This Luxury Resort in Mexico Wants to Ease Kids’ Stress
During the pandemic, Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita launched KidsWell to help alleviate younger guests’ stress and anxiety. Now, the program continues to focus on mental health while offering a deeper understanding of the destination, too.
“I. Don’t. Want. To. Go. See. Whales!!” my four-year-old daughter screamed as we walked through the otherwise serene, open-air lobby of the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. At a little before 9 a.m., the sun had just lifted above the horizon, casting long shadows of palm trees across the perfectly groomed grounds. Waves were gently cresting onto the still quiet beach, and a handful of resort guests were wandering about with their sights set on coffee and breakfast. A heartfelt apology to these still bleary-eyed vacationgoers for the rude awakening—but Catalina was not having any of it.
I gave my husband that stoic look of parents who don’t need to say a word to understand the mutually shared language of “WTF.” Forever the more embarrassed one, I thought about turning back. Maybe one of us could just take our more easy-going six-year-old son, Niko, on the morning whale-watching adventure, and the other could take our daughter to go do what she really wanted to do that morning—and every morning, and every hour of every day—head to the swimming pool.
And who could blame her. Just below the lobby, a beautiful infinity-edge pool overlooking the dramatic cliffs and soft sandy beaches of this idyllic stretch of the Pacific Ocean beckoned. Or maybe on that particular morning, she was still dreaming about her other favorite watering hole, the resort’s lazy river, where the current would endlessly carry us around a central island of rain forest flora as we drifted along on our inner tubes without a care in the world.
But the fact of the matter was: We would not be turning away from our whale-watching outing. We didn’t fly from Northern California (where we live) to Los Angeles and on to Puerto Vallarta, rent a car and venture 45 minutes north along the western coast of Mexico just to sit around the pool all day. Sure, there would be pool and beach time. But we came all this way to begin exploring further outside our pandemic-induced bubble and to experience a new place, to better understand the people and culture, and to open our eyes more fully to the world around us. There is no shortage of amazing resorts with fantastic pools in California. If all we wanted to do was hang out at the pool, we didn’t need to come to Mexico.
My daughter, however, wasn’t convinced about our lofty goals. At least not yet.
In 2022, countless families who had scaled back on vacations with children who had endured months of isolation and distance learning began to venture back out into the world.
And as those families returned to hotels like Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Erika Ibarra Zepeda, who was brought on in early 2022 to oversee the newly reemerging Kids for All Seasons programming at the property (the Four Seasons equivalent of a kids club), saw something different in them.
“After the pandemic, we noticed the kids returning on vacation . . . were on their own,” said Zepeda, who had observed that kids and families were keeping more to themselves. Drawing on her background in psychology and children’s studies, Zepeda developed a new KidsWell program last year. The first and only such program at a Four Seasons property, KidsWell puts a focus on kids’ mental health, offering them ways to reduce stress and anxiety by connecting with nature, culture, and one another.
“All the pandemic was just being at home,” said Zepeda, explaining that for many kids, arriving at the property was their first time going farther afield and interacting with other kids and families on a day-to-day basis. “This program was thinking about how we can help the kids, but at the same time how we can share with them a lot of knowledge about our culture, about this place, about the animals, about the local fauna that we have.”
Zepeda said she began to develop activities aimed at easing stress that could help children navigate their emotions, including expressing themselves through art inspired by local traditions, learning meditation, practicing and enhancing positivity, taking nature walks, and cooking. She was also determined to help children who’d been isolated resocialize.
What Zepeda was seeing at the resort, researchers were starting to take note of globally—kids were struggling. At the end of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a mental health advisory for children stating that “during the pandemic, children, adolescents, and young adults have faced unprecedented challenges.”
According to the advisory, “Since the pandemic began, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased.”
For her part, Zepeda was creating a small corner of the world where kids could begin to heal. And even now that more time has passed since the pandemic, Zepeda says the resort maintains the KidsWell program to continue to help young guests connect with each other and with local traditions and nature, while at the same time giving them the tools to combat whatever challenges they may face.
By the time we arrived in Punta Mita earlier this year, both my son and daughter had been back at in-person school for around two years. I’m hopeful that whatever effects the pandemic did have on them won’t be lasting—but time will tell. The idea of a kids program focused on uplifting, empowering, and enriching them was appealing to me, however, both because it checked off some of our goals in terms of helping them better understand the region through cultural immersion and also because it’s hard to know exactly what kids are going through at any given moment; they often lack the communication skills to spell out their emotional or psychological process.
One effect the pandemic definitely did have on us, and so many other families, was to bring international travel to a grinding halt. Their world had become very small. Our journey to Mexico was Catalina’s first trip outside the country (she was a little over a year old when the pandemic began; we had traveled some with Niko prior to COVID-19) and our first major attempt at beginning to expand that world.
To better help them understand this big and complicated planet, we wanted to make sure that when we went to Mexico, they had a sense of place—of who they are and where they’re from, but more importantly of who the people we encountered in Mexico are, including their culture and customs.
Admittedly, that’s not always easy to do from within the confines of an idyllic, luxury resort. Nevertheless, thanks to the classes and workshops they were signed up for at the resort (including a naturalist-led jungle hike and art and cooking classes), as well as off-property excursions that offered a deeper dive into the area, it felt as though they were beginning to better understand the assignment. So much so that by about the third day, they fully surprised me when I realized we were enrolled in an on-site cultural activity about 15 minutes after they had taken their first dip of the day in the pool.
“Hey guys,” I said, weakly. “How do you feel about going to learn about cool masks?” I asked, practically cringing as I awaited the in-unison reply of, “Nooo!”
“OK!” they said and began to get out of the pool. Mind blown and not wanting to lose an ounce of momentum, I grabbed their towels and water bottles and we started toward the property’s Hakari Cultural Centre, which is part learning center and part art gallery. (It has stunning pieces for sale; the curation of the artwork at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, including vibrant paintings and provocative sculptures all around the property, was among my favorite design details of the resort.) There, cultural concierge Enrique Alejos walked us through the very interesting history of la Catrina, the female skeleton character who is often depicted wearing fancy clothes and is considered to be the origin of the decorated skulls and skeletons that have become a popular symbol of the Day of the Dead. Artist Jose Guadalupe Posada is credited as the first person to draw the iconic skull figure known as la Catrina; and Diego Rivera later depicted her in a Mexico City mural, giving la Catrina even more prominence. I know this because I watched my two kids, still a bit wet from the pool, patiently sit through Posada’s thoughtful explanation. Their reward was getting to make Catrina masks of their own.
The experience made me realize how much kids can actually appreciate and enjoy learning experiences that challenge them to broaden their understanding of the world. Among other things, it charges up their brain and thought process, which can be extremely satisfying when they’re in the right frame of mind for it.
Punta Mita is located in the larger Riviera Nayarit region of Mexico, a 200-mile stretch of coastline that ranges from Puerto Vallarta in the south to San Blas in the north. Right in the middle of that coastal span lies Punta Mita, a 1,500-acre development that’s part residential community and part resorts—it’s home to the Four Seasons we stayed at (which has a nearby adults-only sister property, the Naviva tented camp) and a St. Regis. It’s a well-established, gated community, which for a lot of families can provide an added sense of security. For its part, the 52-acre Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita offers that perfect mix of natural beauty—rich rain forests combined with sandy beaches—and top-notch services, including a serene spa, several upscale restaurants, three pools (there’s also an adult-only option), and the newly opened MEZ Bar with its massive mezcal collection. Families can book one of the recently renovated casita-style guest rooms, private villas, or one of three freshly overhauled beach homes.
On our last day in Punta Mita, we drove our rental car for a day trip to the nearby coastal town of Sayulita (an excursion Four Seasons offers), past tiny roadside villages and dirt roads, giving our kids a more diverse view of the Mexican paradise we had spent the past several days indulging in. In crowded and colorful Sayulita, we roamed through the shops, explored the town square, haggled for ‘80s-style sunglasses, ate delicious wood-fired pizza, and got lost a little among the sights and sounds. It was the perfect less-structured and slightly chaotic complement to our dreamy time on property.
As for that initial, controversial whale-watching excursion in Banderas Bay, to this day Catalina tells the story of how when no one else was looking, she spotted a humpback whale breaching. And a huge smile spreads across her face as if reliving that private moment she had with the whale. Turns out, the pool could wait after all.