The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, also known as the Riviera Maya, is a popular tourist destination often visited from Cancun, a city planned and built for tourists. The main attraction is usually the beaches, but whatever you’re looking for you can find it somewhere in the Riviera Maya, from zip-lining adventure tours to Circ de Soleil stage shows. There is something for everyone here, including kids.
We visited for a week with our three girls last February, Rory age 4, Chenoa age 16, and June who would have her 6th birthday there. Preferring a more authentic local experience for our three girls we headed about 2 hours south of Cancun and rented a house in the small community of Chan Chemuyil, located almost halfway between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. It is an American/Canadian ex-pat community just outside of the small Mexican town of Chemuyil, a good mix of cultures. We rented a car to get around, but we also learned how to use public transportation: if you go out to the highway one of the buses or collectivos will stop and pick you up, just tell them where you need to go.
We enjoyed feeling like we lived there, cooking in our house and driving ourselves around. We didn’t bring a lot of toys, just some small My Little Pony figurines and Ipods. We wanted the girls to engage with their environment, not look for their usual entertainment, and they adjusted easily.
There were boogie boards provided with our rental house and the girls loved using them at the nearby beaches. We had taken them to the pool at home every weekend to prepare them for all the swimming in pools, oceans and cenotes on this trip, but at times we still used lifejackets for safety. Chenoa and June learned to snorkel, but 4 year old Rory wasn’t interested in that part, preferring to paddle around on the surface.
Where To Go
There are hundreds of Mayan ruins spread across Mexico and Belize in various states of excavation. The first one we explored was Muyil, a lesser-known ruin on the southern coast of Mexico. There was hardly anyone else there when we visited and we roamed freely over the ancient stone buildings, the kids sometimes interested and sometimes in a hurry to move on.
Next we visited the ocean-side ruins of Tulum, finding it more manicured and crowded but still impressive. Standing above the waves next to the castle-like buildings is an amazing experience at any age. We declined hiring a guide to allow the kids to roam freely, but for those interested in details and history they can book a tour beforehand or hire a guide at the gate that speaks English or Spanish as you prefer.
The towns along the coast each have a unique personality. Puerto Morelos plays the part of sleepy fishing village but it is growing. We especially liked visiting Alma Libre, a bookstore on the square where you can buy, sell or trade, meaning they have books from all over the world in a variety of languages.
Playa del Carmen seemed too much of a party spot and we didn’t stay long. Akumal was a more expensive paradise, but we went mainly for the beaches and the famous turtles. Lunch at La Buena Vida was a nice afternoon break, complete with hammocks to relax in. The city of Tulum was a bit of a backpacker haven full of hippie-types but the food was amazing and the shopping plentiful. We had our first Argentinian Steaks at Parrilla Argentina and my Iowa farm-raised husband was blown away.
The Best Part
For June’s 6th birthday we took her to Puerto Morelos and toured Crococun. Originally a crocodile breeding farm it has expanded into a kind of zoo of local animal life with a guide who takes you through and teaches about each animal. We held baby crocodiles and snakes, petted lizards, fed parrots and deer, learned about coatis and ancient Mayan dogs, and were followed everywhere by a troupe of wild spider monkeys looking for a handout.
It was especially thrilling to walk through the large croc enclosure with nothing between us and them – our guide assured us that they were well fed and not interested in us, but being so close is amazing and nerve-wracking at the same time. There are signs telling you to keep a grip on your children!
Three Things You Should Definitely Do
1. The beaches are great, but the freshwater cenotes are unique to this area. Considered sacred places by the Mayans many are now open to swim and snorkel in, and some are deep enough for cave diving. When you visit one you immediately understand how they came to be considered holy spots.
2. Mayan ruins are a way to experience ancient history up close, but they are also beautiful and interesting even if you skip the history lesson. There are lots of options, some rugged and some paved. You can explore most of the Tulum ruins with a stroller.
3. Crococun is an up close and personal animal encounter that really should not be missed. It’s easily accessible from Cancun, where most people will be flying in and out, so no matter where you spend the bulk of your trip you can stop by when coming or going.
Amelia Lynch is the founder of The Everyday Journey blog.