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How to Have the Perfect Family Vacation on the Riviera Maya

By AFAR Editors

09.10.19

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Just add water for a vacation of exploration, culture, and fun.

Photo by Guillermo Diaz Mier y Teran/Unsplash

Just add water for a vacation of exploration, culture, and fun.

This stretch of Mexican beach paradise achieves what many destinations can only wish for: something special for every member of the family.

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Sure, it’s easy to keep kids happy on the beach. But when you visit a region as rich in culture and adventure as the Riviera Maya, you should definitely expose the children to more than the Caribbean sun. In addition to spectacular beaches, the Yucatán Peninsula has a cuisine that favors freshness. It has active archeological sites, jungle adventure parks, and azure rivers running right beneath the ground. In short, giddy exploration, accidental learning (the kind you don’t have to force), and true getaway fun await your family. 

Caves, pyramids, jungles, underground waterways: curious kids will be spoiled for choice on the Riviera Maya.

Choose an active day 

The Riviera Maya is famous for its white-sand beaches, but it’s also become a destination for active adventure. Dense forest covers much of the region, making it ideal for zip-lining; private adventure parks have been set up to take advantage. Xplor Park in Playa del Carmen invites participants to interact with the beautiful natural setting while whooping and swooping through the treetops. For a big thrill over the water, Garrafón Natural Reef Park on Isla Mujeres has a zip line that spins out 100 feet above the Caribbean.

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Several outfitters offer half-day zip-line trips that include lunch and, in some cases, a post-zip dip in one of the Riviera Maya’s famous sinkholes, called cenotes. Cenotes are deep, clear pools and rivers that run underground—some, like those at Xcaret, Río Secreto, and Cenote Dos Ojos are set up so visitors can rent life-vests and snorkeling equipment before taking the plunge. (Hot parental tip: Before you mention the adventure parks to the kids, call ahead or ask your hotel concierge if there are any age restrictions where you want to go. Sometimes the more extreme activities are limited to older kids.)

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Everyone likes to bike, right? Use the deliciously flat landscape to your advantage. Some resorts, like the five big ones clustered at Mayakoba, provide bikes to guests to get around the expansive property. But cycling is also a great way to get out and sightsee. Cruise Cancún’s wide and easy Ciclopista path to check out the town. Isla Mujeres, an enjoyable 15-minute ferry ride from Cancún, is best explored on a bike: Freestyle it or sign up for a guided bike tour at Garrafón Natural Reef Park. (In this steamy climate, bike during the cooler early mornings and have plenty of drinking water on hand.)

Explore ancient and modern Maya

Maya people have a long history in the region and today, approximately half a million Maya still live on the Yucatán Peninsula. There are different ways to learn about the culture’s long history during your visit, including through traditional performances offered at some of the hotels and resorts. The Maya de Cancún Museum celebrates the ancient Mayan civilization and, together with the San Miguelito archaeological site next door, offers an overview of the empire that flourished in this area more than 800 years ago.

If a stop at that museum-and-dig piqued their interest in ancient archeology, a visit to the Mayan temples and other historic stone structures is a great way to capitalize on curiosity. The most famous, Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is 120 miles from Cancún, but if you have enough time, it’s well worth spending the day to investigate the sacred spot. A little closer to the hotel zone along the Riviera Maya, the walled city of Tulum, El Rey Archaeological Zone, and Cobá offer a family-friendly look into Mexico’s ancient past. Little ones will especially enjoy Cobá and El Rey, stone ruins where climbing is permitted. Take heed, though: The narrow steps are treacherous.

Say si by the seashore 

Don’t miss spending a lazy day on one of many area beaches. Soak up the sun (with sunscreen, of course), read a book, or drink a margarita or piña colada while the kids build sand castles or play in the waves. Many hotels have their own private beach intended for the exclusive use of resort guests. If you get bored with lounging, ask your hotel concierge about local outfitters that offer water sports instruction or gear rentals. Surfing and kiteboarding are both popular pursuits for visitors.

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Few travel experiences, though, resonate as deeply with kids (and adults) as meeting the people who live where you’re vacationing. Stop by Las Palapas Park, where everyone can try classic Yucatecan dishes and the kids can spend time at the playground with their Mexican contemporaries. In addition, the stalls here are a great place to shop for crafts and souvenirs. Families with small kids can also mingle with locals on Playa Langosta, a popular beach for its playground and calm waters.

Eat all the kid-friendly food

Tacos and quesadillas are as familiar to most modern kids as tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches were to their parents, so finding kid-friendly food is a breeze along this stretch of the Yucatán Peninsula. You may even be successful in getting them to stretch a bit: The sweet bite of pineapple in the tacos al pastor at La Parrilla will go over big (as will the strolling mariachi musicians). 

Breakfast enjoyed alfresco (or just inside the mouth of an ersatz cave) at La Cueva del Chango can be as simple and comforting as scrambled eggs with steaming hot tortillas or crepes with Nutella, or as authentic as chilaquiles topped with a mole or salsa. The restaurant’s garden-bound grounds and monkey iconography invite a bit of postprandial wandering while adults finish their meals.

Another option, of course, is to let an expert plan your experience. AFAR's trusted tour partner, Context Travel, can take you and your clan out for a private tour of the area with a local historian or anthropologist. The tour will be customized to fit your interests, whether cultural, historical, or purely adventurous.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Cancún and the Riviera Maya

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