By Judy Waytiuk

Travel is broadening, they say – and it’s definitely an eye-opener for youngsters, especially when travel embraces and explores cultures different from their own. But not too different: kids need a touch of the familiar. Mexico’s the perfect spot for experiences different enough to entertain, fascinate and teach them, yet familiar enough to ensure a comfort zone base for that exploration.

Let The All-Inclusive Games Begin
For straight-up family beach vacations, Mexico’s all-inclusive resorts offer the ideal holiday, with firm price tags and everything included from food to non-motorized water sport gear – including kid’s clubs that generally operate for youngsters between 4 and 12. Some even offer toddlers’ clubs that will take even younger children, and teen-oriented activities so jaded over-twelves won’t get bored. A few of the better-known all-inclusive chains with solid kids’ programs include the RIU, Dreams, Barcelo, Viva Wyndham, Allegro, Melia and Presidente.

Think of these resorts as gigantic, gated playgrounds for parents and kids alike. Swimming, waterskiing, surfing, windsurfing, scuba diving, jet skis, fishing, kayaking and day cruises are all popular and common at these resorts. Snorkeling’s better on the Caribbean side, but possible in some Pacific locations, though a common complaint is that the resort runs out of snorkel gear early in the day – best to take along your own gear, preferably stuff the kids have used at home and that fit well. On land, horseback riding, biking and hiking are common offerings.

Fully-supervised kids’ programs, held in their own areas of the resorts, usually provide a range of activities from science and nature-based learning experiences to arts and crafts, kids-only pools with swimming lessons and pool games, beach soccer or volleyball, ping-pong, foosball, video games and movies. A few even boast large in-resort waterparks. Parents can drop their kids off at the various clubs for a few hours or a full day, if the little ones are big enough to spend a full day happily away from mom and dad, and go off and do their own beach thing un-pestered by sibling squabbles.

Picky eaters can choose from familiar snacks like burgers and hot dogs at beach bars spotted around the resorts, and at real meal times, buffets are a lifesaver – there’s always something a kid can recognize as normal food and will willingly tuck into for supper, along with more grown-up options for the adults. And perhaps the biggest advantage for the price-conscious – there need be no worry about ordering off a menu and paying for a meal the kid decides is inedible.

Nonetheless, when parents want an adult restaurant experience, a la carte dining is always available, usually with three, four or more themed choices from Mexican to French. Most of the all-inclusives will provide baby-sitting services – sometimes free, sometimes as an extra, paid-for service.

As with all else, in life, though, you get what you pay for – pricier, high-end resorts lay on better-quality, more appealing buffets and superior kids’ club programming.

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Dare To Be Different
For families who’ve previously taken the all-inclusive plunge and are now looking for more from the Mexico experience, striking out into the real world offers a rich tapestry of culture and history the kids will treasure for the rest of their lives (and they'll probably get addicted to Mexico – not the worst addiction to have, by any means). Cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen are mostly tourism-based, so the genuine Mexico is tougher to find, although there are plenty of play locations around – water parks, aquariums, guided cenote and Mayan ruin trips. Eco-parks like Xel-Há, an open-sea aquarium and sanctuary, and Xcaret, with outdoor museum-style historic and cultural areas as well as waterpark features, are popular and within easy drives in a rental car from resort locations. Kids will go crazy over the chance to swim with dolphins.

Further south, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is an all-natural, UNESCO World Heritage Site, 606,000 hectares of jungle and wetland accessible via tours in eight-metre, six-seat “ponga” boats that take visitors through a lagoon and around mangrove islands, learning about the area’s ecosystems as well as Mayan culture and history.

Chac Mol of Chichen ItzaMexico Tourist Board
And within easy reach of the Caribbean coast’s resorts are real ruins like Coba, Tulum, and Chichen Itza, and genuine little Mayan jungle villages. Guided tours are the most cost-effective way to visit these spots; the Mayan villages work with guide companies to provide authentic experiences.

More Mexican, but still well-touristed, safe, and popular are Pacific coast cities like Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, or Acapulco. Families can take in local town squares and massive flea markets, check out museums, hop onto day cruises on pirate ships, go whale-watching, visit dolphinariums to learn about, and swim with, dolphins (book way ahead, this one’s crazy popular), or try out area theme, water, and eco-parks. Ziplining is springing up around the tourism areas, and is safer than it looks – kids’ lines are not too far off the ground, and the safety harnesses meet international standards. Just make sure the guides have clear English and can explain the techniques so kids understand how to do it.

Acapulco’s tourist side offers CiCi Waterpark’s water slides, toboggans, seal shows, wave pool, Sky Coaster ride, and dolphin encounters, and Papagayo Park’s land-based carnival rides. Magico Mundo Marino offers marine exhibits and water slides. But try taking the family into town on a walking tour of local straw and flea markets for an immersion into local life in the Traditional Zone: the refurbished 17th-century Fort of San Diego, the famous cliff divers at La Quebrada, and the El Parazal straw market mixing up local foods, vendors, clothing, flea market items and souvenir stalls.

Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta are great whale-watching locales for gray whales, humpbacks, and Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Go big on a party boat (keep the kids away from the tequila games), or try a small open boat ride guided by an independent local – unless seasickness is a concern. Resorts have lists of reputable operators.

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Drill Deep Down
Families with older youngsters and plenty of Mexican time already under their belts will be comfortable doing fully FIT Mexican road trips through the Yucatan, into the interior of Oaxaca state, south of Guadalajara into tequila country, or exploring the half-dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites villages and cities: Morelia, Oaxaca, Puebla, Zacatecas, Campeche, Querétaro, and Guanajuato. Their historic centres are caught in colonial time warps; exploring them is like wandering through the 17th century. Mexico leads the Americas for UNESCO sites, with 31 and more pending. Trying out real Mexican food in these spots will be an adventure for young, curious palates – everything from stone soup (broth with fish and vegetables, cooked by dropping a fire-heated stone into the bowl) to pozole (stew made with corn and meat). Aztec and Mayan traditions blend with Spanish influence in this unique cuisine, nothing like the mass-market Mexican stuff served up in North America. Oaxaca’s fried grasshoppers may be a bit much, though – except on a dare.

So go ahead. Double-dog dare ya: Do Mexico. Start with the all-inclusives and slowly work your way into more adventurous travel takes on this remarkable country. The kids will love it. So will the adults.
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