xcaret2Mexico Tourism BoardBy Judy Waytiuk

When you get to know Mexico, you realize it's no surprise that one of the most wonderful surprise packages ever invented for kids – the piñata – originated here.

Mexicans love kids. Theirs or yours, it doesn't matter. Check out any straw market in any vacation city and you'll find loads of quaint, charming, simple kids’ toys, and all sorts of candy treats. Mexicans love spoiling and spending major quality time with their little ones, and they spoil vacationers’ kids just as happily.

Take the Mayan Riviera region. Beachside all-inclusive resorts these days often have special kids’ clubs, almost always have extensive children’s play areas, sometimes even offer one-on-one nanny service, and all make handy launch points for families to explore this region.

Water, Water Everywhere
Of course there are the pools – most resorts have anywhere from two to five swimming pools, and that amazing beach, stretching for hundreds of kilometres.

But one of the Yucatan’s unique features is its complex system of underground rivers and cenotes (natual sinkholes formed when a patch of the surface limestone crust collapses over one of those underground rivers). Historically, Mayans here built their massive, ancient cities around lagoons fed by the underground rivers or near open cenotes.

Inland, tours to the town of Cuzamá take in three local cenotes: Chelentún (laying down rock), Chansinic'che (tree with small ants) and Bolonchoojol (nine drops of water). Cenote Zaci in Valladolid, an easy self-drive day-trip or reachable as part of a tour, is popular with locals and tourists alike, shrouded in stalactites and stalagmites, with a walkway around it. There’s a handy restaurant on the property as well. Seven kilometres east of Valladolid, Cenote Dzitnup is underground, with a hole in its ceiling, lighting and a guide rope. In eco-archeological Park Ik Kil three kilometres from Chichén Itzá and Pisté, Cenote Ik kil, the “Sacred Blue Cenote,” is an open cenote about 25 metres from the surface, accessed by a grand stairway down the steps into the water. There's a buffet-style restaurant here and bungalows for overnight stays. Families looking for tours to these cenotes can check in with www.mayanecotours.com or www.alltournative.com.

On the coast, Xcaret and Xel-Ha, two oceanside ecological parks south of Playa del Carmen, offer easy access to cenotes.

xel-haMexico Tourism BoardIn the saltwater lagoon park Xel-Ha (Mayan for “where the water is born”), the world’s largest natural aquarium, there’s casual snorkeling sheltered by natural limestone spits of land that block waves from the Caribbean. Walking trails lead to freshwater cenotes. Two, Paradise and Adventure, are open to the sky, a third, the Mayan Cave, is largely covered by the Yucatan’s limestone surface and is the peninsula’s only known covered cenote. It’s all safe for kids from eight on up; younger kids and smaller toddlers should be kept closely supervised.

At Xcaret Park (“Small Cove” in Mayan), snorkellers can try out more than a kilometre of underground river safe enough for even a first-grader to negotiate, explore a butterfly pavilion, visit a turtle farm, aquarium, museum, and deer shelter, and meet the park’s resident tapir, Poloc (Maya for chubby).

And both Xel-ha and Xcaret, as well as the Wet ‘n Wild waterpark in the Cancun hotel zone, offer swimming with dolphins, though you’ve got to be 1.2 metres tall. Wet ‘n Wild even offers a Trainer for a Day program. Additional dolphin swim adventures can be found at the Dolphin Discovery Centres in Cancun and Isla Mujeres (check www.dolphindiscovery.com for details). There’s huge demand, so swims must be booked well in advance at all these locations.

cobaMexico Tourism BoardEverything Ruins
Alltournative Off-Track Adventures also offers a fun-packed day tour into the jungle, starting with an exploration of the 1,500 year-old Mayan city of Coba, the new ‘must-do’ Mayan ruin.

Not far away, in a genuine Mayan village, the locals still live off the land and sleep in thatched huts just like the ones their ancestors built for centuries as shelter, but with contemporary concrete floors. Alltournative takes tours on a short, guided hike through the forest to learn about local plants and animals, and then play in the local cenotes. First, a decidedly-contemporary zipline flys over one cenote, then there’s rappeling (with a local helper) down into the “Eye of the Jaguar” cenote – through the small hole perhaps a yard’s span that enables access to the dark, crisp-cool fresh water perhaps 20 metres below, and finally, a doze in a Mayan hammock or a paddling break on the open lagoon beside the village, while local women prepare a traditional Mayan meal.

The standard favourite ruin, Chichen Itza, is offered by most local receptive tour operators, each with their own wrinkles, and Tulum is a short hop from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or any Maya Riviera resort. Ruins are great fun for kids to climb around and get some learning in, without even realizing it.

Lean A Little Local
For families hoping to get a little immersion into Mexican culture, on the Caribbean side of Mexico, staying right in Playa del Carmen where there are almost a hundred smaller hotels, or on the islands of Isla Mujeres or Cozumel, offers a chance to explore the real Mexico. Though Playa del Carmen’s gussied itself up some, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel’s towns both combine all the pleasures of modern tourism with back streets that are colourful, genuinely local, and safe and fun for kids. A self-drive tour into the Yucatan interior armed with a good map and a cooler full of cold drinks opens up a whole new Old Mexico, in the form of small villages that have changed little in hundreds of years. (Just tell clients to take the old road, not the superhighway, which bypasses all this charm.) And yes, it is as safe as driving anywhere in Canada, except at night; cows like to sleep on the warm roads.

On the west coast, daytrips into Puerto Vallarta from the mega-resorts located all along the Pacific north of the city make charming eye-openers into local culture that’s been Americanized just enough to feel completely comfortable. A tip: south of the Rio Cuale and its souvenir-shop island is the old PV – walkable and fun, and the beach is always busy with both locals and in-the-know tourists who head here for authentic Mexican beaching. And one “ya-gotta go” side trip for families: the pier on the old town’s beach is where water-taxis can be found to reach the funky, flower-child, by-water-only village of Yelapa, tucked in a Pirates of the Caribbean-style cove, and well worth a full-day ramble.

whale breachingLos Cabos CVBBut wherever the Mexican destination may be, receptive tour operators have bagsful of kid-friendly touring options that parents will love, too – boat tours around the Cabo San Lucas peninsula, jungle excursions on both east and west coasts, colonial village daytrips into places seemingly frozen in time. On the west coast, whale-watching for humpbacks in season is a must-do, on the Caribbean side it’s guided or free-form snorkeling in the sheltered lagoons for smaller kids, or on the open-ocean shallow reef for older kids.

More Mexico
For more information, contact the Mexico Tourism Board at www.visitmexico.com.