Follow the coast south of Cancun, and you come to a spot where the rich history of the Mayan people clashes with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean making for a colorful and memorable vacation for the whole family. Off-the-beaten path, the Riviera Maya feels adventurous (think Indiana Jones), but spares no comfort to the wandering tourist. We ventured down this coast while filming Travel With Kids Mexico: The Yucatan. I have fond memories of climbing pyramids like those at Coba and Tulum and enjoying the amazing wildlife both on shore (the kids loved the huge green iguanas sunbathing on the pyramid rocks) and in the water (we snorkeled with colorful fish and watched sea turtles laying their eggs).
Cancun offers fun-tastic, action-packed vacations, but if you want to get away from the crowds, and really feel like you are exploring the area, head a bit further south. About two hours south of Cancun is Tulum. Home to one of the most photographed Mayan pyramids (due to its location on a cliff hanging over the Caribbean Sea), Tulum hosts the perfect combination of history, culture and family-friendly activities.
What to Do: Mayan Pyramids: The huge ancient cities of the Mayan people make this Caribbean Coast unique. Hike through the forest where an opening leads to vast green fields dotted with soaring stone pyramids. Our favorite was Coba. It’s about an hour from Tulum and is still being excavated, so the jungle is right there, a living part of the display. It has a much more adventure-y feel with vines covering pyramid stones and yet to be excavated mounds lurking in the shadows. It’s a huge pyramid complex, so locals on three wheel rickshaws can make transport around the grounds easier on the whole family. Other popular pyramids along this coast include Tulum and Chichen Itza (about an hour and a half inland from Cancun).
Snorkeling: The Mayan Riviera hosts several marine parks like Xel-ha and Xcaret. These parks have lots of colorful tropical fish and other marine animals in sheltered and enclosed lagoons, making snorkeling easy for kids as well as animal life abundant. We went to Xel-ha where the kids enjoyed climbing rope bridges, swinging from vines and cliff jumping. Of course, you can also join a snorkel tour or just go snorkeling right off many of the beaches here and see breathtaking underwater scenery.
One unique snorkeling trip the kids still talk about is with Hidden Worlds. Hidden Worlds takes guests on a tour of one of the longest underground rivers in the world. Don snorkel gear, climb stories below ground to explore beautiful caves where you can float just feet below amazing stalactite formations.
Shopping: About 40 minutes north of Tulum, Playa del Carmen’s famous 5th Avenue offers excellent shopping. Wander the pedestrian-only streets through vibrant boutique shops where vendors sell everything from inexpensive souvenirs to top-rate jewelry and fashion. We gave the kids a few pesos and they enjoyed negotiating prices and getting to know the locals. They also loved posing for pictures with parrots and iguanas along the street. You can also take the ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel (less than an hour; leaves every couple hours, $14 adults/$9 kids) for full day of shopping, or check out the sea from a hundred feet below aboard Atlantis Submarine.
Where To Stay: The coast near Tulum is lined with beach bungalows, but for an exceptional family vacation, try Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa. The spacious rooms and suites are set up with families in mind and pamper guests with incrediblle views of the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean or the lush jungles of the Yucatan. The resort is just five minutes from the Mayan pyramids and offers a splendid line up of on-site activities including sailing, kayaking, snorkeling, tennis and more. The Explorer’s Club for Kids has lots of fun activities for the kid in everyone including rock wall, big-screen movies on the beach and sandcastle building contests.
How To Get There: There are lots of flights from the U.S. to Cancun, but keep in mind Tulum is two hours south of there. While you can do it on your own, it is easier, especially with kids, to have transfers pre-set. Apple Vacations’ program offers assistance with your entire vacation from start to end. They arrange airfare, hotel, activities and all transfers in-between. Plus, they have an English speaking representative to help you out along your way.
To find out what we did on our trip to the Mayan Riviera, watch Travel With Kids Mexico: The Yucatan. or visit Travel With Kids for more information.