Growing up in Texas and living much of my adult life in California it was a shock to most people that I had never made it to our next door neighbor Mexico. I had always wanted to go, but more distant places always won me over. With a long weekend on the horizon and credit card miles to burn, we finally made the plunge and headed to the Riviera Maya region of Mexico for a quick visit.
The Riviera Maya stretches along the eastern coast of Mexico starting in Cancun, extending through Playa del Carmen to Tulum in the south. Growing up, for me, this region of Mexico was synonymous with spring break partying (think Senor Frogs in Cancun!), but what I didn’t realize is that just down the coast is an abundance of culture, historic sights and beautiful clear water to explore.
Whether your family’s idea of a perfect vacation involves lazy days at the beach, active days exploring every nook and cranny of the local culture or a combination, think about Mexico’s Riviera Maya for your next getaway. With miles and miles of soft sand to play in and clear, warm Caribbean water to swim in, the Riviera Maya is an amazing family destination. From lazing on the beach to swimming with turtles in Akumal and climbing Mayan ruins, there is something for everyone.
1. Climb Coba Ruins
Get off the beaten path with a visit to one of the regions most delightful Mayan ruins, especially for families. While the ruins at Tulum are “look but don’t touch”, the ruins at Coba are all about experiencing, touching and climbing! Take your time to wander through the trees and jungle and up/on many of the structures. For a vision of what nature has done to these temples, take a step off the path and venture around the corner to see rocks strewn around as tree roots reclaim this land as their own.
Save the big pyramid (Nohoch Mul) until last – not because it is a hike but rather because scaling it is a highlight. The view from the top isn’t spectacular, you mostly just see dense jungle with only one other structure peaking through, but it’s the exhilaration of the climb that makes it all worth it!
If your kids can ride bikes, think about hiring them to explore the park at your leisure. Otherwise, hire a “driver” to cruise you around on their own bike. It is worth it in the oppressive humidity that seems to be always present here.
2. Swim with Turtles at Akumal
One of the greatest (and free!) activities we came across during our time in the Riviera Maya was swimming with turtles at Akumal. The crystal clear water was perfect, even for our then 3 year old who couldn’t snorkel. It was even better for us with our snorkel masks on. Seeing the massive, beautiful turtles swimming below us was amazing. Our son was a bit nervous at first, but once he saw that they weren’t bothered with us as long as we didn’t touch them, he was fine to float on top peering down below.
The beach at Akumal is well equipped with food, bathrooms and stalls where you can rent your snorkel equipment if you didn’t bring your own. My main recommendation would be to bring life jackets for small kids who might get tired of treading water!
3. Explore Tulum
Tulum is an amazing place to visit and stay during your time on the coast. If you only have a short amount of time to explore, find a spot on the beach and relax! The white powdery sand and crystal blue water will cure you of all your ills.
While in the area, make sure to try some of the best (albeit overpriced!) fish tacos at the tourist favorite Mateos. Potter around exploring the shops, cafe’s and beachside restaurants in between sand castle building and swimming. Want to check out where the locals eat? Head to El Camellos in the village for tasty, cheap fish tacos cooked to perfection.
If you don’t think you will have time to make it to Coba, but want to check out some ruins, head to the ruins in Tulum. Be aware, the walk down can be a bit scary for little kids. Enjoy checking out the ruins while overlooking the beautiful blue water below. If you brought your swim gear, head down to the beach for a cool down.
Tulum is a elegant hippy center with fancy eco-resorts, yoga and all that your inner hippy requires. Take time to enjoy it all!
4. Trek Around Xcaret
Not usually one for theme parks while traveling, we had an extra day with no real plans, so we decided to give in to the many advertisements and check out Xcaret. I have to say, it ended up being one of our favorite activities during the trip. I feared it was an eco-disneyland, but really it provided a condensed and easy to see version of Mayan culture, the abundant nature found in Mexico as well as providing fun outlets for the entire family. Read more about our favorites on our review of Xcaret.
5. Dive into a Cool Blue Cenote
Snorkeling in a Cenote (a natural cave filled with fresh water) is a fun and unique way to see underwater life. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of these underwater sinkholes in the region, which makes it difficult to chose just one to visit!
Have fun exploring Cenotes all day on a tour (check out Rio Secreto) or map out some to visit on your own. Prices vary from $5-10 per person. Some are massively developed and include changing areas, food options, hammocks and more, while some are literally just limestone collapsed caves in the middle of the jungle.
The water is typically very chilly, which is refreshing on a hot day, but can be too much for some children. Bring plenty of towels, dry clothes and snacks to refuel.
Need a recommendation? Check out Gran Cenote which has shallow areas for small kids and is a great introduction to cenotes.
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