Mexico’s Riviera Maya is an astounding stretch of land that runs 75 miles along the Mexican Caribbean coastline beginning at Puerto Morelos, a small seaside fishing village about 10 miles south of Cancun. It extends south of Tulum, where breathtaking ocean views meet ancient Mayan ruins. The weather is usually phenomenal and the beaches gorgeous, so vacationing families can easily spend their holiday as beach bums. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should — this area is so rich in culture and history. The following are some suggestions so families can fit in some fun-filled mental stimulation, along with all the relaxation:
1. Snorkel the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef
The area is home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which starts near Cancun and weaves along the whole length of the Riviera Maya, continuing southward to Guatemala. This barrier reef system is the second longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and offers an extraordinary peek into underwater marine life. The reef is close to shore in many locations, so snorkelers simply swim out and get started exploring the beauty of the dazzling coral. Akumal, located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, is largely regarded as one of the best spots for snorkeling in the area. Another excellent snorkeling location is the Parque Nacional Arrecife in Puerto Morelos, where it’s a short boat ride to see barracuda, huge conch and moray eel. Other sea creatures likely to be spotted near the reef are turtles, whale sharks, sea horses, octopus and stingrays.
2. Explore Mayan Ruins
A Mexican history lesson is a must during a trip to the Mayan Rivieria via the Mayan ruins. Scattered throughout the Mayan Rivieria, what remains of their civilization offer a glimpse into this fascinating culture — and with more than a dozen sites, each has a unique aspect to them. Don’t miss the Tulum ruins, the only ancient Mayan settlement that overlooks the Caribbean and consists of breathtaking views from The Castillo, the tallest building within the settlement.
3. Volunteer & Give Back
Hook up with a Travelfuture’s volunteer day activity where kids learn while contributing and giving back to the communities they are visiting. Each activity benefits a local non profit organization that Travelfuture supports. Some options include making pinatas with local disadvantaged youth, protecting turtle nests and watching baby turtle hatchlings head out to sea and planting seedlings with local school kids to benefit schools in Cozumel.
4. Take an Eco-Friendly Tour
Take a leisurely boat tour through the lagoon on the eco-friendly Mayakoba property, which houses three luxury resorts (Rosewood, Fairmont and Banyan Tree), and is dedicated to preserving its natural surroundings and sustainability. A marine biologist narrates the scenic ride, pointing out mangroves, exotic birds, crocodiles, turtles, fauna and other natural elements, while describing how the team of experts protects the land and extensive wildlife.
5. Cleanse at Temazcal
Experience the ancient tradition of the Temazcal, where our human ancestors cleansed their bodies, minds and spirits. The Temazcal is akin to a steam bath in a darkened cave, mixing a spiritual journey with a spa-like experience. Participants often end the purifying Temazcal with a dive in crystal clear water to refresh and cool off. Found at Xel-Ha Eco Park, Playa del Carmen’s Temazcal Natura and many resorts throughout the Rivieria Maya, this is a stimulating learning experience for teenagers, but may be too intense for smaller children.
6. Tour an Eco-Park
There are several eco parks in the region, including Xel-Ha, XCaret and XPlor, each with their own personalities. These parks are a safe place for children to get acquainted with snorkeling and marine wildlife, while also participating in attractions such as lazy rivers and lively nightly shows. Many describe these parks outdoor aquariums with a variety of activities, such as swimming with dolphins and manatees and interacting with and feeding stingrays.
7. Sing with the Monkeys
The Tulum Monkey Sanctuary is located on a large ranch, also home to white tail deer, turkeys, burros, horses and ducks, along with the spider monkeys frolicking in a natural habitat. Groups are kept very small so the experience is intimate. The tour is especially intriguing for school-aged children who get to experience science class in the jungle.
8. Get Cultured at Art Galleries
Raising a budding Picasso (or more appropriately, Frida Kahlo)? Visit a regional art gallery such as the nature-focused Galeria Luis Sottil in Playa del Carmen or the colorful MINIAtUrE Art Gallery, which opened last year in Tulum.
9. Swim in a Mexican Swimming Hole
Visit one of the thousands of cenotes (natural swimming holes made from limestone), where children get the most enchanting geology class of their lives. Ancient Mayans used these spots for ritualistic sacrifices and believed these mysterious formations might have been entrances to the underworld. But today’s uses are much more pleasant: swimming, diving and exploring. Cenote Azul near Puerto Aventuras is among the best for younger children, with easy access in and out for small swimmers.
10. Visit the Zoo
The Crococun Zoo in Puerto Morelos started out as crocodile farm and is now home to a gaggle of well-loved animals. It’s small, but packed with hands-on opportunities for kids to touch crocodiles and macaws, feed deer and monkeys and learn about preserving and protecting various species.
– Linda Marsicano
Linda Marsicano writes the “Good-to-Go” column for “Chicago Parent”, and is a regular contributor to “Going Places” magazine. She is the mother of twins, Reese and Gracie, who were born in 2007.