Family Vacations to Riviera Maya, Mexico

Family Overview - Mayan Riviera, Mexico
PLAYA DEL CARMEN: An ideal stepping stone to the Mayan Riviera (Digital Vision)

Mayan Riviera Highlights

  • Browse the shops along Playa del Carmen's "Fifth Avenue"
  • Walk through a bat cave, float down a river, and watch a Mexican folkloric show at Xcaret.
  • Discover underground caves and cenotes at Aktun Chen.
  • Explore Tulum, an ancient walled Maya City.
  • Walk through Chichén-Itzá, one of the most important Maya ruins.

If you seek a Mexican vacation with great beaches, interesting attractions, and great shopping and nightlife, minus the chaos of Cancun, book the Mayan Riviera (also called the Riviera Maya). Family-friendly and easy to reach, the Mayan Riviera begins approximately 18 miles south of Cancun International Airport and extends for 75 miles along Mexico's Caribbean coast to Punta Allen in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.

Playa del Carmen—a spot with sandy beaches, shopping, Maya ruins, and several family-friendly resorts—is an ideal spot to set up base. Take a stroll with your older kids, preferably in the evening, along Avenida 5 ("Fifth Avenue"), a strip that morphs at night into a pedestrian walkway pulsing with boutiques, eateries, and clubs. Your kids will even tolerate being seen with you as long as you stop to bargain on their behalf for jewelry, pottery, hammocks, and other coveted souvenirs.

Two nearby eco-adventure parks, Xcaret and Xel-Ha, lure tourists with swimming, animal-viewing, and eateries. Xel-Ha, the smaller of the two parks, offers fewer animal encounters and no cultural shows, but its forte is water. Kids new to snorkeling will find the canal easy to navigate, although there isn't much to see. You can splash in a pool, hop on an inner tube to float along a river lined with mangroves, or swim with and pet dolphins.

At Xcaret, the bigger park, walk through a bat cave and a butterfly aviary; watch green sea turtles float; eye jaguars, flamingos, and toucans; float down a river in an inner tube; and, in the evening, watch a Mexican folkloric musical performance prefaced by a demonstration of the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, Pok-Ta-Pok. The players, wearing feathered headdresses and vivid body paint, use their hips, not hands, to send a ball sailing through a hoop. If possible, avoid visits on cruise ship days, when ocean liners disgorge large crowds into the park. (Ask your concierge when the ships are in port.)

Aktun Chen, the Maya name for a 988-acre eco-park not far from Tulum, means "cave with an underground river inside." Travel through the cave to view thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. En route you'll come across three cenotes, sinkholes formed by underground rivers. The Maya thought these were portals to the underworld. Outside the cave, look up to see the spider monkeys and wild turkeys that inhabit the rainforest.

The ancient walled city of Tulum offers an impressive archaeological experience and is a manageable one-and-a-half-hour drive from Playa del Carmen. Explore the ruins; an impressive stairway leads to the Castillo (castle), the most important building, perched atop limestone cliffs. Tulum served as a major center for maritime trade during the Maya heyday (roughly 1200 to 1500 A.D.); amid the crashing waves and the calls of the sea birds, you can sense the rhythms of this once-vital sea port. For younger kids with limited ability, or desire, to explore history, Tulum is less than eight miles from the waterpark Xel-Ha.

Tip: It's a three-hour van trip each way to Chichén-Itzá, one of the most important Maya ruins with about 40 excavated structures. While it's a very long day, it's worth it for older teenagers and adults interested in Maya culture who can tolerate long van drives. Bring pillows so you can sleep in the van en route to the site.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Riviera Maya


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