By Judy Waytiuk
Mexico holiday with the kids? Pick a spot – any spot in Mexico’s hottest tourism areas on its Caribbean or West coast. You're guaranteed great beaches, fascinating towns and cities, all sorts of history, culture, and nature to explore, and enough restaurants that even the pickiest eaters will find something they love. And adults who’ve visited Mexico a few times will almost certainly want to introduce their kids, once they have them, to this one-place-fits-all holiday haven.
Mexico Tourist Board
Beach Blanket Bingo
But picking an all-inclusive hotel package for that holiday is a little trickier. All-inclusives tend to divide themselves into two camps: grown-ups only or family-oriented. And the key to finding one that’s right for your family revolves around exploring kids’ activities and offerings listed on the resort websites. The last thing you want your kids to experience is near-nude tequila-shot contests (not that there’s anything wrong with that...).
But if a resort offers a kids’ water park, mini golf course, teens club, kids club, balloon fights, sandcastle making, face painting, story-telling, kayaking, archery, treasure hunts, even play choices like a floating iceberg climbing wall and bungee jumping, it might well be the perfect spot. Most Kids Clubs take youngsters aged 3 to 12, some have clubs for toddlers; a few even include nanny or babysitter options, or offer them for a fee.
The Explorers’ Club for kids at Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort & Spa, a half-hour south of Playa del Carmen in the Maya Riviera, offers a Plant-a-Tree program, Corn Harvest and the Dreaming of Freedom Turtle seasonal project. The resort has just opened Dolphin Dreams, an on-site dolphin aquarium with dolphins and manatees. It’s managed by Dolphin Discovery, which also offers dolphin swim locations in Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, Isla Mujeres, Riviera Maya, Los Cabos and Mexico City.
Club Med Ixtapa Pacific near Zihuatanejo, all the AZUL Hotels by Karisma, the Crown Paradise Club in Cancun, and the Melia in Puerta Vallarta all have baby and toddlers programs as well as Kids’ Clubs. The AZUL Hotels’ under-fives programs were put together in partnership with Fisher-Price.
Club Med long ago abandoned its target mid-twenties swinging singles focus for family-friendly fun, and its kids’ programs are excellent. Their resorts have fully stocked 24/7 feeding rooms for babies, supervised programs for teens, and perhaps best of all, the renowned G.O.s – Gracious Organizers – who can take bored kids in hand and find them the perfect activity to while away the beach time.
And of course, the beaches are the best part for any age. Caribbean-side beaches make for cooler, finer, castle-building sand, warmer and shallower water, and some easy snorkeling spots (The Akumal Beach Club’s a nice, small property and kids can snorkel or swim with turtles here). The West coast beaches’ coarser sand can be hot underfoot, and treacherous undertows can happen even close to shore in some resort areas.
In-resort kids’ club packages will probably prove most entertaining for youngsters under ten, though; since kids grow up so fast these days, pre-teens would be utterly crushed if forced to play with younger ones. And even under-tens will be able to venture outside resorts – with the appropriate parental supervision – to experience some of the real family-friendly adventures Mexico has to offer.
A daytrip into Playa del Carmen and its bustling beach and tourist street Fifth Avenue, or on a fast ferry over to the islands of Cozumel (out of Playa del Carmen) or Isla Mujeres (out of Puerto Juaraz just north of Cancun) will add a dash of souvenir-shop flavour to the holiday, and souvenirs in these spots are far cheaper, and more varied and plentiful than inside the resorts.
The Maya Riviera region has aced the packaging of off-resort daytrips under the guidance of tour operators. While parents can easily rent a car and run do-it-yourself tours, it’s worth the few extra bucks it might cost to go with the tour and just enjoy, along with the kids.
Xcaret 10 minutes south of Playa del Carmen is easily do-able on your own, though. Horseback riding, snorkeling in sweet little underground streams (with plenty of openings to the sky for the potentially-claustrophobic), “sea treks” with diving helmets or air tubing to breathe with, cenotes (underwater caverns), wildlife including manatees, jaguars, tapirs, toucans, bats and butterflies, dolphin swims, and a few good, family-friendly restaurants can all be explored at your leisure.
Other parks in the area, like Xel-Há, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Aquaworld, Parque Nizuc, Rancho Loma Bonita, Rio Secreto, and Tres Rios EcoPark, are all worth a day off the beach, and cenote-snorkeling in the area is a must-do, with or without tour guides: Aktun Chen, LabnaHa, Cenote Dos Ojos, Chaak Tun, and the Gran Cenote. It’s pricey, especially once you add fees for the photography DVDs of the family frolics (but you gotta have that, right?). Alltournative Tours’ guided trips into Yax Muul and Pac Chen, both part of the Nohoch Nachich underground river system, are all-day adventures that roll in ziplining and a real Mayan lunch in a genuine palapa.
And don’t forget the other gotta-do: ruins. Guided tour fees to the Mayan ruins of Coba, Tulum and Chichen Itza are reasonable. Only at Coba can you climb the high pyramid, and Coba offers the biggest ruins area, even though Chichen Itza is more popular. Regardless of where you pick, bring lots of water, sunhats and sunscreen.
Set The Cell Phone To Roaming
Riviera Nayarit CVB
Most families will likely be well-satisfied with their best beach vacation ever, playing in the water and on the sand, browsing luscious buffets and menus, and being generally pampered by hotel staff. Many families will love the beach, food, and services, and will add on a few outside-the-resort adventures to spice up the vacation a little.
Some, though, will want to colour way outside the traditional mainstream, all-inclusive-style tourism lines.
For these folks, there are sleepy, traditional coastal or interior villages, and even cities to visit via rented vehicle. They’re charming, funky, fun, fascinating and only a little bit over-run by tourists. From Puerto Vallarta, for example, there’s Bucerias and Sayulita just north, and Rincon de Guayabitos further north. To the south, there’s Boca de Tomatlan, a quiet little fishing village, and Yelapa, even quieter and more charming, accessible only by water taxi or daytrip tours.
Inland from the Maya Riviera, the little town of Valladolid and the ancient city of Izamal (complete with partly-excavated pyramids right in town) are an easy couple of hours’ drive for a longish daytrip. Merida, known as the White City, or any one of a dozen traditional Spanish haciendas-turned-upscale-B&B, make intriguing overnight stays.
A Word About Safety
Mexico’s infamous drug wars, heavily covered in mainstream media, have spooked a lot of people, but tourism has held up its numbers, for one major reason: the violence is almost entirely restricted to drug gang political infighting, well away from areas tourists frequent. Keep a firm hand on your well-secured wallet to deter pickpockets, try not to pay a ridiculous amount of money for the standard colourful rope hammock souvenir and keep the kids well in sight when out and about, and your family vacation will be the source of treasured memories in the future. Especially if you do pay the ridiculous fees for the photo DVDs from your daytrips.