specifically to experience its well-regarded evening cultural show, Spectacular Mexico.

The two-hour show (included in the entrance fee) begins at 7 p.m. each evening in the 6,000-seat Gran Tlachco arena stadium. We chose the reserved area that includes a three-course Mexican dinner with vino or cerveza while watching the show ($35; $17 for kids under thirteen). A children's menu is available for the ninos not interested in mezcal shrimp or mixed brochette. The always adventurous Jamie opted for the hamburger.

The show begins dramatically with the mystical sound of tunkules (wooden drums), as actors dressed as Mayan warriors and priests in full war make-up enter the dark stadium from all sides with torches in hand. Part One of the show is a fascinating reenactment of the sacred Mayan ball game, Pok-ta-pok, where players launch a rubber ball through the air using only the hips, knees and elbows. The stadium lights then are dimmed for the ancient Mayan game of Uarhukua, best described as fire hockey. Jamie was absolutely spellbound watching the players slap the burning wood ball around with their wood sticks. Occasionally they launched the fire ball through the air into a net just a few feet from where we were sitting.

After a brief intermission, Part Two of the show features Mexican folklorico with more than 260 costumed actors performing elaborate song and dance numbers representing each province of Mexico. Despite the pageantry -- horsemanship, mariachis, lights and sound -- Jamie's interest began to wane, perhaps because much of the program is in Spanish. Or perhaps because he is a twelve year-old boy. Regardless, the production was top-notch, and it made for a very worthwhile evening.

On our last full day in Cancun, my boy and I felt the need for speed. A Jungle Tour was just what the doctor ordered. We tried Aquatours (www.aquatours.com.mx) just up the street from our hotel, for a two and a half-hour tour operating our own two-person speedboat through mangroves (referred to as "jungle") to a reef for some first rate snorkeling.

The tour began with brief safety and driving instruction. Having never skippered a boat before, I was a little anxious. But there really was nothing to it. Our guide's boat led the way, and boaters followed each other in single file from a safe distance. We mastered the simple hand commands (this was Jamie's job) so that all could follow the lead guide's commands to slow down, stop or speed up. In fact, it was so simple that Jamie was begging to swap seats with me and drive, but the minimum driving age is 17.

These boats go fast, and it was a blast speeding through the mangroves of Nichupté lagoon. After an invigorating forty-minute run, we reached the barrier reef Punta Nizuc where we tied up our boats and were given snorkeling gear to check out the reef for about forty-five minutes. I have snorkeled a handful of times and have never seen so many large fish swimming right up near me. It was unnerving, sort of like being tossed into an aquarium. Jamie, a slightly more seasoned snorkeler, was not uptight in the least. Then it was back in the boat for our speedy trip back to the dock. All in all, this was definitely a high point of our Mexican vacation.


  • This may sound obvious, but it bears repeating: arrive at Xel-Ha or Xcaret prior to opening time, if possible. The cruise ship and tour crowds descend between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. at both parks.
  • For those without a rental car, most hotels offer an all-inclusive Xel-Ha or Xcaret excursion. But be forewarned -- the motor coach often will stop to pick up guests at other hotels along the way, delaying your arrival time. For a better deal and more direct ride, try booking online through Apple, Funjet or Orbitz.
  • Admission to Xel-Ha or Xcaret is costly, but do consider an all-inclusive ticket (lockers, towels, snorkel gear, unlimited meals and snacks) if you are spending the whole day, which both parks truly warrant. Tourist magazines and brochures at the airport or in your hotel often have coupons that can save you some serious pesos.
  • Keep in mind that the minimum age to participate in Aquatour's Jungle Tour is 10 years old.

-- Pat VandenHeuval has been writing about family travel for the past twelve years. Her favorite travel companions are her well-traveled 12 year-old son and 13 year-old daughter, both of whom profess a love for the smell of hotels, and a wanderlust husband who is always game for their next adventure.

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