Yucatan / Riviera Maya With Kids
With soaring Mayan pyramids fronted by white sand beaches and bright turquoise waters, Mexico’s Caribbean coast, also called the Mayan Riviera or Riviera Maya, is crawling with families with an inkling to explore. But crawl a bit further inland and you’ll find an off-the-beaten path paradise with a history and culture that is unmatched in the Caribbean. Cancun is the anchor of the tourist industry here in the Yucatan and just off shore Isla de Mujeres is coming into its own as tourist destination as well. To the west of Cancun is the ancient Mayan settlement of Chichen Itza and farther west the Spanish colonial town of Merida. To the south of Cancun is the beach town of Playa del Carmen with ferry service to Cozumel, and a bit farther south, the coastal Mayan settlement of Tulum.
Cancun has long been a favorite among the jet set. And with its white sand beaches, warm Caribbean waters and plethora of activities, it’s easy to see why. However, over the years Cancun has become quite built-up and lost a bit of its charm, so many have departed for greener pastures (or should I say sandier beaches) to the south. If you do stay in Cancun, there is plenty to do. The town of Cancun is actually set way back from the tourist area, called the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone is located on a narrow peninsula, which juts south along the coast from the old town. The peninsula is lined with hotels and shopping malls with a mixture of brand name stores and craft markets. La Isla Shopping Center is the newest addition and has a canal running through it where you can rent boats and a huge aquarium, Interactive Aquarium Cancun, where you can swim with dolphins and pet sharks. There are some small Mayan ruins in the Hotel Zone in Cancun, but most people opt for a trip to larger pyramid complexes at Chichen Itza, Tulum or Coba.
Another highlight to a visit to this area of Mexico is seeing a turtle nesting and swimming with whale sharks. If you are visiting during the summer months, it is likely for you to see both of these majestic creatures!
Just across the water from Cancun, and accessible by a short ferry ride, is Isla Mujeres. You can visit as a day trip, but when the day trippers leave, the island really comes to life. The narrow streets of the town are lined with outdoor restaurants and shops with an artistic flair. Even though it is a fairly small island, measuring less than 1 mile across in some spots, it has lots of activities. There is a Turtle Farm, where you can see tiny hatchling turtles as well as their older relatives. The farm raises some of the hatchlings to a bigger size to give them a better chance for survival and some are rescue turtles. If you are into a slightly larger sea animal, Dolphin Discovery offers visitors a chance to swim with dolphins or snorkel with sharks. The shark snorkel is slightly different than others we have seen in that you are not swimming with fairly tame nurse sharks, you are in the water with fairly vicious bull sharks. Not to worry though, there is a large piece of plexiglass separating you. And, come feeding time, you will be happy its there! The snorkeling is great all around the island and at Garrafon Natural Reef Park, you can view under the water with a mask and snorkel and over the water on a zip line.
South of Cancun is an area known as the Mayan Riviera. It is lined with upscale resorts and ecological parks like Xel-ha, where you can also swim with dolphins. Are we sensing a theme here? We passed on the dolphins and took advantage of snorkeling in their vast lagoon and swinging on rope swings and cliff jumping along their jungle pathway. The first major town south of Cancun along the coast is Playa Del Carmen. While it used to be a small town filled with backpackers, it has grown immensely in the past decades and now hosts many huge, all-inclusive resorts and a long pedestrian walkway lined with upscale shops and restaurants. The dock for ferries to Cozumel is here. Further south, you will find the town of Tulum with its famous Mayan pyramids. The town is smaller, and more backpacker oriented with beach bungalows and guest houses lining the beach (see picture). The beach sand in Tulum has a flour-like texture and is beautiful white and bordered turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. One of our favorite tours is near Tulum, a cave snorkel with Hidden Worlds. One of the world’s longest underground rivers runs under the Yucatan, and on this tour, you go below ground to see some of the sites. It was amazing floating along watching stalactites dangling from the ceiling above (sometimes a mere 6 inches above). The park also offers diving, zip lines, rappeling and skycycles (bikes on zip lines). About an hour inland of Tulum is the pyramid complex of Coba. While Tulum is magnificently located overhanging the bright teal waters of the Caribbean Sea, it’s rather small. Coba is huge! So big, they offer rickshaws to transport visitors between each pyramid (which the kids loved). Some of the pyramids are still being excavated, so you can see how they looked before all the dirt and jungle were removed. And you can climb the Grand Pyramid for amazing views over the rainforest.
About an hour ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, Cozumel is another big tourist draw along the Mayan Riviera. Not quite as busy as Cancun (except when the cruise ships dock), but not as laid back as Isla Mujeres, Cozumel offers a good combination of laid-back island life and fun activities. There is tons to see below the waves. In fact, Jacques Cousteau named it one of the best scuba spots in the world. We took an Atlantis Submarine tour 100 feet below the surface to get a look. We saw long, eerie barracuda fish, sharks and teetered at the edge of a deep trench. The kids loved it!
If you are not heading as far as Tulum, but would like to see a Mayan pyramid complex, you are in luck. Chichen Itza is located about two hours inland of Cancun. Its a huge complex that has been well cleared so you can see all the detail of each pyramid and how they are situated in comparison to each other. There are multi-lingual guides available who provide incredible insight into the history of the Yucatan and the indigenous people that once lived here. To learn more about the Spanish colonists that inhabited this land, visit Merida. Another two hours inland, Merida is a traditional Spanish town with a large zocalo (town square) anchored by a church and government buildings. There is a hop-on, hop-off bus that stops at sites like the Archeological Museum.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in the Yucatan/Mayan Riviera
Isla Mujeres: Na Balam is a small hotel located on the sand in Isla Mujeres. It is romantic by nature, but great for kids as well. They loved swinging in the hammocks, resting on the beach beds, playing in the sand and snorkeling just off shore.
Tulum: The beach front cottages at Zahra are perfect for families. The screened in rooms take advantage of the cool ocean breezes and the lack of electricity at night, with candles lit along the paths, makes it feel like an adventure. We had an oceanfront bungalow and literally walked down our stairs onto the beach. The beds were comfy (some even have swinging beds, which the kids thought were cool) and it has just the right combination of rustic luxury.
Chichen Itza: The Hotel and Bungalows Mayaland also did a great job of combining luxury with tradition in their bungalows, which are built in traditional Mayan style, but have modern comforts. The grounds are beautiful with tropical gardens traversed by stone pathways and punctuated by fountains and a pool. And the location is unbeatable with a private pathway to access Chichen Itza’s ruins.
Merida: Oozing with Spanish colonial style, Hotel Casa de Balam is an artistic creation on its own. The lobby is beautifully decorated with intricate carving and tiling and rocking chairs line the breezy hallways. The kids loved coming back to the pool in the afternoons after a day of sightseeing.
Getting to the Yucatan/Mayan Riviera
Many of the major airlines fly to Cancun from such hubs as Miami, Dallas and Atlanta. The national airline is Aeromexicoand it has daily flights from many cities in the U.S. and Mexico. Also try TACA Airlines for great fares from Miami and Central and South America. Cancun and Cozumel are major stops for cruise ships. You can also get to the Yucatan/Mayan Riviera by car or bus. The major bus line for the region in ADO, which offers bus passes for travel throughout the region from places as far as Mexico City and Veracruz.
Getting Around the Yucatan/Mayan Riviera
Although the Yucatan has no passenger train system, it is traversed by roads. Many of the roads, especially in the more off-the-beaten path areas, are narrow and filled with potholes if paved at all. However, there is a wide toll highway connecting Cancun with Merida and the road from Cancun to Tulum is in good shape as well. There is a very good bus system in the Yucatan. ADO is the main company, but there are smaller ones as well. The long distance bus station in Cancun is modern and clean with signs in English and Spanish. Traveling on public buses in Mexico is usually very safe and a great way to get around with kids. There is also a collectivo, shared mini-van taxi, that runs between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. If you are not comfortable on the bus, or would like more freedom, most major rental car companies have offices in the Hotel Zone.
Cancun has a public bus system that is easy to ride and cheap (when we were there it was 25 cents per ride). The end destination of the bus is marked on the front window.