With winter approaching, now's the perfect time to plan a family getaway to the warm beaches of the Mexican coast.
My 8-year-old son Christopher sauntered back from the breakfast buffet at the Beach Palace Hotel with a huge smile on his face. On his plate: French toast, breakfast sausage, freshly made nachos and a piece of white bread drenched in chocolate syrup. “I’m in food heaven,” he announced with a happy sigh. For families, Cancún is like that meal: a marvelous mix of America, Mexico and the unexpected.
It starts at the hotels. We stayed on Cancún Island. Popularly known as the Hotel Zone, the island’s 14-mile stretch of white sand shoreline loaded with luxury lodging. Massive, modern resorts jostle for a view of the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupté Lagoon … the chaos of commercialism tempered by turquoise waters.
Most Cancún Island hotels offer organized activities, supervised kids clubs and multiple restaurants serving everything from haute cuisine to hot dogs. Beachside pools, tennis courts and mini-golf courses mingle with ancient Mayan ruins. An entire family vacation could happily be spent on hotel grounds, but Cancún and its neighboring regions are full of family-friendly destinations too fascinating to miss. Here’s a sampling of those we visited:
Riviera Maya; www.xcaret.net
This nature-and-Mexican culture theme park hosts more than 800,000 visitors per year and offers an attraction found at no other theme park I’ve ever visited: peace and quiet. The rides: a trip through the jungle atop a horse’s back, a nap on a tube bobbing in a palm tree-ringed lagoon, a snorkel excursion through the cool waters of an underground river and swimming with dolphins. Cobblestone paths wind through 200 acres of lush jungle to ancient Mayan ruins, a butterfly pavilion, bat cave, coral reef aquarium, a recreated Mayan village, botanical garden and more. You won’t need to resign yourself to eating expensive junk food for lunch, either. Delicious traditional Mexican cuisine can be sampled at the park’s Dos Playas Restaurante. Once darkness falls, Xcaret presents its Spectacular Night Show, a breathtaking retelling of Mexico’s history in song and dance.
Isla Mujeres; www.garrafon.com
A 25-minute boat ride from Cancún, the Garrafón Reef Park offers exceptional opportunities to enjoy the island’s natural beauty from the depths of the Mexican Caribbean to the highest cliffs on the Yucatán Peninsula. A winding cement path skirts the southern tip of the island, where an ancient Mayan temple stands. The path provides a panorama of gray, sea-sculpted coral cliffs and dazzling sea. Small caves pit the cliffs along the walkway; we discovered one with two wooden lounge chairs waiting for us inside. Garrafón is home to a quaint, colorful, Caribbean village sprinkled with cafés and specialty shops. Nearby, a lighthouse and a modern art sculpture garden stand out against the sky. Offshore are opportunities to snorkel, Snuba (a combination of scuba diving and snorkeling), Seatrek and kayak.
AQUA WORLD JUNGLE TOUR
Hotel Zone, Cancún; www.aquaworld.com.mx
Please note: Drivers must be at least 16 years of age; passengers must be at least 5.
“Are you sure you can drive this thing, Mom?” Christopher asked, clinging to the back of my life jacket as we sat on a two-person Aqua Ray boat. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure, but before I knew it, we were winding our way through dense strands of mangrove trees, the wake from our little craft rippling at the legs of white egrets. We left the trees behind and raced full throttle across the open sea, our hull smacking the waves, spray flying in our faces. We hung on for dear life, laughing the whole time. After a half-hour ride, we moored along a coral reef, slipped on flippers, goggles and a snorkel and spent the next half-hour amazed at the fish and flora below.
La Isla Shopping Village, Cancún; www.laislacancun.com.mx
Suitable for ages 5 and older, the MayaVentura is located in the heart of Cancún’s Hotel Zone, a glitzy mall with a great view of the lagoon. MayaVentura is an impressive interactive labyrinth that winds through the history of Mayan civilization. Dark passageways lead to the Mayan worlds of Fire, Air, Water and Earth, each decorated with intricate Mayan artwork and hieroglyphics. In the midst of the maze we were confronted with water obstacles, strobe lights, a giant “boulder” in our path, tunnels and a mysterious revolving door. We used computerized keys to track the artifacts we discovered along the way. “Quiz Pods” located in each world offered the opportunity to delve deeper into Mayan lore, but Christopher rushed past many of the educational offerings in search of the next challenge.
La Isla Shopping Village, Cancún; www.laislacancun.com.mx
A short walk from MayaVentura is La Isla’s Interactive Aquarium, which went way beyond my expectations for an aquarium in a shopping mall. Just inside the entrance we found the typical tanks of tropical fish and some seashell displays, but then it got really interesting. While the sun set over the lagoon, we ran our fingers along the backs of stingrays, touched starfish and held prickly sea urchins at a series of outdoor tanks. If we had brought swimsuits, we would have been in for even more excitement. For an additional fee, visitors can swim with dolphins and feed sharks from inside a clear, Plexiglas box lowered right into the shark tank.
No matter how you decide to fill your time while your there, Cancún will definitely put a smile on everyone’s face and leave the cold winter winds far behind.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Proof of citizenship is necessary when traveling to Cancún: a valid passport or a certified birth certificate with a raised seal from the government agency that issued it.
- Children under age 18 must have the consent of both parents when traveling to Mexico. If a minor is traveling with just one parent, that parent must carry a notarized letter of consent written by the absent parent, or a copy of a legal document giving that parent sole custody.
- If one parent is deceased, a death certificate must be carried.
- Spanish is Mexico’s primary language, but English is widely spoken in Cancún.
- Cancún’s rainy season lasts approximately from May to October.
- Major credit cards, US currency, traveler’s checks and pesos are all accepted in Cancún.
- Cancún is on Central Standard Time.