I’m a big fan of what I like to call “sunny location vacations.” Sometimes families just need them, and trust me, you’ll know it when the time comes. They’re different than ski trips or adventures in Europe. Sure, families still get to visit a great and sometimes new destination, but the trip tends to focus more on resting and relaxing with less emphasis on doing. The key is throwing in just the right amount of organized activities to keep anyone from getting bored. Mexico’s Riviera Maya offers a nice family-friendly mix.
Most families will arrive in the Riviera Maya via the Cancun International Airport, and for most it’s the closest they’ll ever actually get to Cancun. My suggestion, grab the kids, the bags and head south. If you’re creating your own itinerary, a rental car is the easiest way to move from one place to the next, but cabs are readily available and many popular spots offer tourist shuttles that pick up from most major hotels.
What time you land, determines how much beach time you get the first day. Not far from Puerto Morelos, Bahia Petempich scores big points with families because you can get from the airport to your hotel room often in less than 20 minutes. From the road, you wouldn’t even know this stretch of coast exists, and when you make the turn toward the water you still might question if you’re headed to the right place. The area of mangroves between the road and the beach will take almost half of the drive from the airport, even longer if your driver takes the bumpy roadway very slowly.
There are a number of hotels and resorts on Bahia Petempich, which means you will not have the sand to yourself, but with the area’s popularity comes with other advantages. Most of the resorts have lifeguards on duty and offer all sorts of water sports and activities like sailing and kayaking. Some of the hotels even have playgrounds right on the beach. During turtle nesting season, expect to see nests marked and enclosed for protection. The fragile nests are checked regularly, allowing for great learning opportunities and the amazing possibility of being on vacation when the hatchlings emerge.
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Puerto Morelos Reef National Park lies just off shore Bahia Petempich. Small boats leave from the beach for the 10 minute or so trip out to the reef. On most snorkeling trips, the getting to and from the swimming location takes so much time, you have to allow for at least half the day. Since the National Park is so close, it doesn’t have to take a huge chunk out of your day.
A quick trip out, about an hour long swim with hundreds of fish, then back on the boat and back to shore. It’s long enough for older kids to see what lives below the surface, while at the same time short enough for parents to get away by themselves.
All of the wildlife is a huge selling point to Bahia Petempich. Along with the turtles and reef, birds are everywhere. Go for a walk, just about any time of day and you’re pretty much guaranteed a show. Egrets, herons, pelicans and so many other types of birds. No binoculars required, though I’d have a camera handy. Watching a hungry pelican dive-bomb for lunch will stop you in your sandy tracks.
When I arrived at Maroma Beach it was past dinner time and already dark. I still wandered to the beach to put my feet in the warm sand, but knew I’d be up at the crack of dawn for the real deal. I was and it didn’t disappoint. There’s no lifeguard, but this quiet beach is a nice place for families to soak up some sun and forget what day of the week it is. Maroma Beach is also the hub for a number of popular visitor activities including horseback riding, camel rides and swimming with dolphins.
If your family includes tweens and teens, you might want to think about a day or two in Playa del Carmen. It’s touristy without screaming spring breakers welcome. The heart of the city is pedestrian friendly 5th Avenue or la Quinta Avenida. You’ll find a little bit of everything here. Souvenir shops and some name brands intermixed with restaurants, bars and homemade food stands. Some places have set prices, other leave room for negotiating.
Parque Fundadores or Founders Park is just steps off the beach and offers a playground with a view that is hard to beat. And depending on when you visit you may get to see some amazing sand sculptures being created by Argentinian Artist, Jose Gonzalez. Look for him and his works of art directly in front of Founders Park, where it meets up with the sand.
If you’re just spending the day, wear good shoes for strolling, but bring everything you’ll need to hit the beach as well. The north end of the beach is a working beach of sorts, with fishing nets in the sand and fishing boats anchored in the surf. A bit south, beach front restaurants and hotels extend well into the sand, but there’s still plenty of places to throw down a towel and sand toys. The beach is open and widest at the south end close to where you can catch the ferry to Cozumel.
The boats are hard to miss; you can see them come and go from the beach. It’s a little less than an hour’s ride. If you’ve got shoppers in your group, there’s plenty to keep them entertained in Cozumel, including some name brands they’ll probably recognize.
Still heading south, the Mayan ruins of the walled city of Tulum are a must visit during a trip to the Mexican Riviera. At first blush, it’s not incredibly family-friendly, but there are some gems to be found on a visit with kids. Many older school age kids will know Mayan history and be able to make connections with what they’ve learned in history and social studies classes. Huge, yet incredibly mellow iguanas are found throughout the ruins, adding some comic relief to the history and seaside views. A set of steps tucked into the cliff leads down to a small but fabulous beach with a lifeguard. It just might be Tulum’s best kept secret.
There isn’t a changing area, so have everyone wear their bathing suits under their clothes and bring a towel to wipe off sandy feet. Shoes will be a must for the walk back to the main entrance.
See our favorite family-friendly resorts and destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula
Chable Resort & Spa: A kid-friendly hideaway in the Yucatan jungle
Merida, Mexico: Colonial history and cultural cool on the Yucatan Peninsula
Unwind and unplug in Tulum, Mexico, at Boutique Hotel El Pez
Grand Palladium Riviera Maya review and highlights for families
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trips to the Mexican Riviera were hosted by Karisma Hotels & Resorts and Interval International, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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