A Riviera Maya Family Vacation

By Lisa McElroy

I'm watching my ten year-old daughter as she flies above the trees. Not only is she ziplining, she's shrieking with joy. In fact, it doesn't get much better than this – she's spending the day in the great outdoors, she's speaking Spanish (what little she knows from her elementary school program, that is), and she's making friends. We're on a family vacation on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, and we're having a ball.

This lovely family vacation spot is on the Mexican coast, just south of Cancun. It's home to pristine beaches and dozens of luxury resorts. We're pleased with our choice of Riviera Maya homes: The all-inclusive Barcelo Maya Palace Deluxe, probably the most luxe of a complex of Barcelo resorts about an hour from the Cancun airport. Our comfortable room looks out over the pool and ocean, and it's just a short walk from the main building, where several buffet restaurants offer pretty much any cuisine kids could ask for, from burritos to steak to chicken fingers to elegant desserts.

We start our trip by exploring the resort, taking in the lovely landscaping, the hammocks, the laid-back vibe. Staff members are leading any number of activities; Abby wants to join in on a table tennis tournament or a kayaking lesson, but the hammocks are too tempting – she ends up curling up under a palm tree with a good book. Meanwhile, I decide to take a dip – near our room is one of the biggest pools I've ever seen, curving through the property with bridges crossing some spots and volleyball nets in others.

After a morning relaxing at the resort, we're out and about. Our first stop? Swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery. We join a group of eight in a pool with two dolphins, then learn how to encourage them to jump, give kisses, and push us through the water by our feet. Abby thinks that holding onto a dolphin's fin as it pulls her through the water is about the coolest thing ever; her only regret is that the photos are expensive (about $25 US each), so we don't buy any.

Next stop? The Mayan ruins at Tulum. It's here that Abby gets out the camera and asks a lot of questions; the ancient temples and fortresses are really fascinating. She's especially intrigued by what we learn about how the huge stone buildings were built – because the Mayans did not have oxen or other mammals, construction was extremely difficult.

It's been a long and interesting day, so much so that Abby falls asleep in the cool room before dinner. It's only the promise of a moonlight swim that gets her up and about – luckily, room service brings us some fruit and sandwiches, and she's happy to eat on the balcony under the stars.

It's a good thing she gets a lot of sleep, because the next day is about as active an adventure as we've ever had on vacation. We take a short van ride to Xplor, one of four related outdoor adventure parks. On past trips to the area, we've really enjoyed Xcaret and Xel-ha, but Xplor is a little different, offering more thrill-type activities like ziplines, cave rafts, and off-road jeep expeditions. I sip some fruity drinks while Abby flies down a total of 2 ˝ miles of ziplines, most of them so high above the trees that she's a tiny dot in my photo lens. Then I join her for a jeep ride through the jungle, racing another family through dirt roads and underground caves. Exhausted but smiling ear to ear, we finish the day with the huge included buffet, downing fruit and salad, burgers and ice cream.

On our last day in the Riviera Maya, it's hard to say goodbye. Abby has gotten addicted to the arroz con leche (rice pudding) in the hotel buffet, and I've grown attached to a particular hammock. Still, we're planning a return trip soon, this time with the rest of the family; after all, we still haven't tried out the kayaking.

If You Go:

  • Bring water shoes. Keen-type sandals or water socks are pretty much a requirement to do the fun activities at Xplor; you'll also find they come in handy for kicking around the resort.
  • Try the specialty restaurants at Barcelo. One great thing about this all-inclusive is that the French, Mexican, Japanese, and other specialty restaurants are included in the price. Be sure to make reservations early – they are very popular.
  • Schedule at least four days to explore. You'll undoubtedly want to spend a couple of days lounging around the luxury resort. Be sure to allot time to see the sights in this beautiful part of Mexico.
  • Bring a light sweater. Evenings can be cool here, even though it's the Caribbean.
  • Take an evening to hit Playa del Carmen. This charming town has great restaurants, souvenir shops, and art galleries. Our favorite spot? Ajua Maya restaurant, where bands play and waiters bring your drinks balanced on their heads.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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