Keeping kids busy in the Maya Riviera
One thing I’ve learned since becoming a parent is that my lazy days of sleeping on the beach are over – at least for now. When I was checking out the Riviera Maya, part of our tour was to explore the various family-friendly sights and excursions that the area has to offer. So once the novelty of building sandcastles on the almost 100 miles of white sand along the welcoming Caribbean Sea has worn off, you may feel the need to get out and about. Your kids don’t need to know that they’re actually learning stuff too!
The first place we visited was Xel-Ha (shell-ha), which in Maya translates to “the place where water is born”. Once a port for the ancient Maya, then a base for Spanish forces in the 1500s, Xel-Ha’s location on the coast leads is picturesque, but it’s also where the sea meets the maze of underwater rivers and caves as well as carved out lagoons, that makes it a “natural aquarium”.
For those living the life aquatic, there’s plenty of snorkeling options, as well as Snuba and a lazy river. A highlight for me was swimming with dolphins – children must be a minimum 43″ to participate in the Delphinus program – but it was truly amazing to touch and interact with such an incredible creature. If you or your family are landlubbers, Xel-ha’s 200 acres of tropical forest features many trails that you can access by both foot and bicycle, and you’re bound to see plenty of Toucans, Parrots, lizards and reptiles enjoying the scenery as well. Admittance to Xel-ha is all-inclusive, but not only are your food and drink covered, the price also includes towels, lockers, snorkeling gear, lifejackets, inner tubes and a security bag. Children under 40″ are free and the dolphin swim is extra.
Next on our list was Xcaret (ish-caret), which touts itself as an Eco-archeological theme park. To be honest, it sounded exactly like Xel-Ha, but the two are very different. Xcaret means “small inlet” in Maya, but it’s really anything but. If you’re up for it, Xcaret is a dawn to dusk day out, with something for everyone of every age. We first did the Underground Rivers. Outfitted with a life jacket and snorkel gear, you descend down the river’s entrance and enter the cool freshwater river. A light current drifts you through various rock formations and tunnels. I ended up ditching the snorkel gear (well, just didn’t use it) and floated through on my back. It was relaxing and refreshing, all at the same time. The river is roughly a kilometer long, but there are various exits along the way if you’ve had enough. We were off to the aquarium, and along the way we passed a beautiful beach on top of a cliff (complete with hammocks), the biggest sea turtles I’d ever seen (right under my feet) and several tanks of baby turtles dashing about like Squirt from Finding Nemo, a large lagoon full of snorkelers, and a little man-made beach off the lagoon where tiny tots paddled about. The aquarium was fascinating not only for the scads of beautiful marine life on display, but because there are several spots where you can interact with some of the species. The kids there were thrilled to find the little flounder hiding in the sand amongst the (harmless) baby stingrays. I surprised myself by wanting to stay at Xcaret for longer than was planned. Usually theme parks aren’t my thing, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself even though I kept thinking of how much my daughter would love it there. Apparently the Xcaret Spectacular Night Show lives up to its name, featuring traditional Maya music, rituals and games. As with Xel-Ha, children under 40″ are free at Xcaret, and your admission includes all the attractions (except dolphin swim), as well as life jackets, inner tubes, and security bag. Food is not included, and unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to peek at the prices.
The last day of our stay was a biggie – a full day “Jungle Crossing” excursion run by Alltournative Off-Track Adventures. It started with kayaking out to the reef and it seemed more daunting than it actually was. It also felt good to get a little exercise! Once there, our wonderful guide Diego (my daughter would have loved him!) tied up our kayak and showed us where the best spots to snorkel were. I have to hand it to the Alltournative guides – they do an amazing job herding and keeping track of a fairly large group of people with varying physical abilities. The reef was beautiful, and I saw a number of fish I hadn’t seen before on previous snorkeling excursions to that area. After kayaking back, we had a healthy snack (yogurt, granola and fruit) and headed off to a real highlight of the day – the Unimog ride. These bizarre 4×4 vehicles date back to WWII and can somehow manage to drive up and down incredibly rough terrain – and fast! I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to go on this ride (minimum age for this trip is 6), because I’m definitely going again.
Our destination on the Unimog was the first cenote (see-no-tay) we were to swim in. “Heaven’s Gate” is literally just a hole in the ground with a ladder sticking out, and it was more than a little creepy climbing down. But once inside, my mind was blown. A beautiful cave with stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, and beautiful clear, fresh water to swim in. Incredible. Lunch was next at the small Maya family community near to Heaven’s Gate. Prepared by the Maya women, it was definitely the best meal I’d had so far. Nothing too spicy (or weird for picky eaters), and they even had vegetarian options. Following our (late) lunch was the final swim of the day, at one of the entrances to the Nohoch Nah Chich Cenote system. Lit by only a flashlight, we followed Diego into the dark cavern and swam through. There’s not much clearance for your head, and it’s a little scary when the light dims, but overall the experience was exhilarating. I thought this excursion was incredibly well-priced at $119 USD for adults and $105 USD for children 6-12 – this included all food, pick-up/drop-off at your hotel, life jackets and snorkeling gear. Keep in mind though that it is quite a physical day, and everyone should be a capable swimmer. **note**All-tournative has changed their tour itineraries. Please double check at their website for the excursion you want.**
Playa del Carmen was our final stop in the Riviera Maya for a farewell dinner in town. While it may not appear at first sight to be a family restaurant, Ajua Maya is run by Brenda and Jorge Alfaro, and my heart melted at the sight of their toddler granddaughter dancing to the live Latin music. Brenda and Jorge’s story is romantic and inspiring to say the least. She’s from Virginia, he’s from Chiapas, they met in Cozumel and married the following year. The restaurant became theirs in 2001, and recently Brenda’s son and young family moved down from the States to help with the business. Ajua Maya is fun, friendly and warm, and the dishes range from traditional Mexican and Maya, to North American favourites. Conveniently, the dining chairs can be made into a bed if your little ones tucker out before you do – and if you’re lucky enough to have kids that will sleep when there’s fun going on!
One quick thing of note: you’ll need lots of sunscreen and it’s best (and less expensive) to bring it from home. For Xel-Ha and Xcaret, you need to use an organic/biodegradable formula. They do offer sachets that I found worked surprisingly well, but parents that seemed to have the most peace of mind where the sun was concerned were those whose kids were in full SPF swimwear. For the Jungle Crossing excursion, no sunscreen is allowed. Not a big deal in the cenotes but protection is necessary for the kayaking and snorkeling. Again, a full sunsuit and a hat will protect you and your kids without harming the delicate eco-system.
The Latin countries I’ve visited have always embraced families warmly, Mexico being no exception. The Riviera Maya combines the culture of Mexico with the beauty of the Caribbean, and it’s a great option for a family getaway. It also meets my top two criteria for taking kids anywhere: safe & clean. I missed my daughter terribly on this trip, but I was excited to see so many great places we can explore together one day.