Riviera Maya: A Beach and Adventure Family Vacation That’s Worth the Trip
By Lisa Tucker McElroy
Watching my 8-year-old daughter two days into our mother-daughter family vacation, it’s a little hard to believe my eyes. Zoe’s always been a little bit fearful – she’s the kid who will never try the roller coaster at the theme park and who shuts her eyes tight when the plane takes off (this from the daughter of a travel writer). But she’s swimming in a dark, underground cave, and she’s laughing her head off. Of course, it can’t hurt that she’s met a cute little boy from Oklahoma and he’s pointing out bats to her as they fly overhead . . . but since when does Zoe like bats?
What’s more, to get to the cenote (Spanish for “fresh water cave”), we’ve taken an off-road jeep expedition offered by AllTournative, a local tour company. And when I say “off road,” I mean it. This all-wheel drive adventure might have given my tough-guy husband white knuckles. But Zoe’s cheering, egging the driver on, yelling, “More bumps, more!” And she’s not alone – the other kids on the jeep are loving this just as much as she is. Maybe the shell necklaces they’ve all bought have given them courage? Or maybe this is just a family vacation made in Mexican heaven.
We’ve decided to give the Riviera Maya a try for this mother-daughter adventure - versus the ever-popular Cancun, for example - because we wanted to try some adventures and see some eco parks, on top of lying around on a pristine beach and doing a little bit of snorkeling. Zoe’s third-grade class has been studying ancient civilizations, so we figure that Mayan ruins should top our list. And even though Tulum looked great, we were jazzed when we realized just how much else there was in the area that was educational, energetic, and fun.
Why Riviera Maya?
It’s true that it takes a little longer to get to the Riviera Maya from Cancun – 45 minutes to an hour, depending on where you’re going or staying – but it’s well worth the trek. While Cancun is a wildly popular family destination, it’s also a gathering spot for college kids ready to party until late in the night. What’s more, after Hurricane Wilma a couple of years back, the beaches aren’t as pristine as they once were. A jazz festival in November makes that month a terrific time to travel to the area. Finally, the ecology adventures and the Mayan ruins in the Riviera Maya are special and unique.
You can’t visit the Riviera Maya without checking out Xel-ha and X-caret. Both boast natural rivers where visitors can snorkel, kayak, or tube leisurely for up to 2/3 of a mile. The wildlife is incredible, from the fish and sea creatures in the water to the mangroves that grow overhead. Each park is well worth an entire day’s trip.
At Xel-ha, consider swimming with the dolphins; even the cheapest of the three dolphin encounter options gives you plenty of contact with these aquatic mammals. Zoe was a little bit afraid at first but came around when the dolphin gave her a kiss, and all the kids cheered when “our” dolphin swam under our feet, then leaped over us.
Another great plus about Xel-ha is that it’s all-inclusive. Tubing down the lazy river takes a lot of energy, believe it or not, and the huge buffets of Mexican food are reasonably tasty, very filling, and scattered throughout the park.
The rivers at X-caret run underground for more than half a mile through and past ancient Mayan sinkholes, magical caves, rock formations and marine fossils. These Playa del Carmen natural wonders are lit, at certain points, by beams of light that make the rivers even more beautiful to the eyes of the visitor. Both underground rivers end near the Mexican Caribbean Sea, next to the mangroves inhabited by a group of spectacular pink flamingoes. We explored them all. Although Zoe was a little nervous when it got too dark in the caves, she strategized by looking for “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Even better, X-caret is home to a jaguar island (yes, complete with real jaguars and telescopes through which to view them), a natural aquarium, and a butterfly pavilion.
While your X-caret admission ticket includes most activities and shows, it does not include food in the park.
If you’re looking for a resort with an amazing kids’ program, let Dreams Tulum Resort top your list. The kids’ club is out of this world, including a rock climbing wall (two kids only allowed on the wall at all times, and the staff closely supervises), life-sized board games, and a large play set outdoors; indoors, fun activities abound. It’s open from 10-5, and kids between 4 and 12 are welcome to attend for any or all of that time. Babysitting at reasonable rates is available after hours.
The colonial-style architecture is some of the prettiest we’ve seen at any resort, and the rooms are large and luxurious – plenty big enough for a family of four. There’s a giant beach-side pool and outdoor patios for relaxation – even a chapel for weddings and vow renewals. But what makes Dreams is the beach – two miles of white sand with comfy lounge chairs, umbrellas, sailing, snorkeling . . . the list goes on.
Dreams is an all-inclusive resort, so your kids can eat as many snacks and drink as many virgin daiquiris as they’d like, all day, every day.
Azul Beach, part of the Karisma Hotel chain, offers a five star family vacation with unbelievable pampering. This small boutique hotel is a great choice if you’d like to be near Cancun – it’s only 20 minutes from the airport and 25 from downtown – or if you’re traveling with a baby in tow. The hotel offers everything, and I do mean everything, you could need for a baby, including strollers, baby monitors, baby bathtubs, cribs, changing tables . . . the works!
The kids’ club is also pretty special, with magic shows, marble hunts on the beach, sand castle building, shell collecting, and pizza making. They even have pajama and marshmallow parties at night.
But what makes Azul Beach is the service. Rather than “all-inclusive,” the resort calls itself “gourmet-inclusive.” What this means for you: beach butlers to cater to your every whim, family buffets on the sparkling beach, premium alcohol for the adults, and unlimited gourmet dining.
Dining and Shopping with Kids
Wherever you stay, don’t miss the charming town of Playa del Carmen. Ajua, right on the main drag in the center of it all, offers Mexican and Continental cuisine. The food’s great, but even better is the live band that encourages kids to dance. Zoe’s favorite part? The waiters bring your drinks balanced on their heads.
Near Ajua are many shops where you can buy reasonably priced Mexican pottery (I bought four large, hand-painted platters for about $60 USD), jewelry (check out the gorgeous silver and lapis), and souvenirs (Zoe went for a Mexican doll – about $10 USD).
Be prepared for the fact that the town stays awake late, as do most Mexican children, and yours will want to join the fun. Zoe was exhausted on our flight home in the morning – many leave as early as 7:30 a.m., and you have to get there two hours before – because she danced the night away in Playa del Carmen. Was it worth it? You bet. Zoe’s already planning our next trip – she’s dying to explore the Mayan temples.
If You Go:
- Do rent a car. Playa del Carmen is about 45 minutes from the Cancun airport and many hotels and parks are further; you’ll want flexibility to explore the area.
- Don’t miss getting away from the main drag. The cenotes, the Mayan villages, and eco parks are what make this region worth a special trip.
- Take the fast ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. The island boasts incredible beaches as well as snorkeling, fishing, and sailing expeditions.
- Even if they tell you the water’s safe, stick with bottled water. Originally, our resort said that the water was fine, but they then recommended that we spit it out quickly when we brushed our teeth. That was enough for this mom. Drinking only bottled water, we had no tummy issues at all, making Zoe a much happier camper.
- Bring biodegradable sunscreen from the U.S., and realize that some sites allow no sunscreen at all. Many of the ecological parks, including Xel-ha and X-caret, will confiscate your regular sunscreen because of its impact on their water sources. However, while they have samples of the biodegradable variety, they’re reluctant to part with them (they offered us one small ketchup-sized packet for the two of us). Zoe’s favorite part of our entire trip was swimming in the cenotes, but she had quite a sunburn to show for it afterwards.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. Visiting the eco-parks involves a huge amount of walking over rough paths and rocks – but it’s worth it! The scenery and underground rivers are spectacular.
- Bring a notarized letter from your child’s other parent if you’re traveling solo with your little one. According to the immigration authorities, “The U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service has begun cracking down on single adults departing the United States with children, at the request of international border officials trying to halt the transport of runaways and children involved in child-custody disputes.” While I wasn’t asked for my letter, Zoe volunteered it to the official.
- Winter time is perfect; watch out for hurricanes in fall. Although winter is certainly the high season, it’s when the weather’s best. In April, when we traveled, it was hot and humid (average 88 degrees) but sunny. June, September, and October have the highest risk of rain and hurricanes.
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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