Family Fun in Cancun and the Riviera Maya
Looking for the perfect spot for a fun day with the family? The Mexican Caribbean offers a variety of parks and activities that fit the bill. Take the children to the beach, teach them how to snorkel, come face to face with area wildlife and give them a glimpse of Mexico’s colorful culture.
Older children may enjoy swimming with the dolphins, horse riding, kayak trips or even zip lining and other jungle adventures. If you want them to learn about the area, a day trip combining past and present: the archaeological sites and nearby Mayan villages may fit the bill.
Look no further; the nature theme park of Xcaret in the Riviera Maya is a family favorite, the place for a fun-filled day with the kids. A landscape of jungle, cenotes, lagoons, inlets and beaches offers plenty to see and activities for everyone. You can spend the day on the sand, go snorkeling in the cove, swim in two underground rivers or board a raft and drift along a jungle waterway called the Paradise River.
Wherever you look, you’ll see colorful birds and animals native to the Maya World such as monkeys, jaguar, whitetail deer, tapir, flamingos, parrots and scarlet macaws. Don’t miss the aquarium, the dolphin pools and sea turtle tanks – a hit with children – and the lagoon where placid manatees, nurse sharks and rays swim. Pay a visit to the butterfly pavilion, the caves, botanical garden, orchid farm, aviary and regional wildlife compounds. Xcaret has its own turtle protection campaign, orchid cultivation and wild bird, mammal and butterfly breeding programs and you will learn all about its work in the field of conservation and sustainable development during the day.
As you walk along the paths through the forest you’ll come across Mayan temples, the legacy of the days when Xcaret or Pole was a port. If you are interested in the Maya take a few minutes to stroll around the miniature museum where the Maya World’s most important cities are showcased and you must visit the Ball Court and the Mayan Village where you can watch craftsmen at work in front of traditional thatched houses.
Other attractions include the rotating scenic tower, the open-air theaters, Bat Cave, two chapels and a Mexican cemetery, the Xcaret Wine Cellar and the Henequen Hacienda, site of the Museum of Mexican Handicrafts, full of colorful ceramic, wood and textile treasures from all over the country.
From the traditional cuisine served in the restaurants, handicrafts and music to folk dances and ancient rituals, you’ll be constantly reminded of the depth and diversity of Mexican culture. During the day you can see displays of Mexican charreria or horsemanship and the ancient ritual performed by the Papantla Flyers, five Totonac Indians from the state of Veracruz. They climb a 30-meter pole and as the leader dances on a tiny platform, playing a flute and drum, the others tie ropes to their feet and launch themselves into space, gradually flying lower and lower in a circle around the pole. Experts believe that this is a fertility rite performed in honor of the sun god and that the red garments of the flyers represent the plumage of the scarlet macaw, sacred bird of the sun.
Even if everyone is tired after a day of beach and water fun, do try and stay on for the spectacular evening extravaganza of Mexican music and dance called Xcaret de Noche. It begins with a representation of the ancient Mayan ball game and the procession of an ancient ruler and continues with a fair and folk dances from all over the country. It is colorful and vibrant and the finale is so stirring that even your smallest child will be shouting “Viva Mexico.”
Getting to Xcaret
Xcaret is located 74 km or one hour south of Cancun, just to the south of Playa del Carmen. Standard and all-inclusive tours are available with transport to the park or you can make your own way there. Some activities such as dolphin swims, snorkeling, snuba, sea treks, shark and stingray encounters and a purification ceremony in a temascal or sweat lodge are not included in the park admission fee and must be booked separately.
For a day of watery fun, spend a day at Xel-Há Park and show your family the wonders of the underwater world. Voted one of Mexico’s top ten natural wonders in a 2008 poll, this turquoise caleta or inlet is a chain of lagoons and cenotes watered by underground springs originating deep in the jungle.
Rainbow-colored fish from nearby reefs congregate in the lagoons to feed and breed and local people proudly call Xel-Há the world’s largest natural aquarium. Whether the claim is true or not, the crystalline waters are ideal for a close encounter with reef dwellers such as solitary butterfly, squirrel and angel fish and shoals of sergeant majors and blue tangs. Swim over to the rocks and further into the lagoons and you’ll see even more marine life.
You can spend many a happy hour snorkeling in the caleta and floating down the waterways in an oversized inner tube but save some time to see the park’s other attractions. Paths wind through the jungle around the inlet leading to secluded pools, river, the “cliff of courage” leap into a cenote, the Mayan and bat caves, and exhibits on local flora and fauna, Xel-Há’s conservation work and Mayan traditions such as bee keeping. Dolphin swims, Manatee encounters, Sea Trek, Snuba and snorkeling trips can also be arranged at Xel-Ha and are priced separately.
For a breathtaking view of the turquoise waters, walk back across the floating bridge at the mouth of the inlet. Linger a while to watch larger fish such as groupers, barracudas, yellow tail snappers and horse-eyed jacks swim under the bridge.
Xel-Ha Park has restaurants, shops, restrooms, lockers, hammocks and other facilities.
In ancient times Xel-Ha was a Mayan port and during excavations in the park, archaeologists found temples and offerings at a shrine in an underwater cave, thought to be in honor of the Diving God, a mysterious deity also found at Tulum and Sayil in the Yucatan that was the focus of a regional cult. The main archaeological site is across the highway from the park and you pay a separate admission charge to visit it.
Getting to Xel-Ha
You can book organized standard and all-inclusive day trips to Xel-Ha or an excursion that takes you to Tulum and Xel-Ha. Alternatively you can drive to the park, Xel-Ha is 122 km from Cancun and 54 km south of Playa del Carmen, on Highway 307.
Take a break from the beach and shopping and visit the Cancun Aquarium at La Isla Shopping Mall in the Hotel Zone. Much to the amusement of all, a diver in a tank greets you at the entrance and gives you an introduction to the aquarium and the creatures you’ll see. Once inside, there are interesting exhibitions on marine habitats, coral reefs and the threats they face and tanks full of marine life found in the different zones of the reef. Petting tanks of starfish and sea cucumbers are popular with children and there are sea turtles, dolphins and sharks. A dolphin show is included in the price of the admission but dolphin swims and encounters are priced separately.
The aquarium has a restaurant and gift shop and is open daily.
Located on the road to the airport in the Cancun Hotel Zone, Parque Nizuc, also known as Wet n’ Wild, is a water fun park with a beach area, several large pools with waves, a lazy river, waterfalls and several mega slides and rides. There are dolphins (additional charge for dolphin swims and encounters), stingrays, an area for snorkeling and much more.
The park has a restaurant, store, lockers, restrooms and additional facilities.
Isla Mujeres’ own eco-park located in the south of the island is another family attraction promising endless watery fun. The sheltered bay with its coral reef is a haven for marine life and a popular snorkeling spot. Other attractions include a white beach for sunbathing, a hammock garden and a freshwater pool. The activity-minded can try their hand at kayaking, zip lining and scaling a wooden tower. Dolphin swims are available and are priced separately. Board the rotating tower for spectacular views of the island, the bay and Cancun.
During the day, visitors should spend some time strolling through the Sculpture Garden with exhibits from 23 sculptors from Mexico and around the world, and along the coast path known as the Sendero de los Chaneques to Punta Sur, the southern headland. An ancient Mayan temple dedicated to Ixcel, the goddess of the moon and fertility, crowns Punta Sur.
Garrafon has a restaurant, snack bar, boutique, restrooms, lockers and other facilities.
Getting to Garrafon
Organized tours are available to Garrafon and ferry transport is available from El Embarcadero in Cancun Hotel Zone.
Intelligent, playful and graceful, dolphins have captured our imagination since the dawn of time. If you have ever seen them in the wild, you may have wondered what it would be like to join them in the water. It is a memorable experience and there are a number of parks in the Mexican Caribbean where you and your children can swim and interact with dolphins.
The first thing is to choose a dolphin program – there are several options and the staff at the travel desk in your resort will be happy to explain the difference and help you choose the right one for you. Dolphin Swims are suitable for adults and for children aged eight and above provided they meet the minimum height requirements. The sessions last for anything between 30 to 50 minutes, during which you play with the dolphins, swim with them and even let them tow or push you along. Dolphin Encounters are “getting acquainted” sessions ideal for non-swimmers or younger children that involve petting and hugging the dolphin without actually swimming with it. The trainer will give your children interesting snippets of information about dolphins, their behavior, eco-location capabilities and feeding habits. Some dolphin facilities also offer snorkeling and diving with the dolphins and Trainer for a Day programs, which are an interesting option for older children who are interested in marine life.
Once you have selected the program you are interested in, the next step is to choose your location. If you would like to stay in Cancún, your options include Dolphinaris at Wet n’ Wild Park, Delphinus at Dreams Cancún and the Cancún Aquarium.
A boat trip over to Isla Mujeres is always a fun option, especially if you are going to combine it with a dolphin swim at the ever-popular Dolphin Discovery. The area’s pioneer dolphin company, Dolphin Discovery also has parks at Puerto Aventuras, where there are manatees and sealions, and Cozumel.
If you are planning to visit Xcaret or Xel-Há and would like to add a dolphin adventure to your day, Delphinus also offers dolphin adventures in Xcaret and Xel-Há.
Both Dolphin Discovery and Delphinus have successfully bred a number of dolphins in captivity, a first for Mexico.
Imagine riding through the jungle and cantering along the beach, even taking your trusty steed for a swim in the Caribbean. Horse riding trips are available at several ranches and haciendas in the Cancún area and the Riviera Maya. Horses suitable for beginners and experienced riders are available and classes can also be arranged. Snacks and drinks are included in the price of your trip.