Riviera Maya: Playtime at the Playa

Pristine beaches, ancient ruins and eco theme parks—there is something for everyone at this jewel on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

Mexico, with its kid-focused culture, is one of my family’s favorite places to vacation. We have found the Mexican people to be ceaselessly tolerant of children and generous of spirit. The country even has a holiday called Children’s Day, celebrated on April 30. We discovered this by accident when we found ourselves in Mexico on Children’s Day a few years ago. My daughter, Tess, then 8, watched as the Mexican kids got gifts just for being kids. She pronounced it a great idea that ought to be imported to the United States—immediately. 

A great destination in Mexico is the Riviera Maya, a sliver of land that begins just 10 miles south of Cancún. The region stretches along the Caribbean Sea on the Yucatán Peninsula from the town of Puerto Morelos south through Playa del Carmen and Puerto Aventuras to the famous Mayan ruins of Tulum, and ending in Carrillo Puerto, with many other smaller towns and sites included. 

One of our favorite stops is the charming town of Playa del Carmen, arguably the most developed of the towns, about an hour south of Cancún. Until recently Playa del Carmen was a sleepy Mexican village, but the tourist trade there is booming, and hotels are sprouting up all along the once pristine white sand beaches.

The number of hotel rooms has grown more than tenfold in the last 10 years—to about 35,000 currently. So there are plenty of shiny new high-rises, but it’s still possible to haggle for a good deal along the streets of Playa del Carmen or to while away an evening sipping cerveza at an outdoor café.

On a pretty walk street right off Fifth Avenue, Ajua Maya Restaurant warmly welcomes children—and their discerning parents. Although drinks arrive atop the waiter’s heads (sometimes as many as six at once), serious dining happens here. Portions are large, and kid’s orders go in right away. Once your lobster tails, chicken mole or flambéed steak arrives, your niños will be well fed and up dancing to the live Latin jazz. Adult entrees average $25 USD, children’s entrée’s are $7-$10 USD.

All-inclusives: A Refuge for Picky Eaters

A growing proportion of the new hotels in Playa del Carmen are all-inclusives—properties that factor into the initial room price all the food, drinks and non-motorized water sports your family can handle—just the sort of resorts I would have eschewed in my BC (Before Children) days. This kind of accommodation has become a key feature of trips for my family with our skinny boy who lived on Cheerios and strawberries throughout his toddler years.

Before we had kids, my husband and I never would have considered an all-inclusive, reasoning that sampling the local cuisine was a key part of the travel experience. But vacations with picky eaters can be exhausting. All that searching for something he’ll eat, only to order the tacos and find out they “don’t taste right” and are therefore inedible. By comparison, our first visit to an all-inclusive was like a gift from heaven. If he didn’t like the food, he simply went back up to the buffet looking for something else—sometimes he even found Cheerios and strawberries.

As an added plus, choosing an all-inclusive means never having to spend more than you planned. You go into the vacation knowing exactly how much it’s going to cost, unless you opt for one of the few extra features, such as a spa treatment. [Read about specific all-inclusives in our Riviera Maya Hotels article.]

Area Attractions

Just because you choose to stay at an all-inclusive hotel does not mean you should never leave the resort. Within easy reach of Playa del Carmen and the hotel strip are three must-see attractions on or near the waterfront: the Mayan ruins at Tulum and the eco-parks at Xel-Há (pronounced shell-ha) and Xcaret (pronounced ish-ka-ret).

Tulum. This is the only Mayan fortress built on the sea, so the breezes off the water keep it bearably cool. Our Lomas Travel guide proved to be a font of knowledge and left all of us in awe of Mayan culture. Bring a hat and slather on the sunscreen; there isn’t much shade. The ruins are right on the beach, so feel free to bring your suits for a cooling dip in the sea. Just plan to ride home in salty clothes—there’s no shower or changing facility on-site. [Get more tips in our Tulum article.]

Xel-Há. This excursion worked better for my husband and me than for our two kids, then ages 9 and 11. A key feature is the chance to snorkel with fish—not a popular option for our fish-phobic kids. They sat on the shore and got sunburned while we floated around. We swam with dolphins, always a magical thing to do, although be sure to book one of the earlier sessions. We arrived at the end of the day and, like recalcitrant children, the dolphins were tired of being ordered about and no longer interested in obeying. After the exertion, we collapsed, exhausted, into the hammocks at Hammock Island and snoozed away the final 30 minutes of our visit.

Xcaret. This eco-archeological park is worth a full day of exploring; highlights include opportunities to pet a stingray and take a cooling float down an underground river (Note: It can be dark in the underground passages and some of the kids found it scary). When you need a break from the heat, duck into the Coral Reef Aquarium. It’s educational and a cool place to get a short break from the intense Caribbean sun.

At the end of the day, there’s a traditional horse show (included with regular admission) and a Mayan dinner theater ($45 for adults and $22.50 for kids). The food is surprisingly good, and the show is an entertaining and impressive display of Mayan culture and pre-Hispanic ceremonies, including a demonstration of a traditional Mayan ball game and death-defying Mayan pole dance. To snorkel here, you’ll need biodegradable sunscreen, which burned when it touched our skin. We bought ours at Tulum, where it was much cheaper.

All three spots can be reached by bus from Playa del Carmen (about $4 per person), via tours or by taxi or rental car.

Getting There

Several large U.S. carriers fly into Cancún from major U.S. cities, as does AeroMexico and Mexicana. The airport is modern and upscale and is designed to get tourists through passport control in a reasonable amount of time. It’s best to have a plan for how you’ll get from the airport to your hotel before you get to Cancún. Between baggage claim and the outdoors, you’ll run a gauntlet of hawkers paid to sign you up for tours and book you on their transport vans or buses. Practice shaking your head firmly and avoid making eye contact if you want to get out with your wallet intact.

When you make your hotel reservations, ask the agent what transport he or she recommends—hotel van, bus, taxi or rental car. Intrepid or budget-conscious travelers can choose the city buses that operate regularly between the airport and Playa del Carmen (about $4 a person). From there, hail a cab or switch to another bus to get to your hotel.

The major vacation packagers—FunJet, Apple Vacations and others—offer deals into Riviera Maya that include direct charter flights, a varying number of nights at a hotel and transfers between the airport and hotel. (Buyer beware: This transfer generally means a bus, and it could make many stops at hotels along the way before arriving at your particular destination. If you or your children lack patience, consider renting a car or hiring a cab for a more direct trip to your final destination.)


[Additional coverage provided by Leslie Long.] 

Destinations: Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Mexico, Riviera Maya

Themes: Beach Vacations, Ecotourism, Family Travel

Activities: Scuba Diving, Sightseeing, Snorkeling, Spas

User Comments

A good post on the one of the wonderful places in the world i.e. the Riviera Maya. The description that you wrote in the blog made me feel as if I was floating around the places you mentioned. Would really like to have a visit and see what enjoyment the location has to give to its visitor. Thanks for the post, and awaiting to read more. Riviera Maya