Playa del Carmen’s pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue has exploded with chic shops, upscale restaurants and upbeat nightclubs in recent years, and it’s become quite the magnet for party-hearty tourists during the wee hours, especially around spring break. Despite Playa’s reputation for drawing the hedonistic party-crowd, there is a world of exciting outdoor, historic and cultural experiences throughout the Riviera Maya that is ideal for families looking to spend quality time together. Here’s a sampling of things to do with kids along Mexico’s east coast on the Caribbean Sea, from Puerto Morelos in the north to Tulum in the south:
X-named Adventure Theme Parks
No, that’s not X as in X-rated. There are three different “theme parks” (loose term) that all start with the letter “X” along the Riviera Maya: Xcaret, Xel-ha and Xplor. Each has a different vibe, so if you’ve seen one, it’s not as if you’ve seen them all. Xplor is definitely adventure themed, with ziplines, swimming and paddling in underground cenotes, and amphibious vehicles to drive (that is, adults can drive them; kids are passengers). Xcaret introduces visitors to Mexico’s culture with its archaeological sites and exciting stage show that traces Mexico’s history through song and dance; but there are also options for lagoon snorkeling and viewing animals like manatees, jaguars and flamingos. Xel-ha has some great opportunities for snorkeling, tubing down a river, swimming with dolphins and more. Entrance to these theme parks isn’t cheap, so plan to spend the entire day at any of the parks.
Snorkeling with Sea Turtles in Akumal Bay
Akumal Bay is calm, clear and home to a bunch of mellow sea turtles. It’s a great place for even younger children to wade out with snorkel gear and spot them in the tranquil waters. The bay is huge, which is great, since it’s a popular place for relaxation and recreation, but be prepared for crowds. You can rent gear or sign up for a guided snorkeling trip with Akumal Dive Shop. While you’re in the area, consider a meal at La Vida Loca, which has a fun ship’s nest for kids to climb up to, as well as an in-ground pool for patrons to swim in (convenient for rinsing off that salty ocean water after snorkeling).
Tour Ancient Ruins at Tulum
Tulum is the area’s most impressive set of Maya ruins, and its location by the ocean is absolutely spectacular. Definitely bring your swimsuits to jump in the ocean after a tour of the ruins in the hot sun; there is little shade at this archeological site. I’d recommend Tulum for school-age children and I suggest a tour with an on-site guide to get the most out of seeing the ancient buildings and understanding their purpose.
Ascend a temple at Coba
Coba is another ancient Maya site; although its inland location isn’t nearly as scenic as Tulum, I like Coba because you can actually climb up one of the most prominent temples, Nohoch Mul. The ascent is steep (and dare I say a bit scary), but the views from the top are impressive. In order to get to Nohoch Mul, which is set in the jungle, you can either rent (rusty) bikes or hitch a ride in a pedi-cab.
Croco Cun Zoo
Is it hokey and small? Yes. But is it entertaining for young children? Absolutely. Years ago my five-year-old daughter got a kick out of getting close to crocodiles and holding a big ol’ snake around her neck. (Mexican liability rules are a bit more lax than those in the United States, it seems.) Visitors to the Croco Cun Zoo interact with the animals as much (or as little) as they’d like on a guided tour that lasts just over an hour. If you’re looking for a break from the beach and some wholesome entertainment, I’d recommend heading to this rustic zoo near Puerto Morelos.
The Riviera Maya in Mexico is such an affordable beach vacation; don’t let your preconcieved notions of spring break youth deter you from bringing your family here. Warm temperatures, historic culture and fun in the outdoors make this a great bonding experience for everyone in the family!
Kara Williams writes on family travel, spas, winter sports, luxury travel and outdoor adventures for Luxury Las Vegas, American Eagle’s Latitudes, Ski Canada, Denver Life, the Denver Post, and more.
She co-founded TheVacationGals.com with her friends and fellow bloggers, Jennifer Miner and Beth Blair. The Vacation Gals has won several notable travel writing awards, including Best Travel Blog at the 2012 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition sponsored by the SATW Foundation.