There’s plenty to ways to have family fun in Riviera Maya, Mexico, even when you’re traveling with teens, that hard-to-please group. Our family vacation to Riviera Maya included enough adrenalin-fueled fun to keep my 16-year-old son happy and enough peaceful, educational and nature encounters to please me, too.
This is a very cool place for spelunkers who enjoy mixing in a swim or two. You actually have to put on a wet suit and buckle on a helmet equipped with your own light. Within steps you’ll be walking down into a cave to enter Rio Secreto, an area formed over millions of years but only just discovered six years ago, open to the public for the last two.
Our travel guide, Eddie, took us through endless passageways with thousands of calcified stalactites and stalagmites (which they asked us not to touch in order to preserve the stunning beauty of this incredible wonder). In some areas we were ankle deep in water and in others the water was easily above our head. At certain points in the journey Eddie asked us to turn off the light on our helmet. It’s pitch-black in the cave and not possible for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
But to make sure we could appreciate the real beauty of the stalactites, Eddie asked us to look up as another guide quickly flashed a light overhead. The result was awe-inspiring, something similar to fireworks on the Fourth of July.
We made our way through the cave’s many passageways and eventually were led back up and out (though sometimes I did get a wee bit paranoid wondering what we would do if Eddie decided to take off and leave us to find our own exit).
Eddie took great care of us and I would have to say this was an adventure like nothing else I had ever been part of. It took about an hour and a half to go through Rio Secreto, but the experience will stay with us for a lifetime.
Playa del Carmen’s 5th Avenue
There are rows of shops packed with everything from homemade pottery to high-end jewelry and prices that run the gamut. We didn’t have long to shop but managed to find a souvenir for everyone in our family while we went from vendor to vendor. The best buy of the day was a sterling silver chain that we bargained over, ultimately settling on a meager $40 for something I’m certain would have cost five times that back home. The vendors are smart negotiators and prices are set for some, but most will work with you, depending on how much (or little) you want the item and your preferred price.
Tulum Archaeology Site
You can take a walk back in time at Tulum, the only known archaeological zone located by the sea. A guide will share with you details about the way of life in this ancient civilization, including stories of sacrifices and details of how those who lost their life were selected (along with the fact that it was considered an honor to join the Gods).
Our guide pointed out special windows in three of the buildings that, when the sun was in the sky at just the exact time, indicated time for another sacrifice. In some spots there is only rubble, while steps away complete buildings still stand—buildings with hundreds of years of history and walls that I wish could talk.
Tulum is built on a cliff off the sea, safe from powerful waves that come with hurricanes. But there’s little reprieve from the hot Mexico sun–it’s really hot here and there’s very little shade. Expect to sweat. But take heart. If walking through time in the intense heat wears you out, there are steps that lead down to the Caribbean Sea where you can take a refreshing dip in the water. I only have to wonder how many others did the same so many years ago.
Pronounced shell-hah, this open-sea aquarium shows off nature in all its glory, with iguanas relaxing in the sun throughout the park and tropical fish that you swim alongside in the fresh, cool waters. There are all kinds of land and water activities to keep you busy all day.
Xel-Ha is touted as nature as no one has ever felt it before, where you can share in celebrating the biological parade of the Riviera Maya. And that’s true. You will find yourself walking through the nature trails, swinging from ropes and dropping into the water, or jumping off cliffs taking 30 foot plunges into the water, even swimming into caves where you can look up and see people walking around above.
There are rope bridges where you can test your balance and inner tubes for a relaxing float through a canopy of mangroves. It’s the same kind of experience that water parks try to duplicate with their lazy rivers, but it’s an entirely different experience when it’s all natural. Of all the excursions we took, this one was my son’s favorite.
Swim with Dolphins
I’m not a real fan of animals being kept in captivity for our enjoyment, and that includes excursions with dolphins. I’ve been in the water with them before in the wild, and because my children really adore the sea creatures we’ve paid to be part of a group that got to touch and feed them, but this was the first time I actually swam with dolphins. I have to say it was quite the thrill.
After getting acquainted with a handshake and hug, and even a kiss, each member of our group swam to a designated spot in the water where we waited with our legs and arms outstretched. Then, when we least expected, a snout would touch each foot, right on the arch area. In a split second we were moving through the water, then up and out of the water, if we could keep our legs straight enough.
I wiped out pretty fast (it may have had something to do with trying to make sure my bathing suit bottom stayed put), but my son was able to strike a pose for several seconds as he essentially flew across the water, compliments of the dolphins’ propulsion.
This was fun for everyone, though what left me with a laugh was watching the video they put together immediately after our excursion, packed with replays of our experiences with the dolphins—this crew is fast and funny with their special effects!
Want to spend a day riding an amphibious vehicle journeying through a jungle? Maybe you like the thrill of flying through the air on a zip-line? Or, would you prefer a calm, relaxing float through an underground river surrounded by stunning stalactites and stalagmites? You can take your pick at Xplor.
There’s more than six miles of adventure, and if you pick the zip-lines, you’ll be covering much of that territory, going from tower to tower and zip-line to zip-line. They have an easy course if you don’t want to do too much walking and climbing up the tower stairs. Or, you can select the Jaguar, which has you flying from the tallest towers and zipping over real jaguars in a zoo below. I missed them personally but my son swears he saw them while he was overhead.
The landing on my first trip was a bit scary—I had no idea just how fast I was going or how much it would hurt when I stopped. But it didn’t hurt at all (OK, it hurt some the next day, but I don’t know if that was from the stops or just from my weight being suspended in a belt as I reclined back for my favorite view).
I enjoyed the zip-lines but think 11 was probably two too many for me. There were some zip-lines that took you through waterfalls and that was outstanding. We also took what was supposed to be a leisurely float through the underground river, using our own hands as paddles to move the raft through the water.
But since my son ended up on a raft with his pal and I on one with his pal’s mother, somehow this became a competition to see who could go through fastest. Not so leisurely (and yes, because I know you are wondering, we lost). The amphibious vehicles were OK and could have been much more fun if we were able to go a little faster through the jungle. But it seemed just as we’d get a little momentum going someone on patrol with the park would tell us to slow it down. I can see why since the roads are a bit narrow in some points, but we weren’t in the mood for a slow ride through the jungle heat on this particular day.
Xplor was a really neat place over all, designed with a theme that included heart art throughout and the loud sound of a beating heart coming from the center of the park—kind of a neat way to let everyone know where they were in the park and how to get back to the middle.
When you hear “dinner and a show”, Xcaret should be the first place that comes to mind. We had front row seats to a show that vividly walked us through Mexico’s history.
We had been told in advance this might be a little boring for the kids, so we prepared them for that and asked that they try to appreciate the talent. But man, we had some bad information going into this excursion. Just walking into the show was a thrill as the actors lined the entrance in their amazing costumes and stayed in character to give us a taste of what was ahead.
At one point, the boys seemed to challenge one actor perched on a ledge above them, teasing him to come down and show them how tough he was. I warned them they’d better be careful what they asked for as these characters looked pretty darn tough. And as we soon saw during the show, tough was an understatement.
The show was broken into two halves. The first blew us away. We saw amazing performances and stunning costumes and choreography. This was no Broadway production, and I mean that in a good way. We saw slices of Mexico’s culture we’d never heard about before, including sporting games that required moving a ball but not allowing contact with hands or feet–only the hips–which often required sliding across the floor on their back sides. Then, they had to get that ball through a tiny hole suspended on the side of the stadium built as a slope. It was amazing.
Another sport we saw that night that we never heard of before looked a lot like hockey, but with a ball lit on fire. Literally, these players had to use sticks to move the ball—in flames–to the opponent’s side and score a goal. At some points a player would make a run for it and somehow juggle the ball with the stick in the air as he ran. I’m telling you, this could not be easy.
There was so much more to the show, including the second half which was packed with incredibly talented dancers and singers and the kind of music that made me want to sing along, if only I knew the words and a little bit more of the Spanish language. But you get my drift. And the meal was amazing, too. Seriously, this was the ultimate dinner and a show, all wrapped up into one amazing history lesson.