MEXICO – Yucatan Peninsula & Riviera Maya
Our colleague at SASPO recently shared her experience along with her photos of her family trip to Mexico. If you are inspired from this blog then please contact us to start your own Mexican adventure.
When planning our family holiday destination, this year the compass pointed us to the multi-coloured country of Mexico. With a 9 year old boy, we concentrated our 2 week trip on the Mayan Riviera and the Yucatan Peninsula, flying in and out of Cancun International Airport with convenient direct flights from the UK and Europe.
With Tulum as our base on the Riviera Maya, we explored ancient Mayan cities and swam in secluded cenotes before venturing inland to the Yucatan Peninsula to Chichen Itza (one of the New Seven Wonders of the World) and to the beautiful colonial city of Merida, ending with beach time on laid back Holbox Island.
As a family trip, Mexico has lots to offer and I wish to share with you my experience and personal input on suggested do’s and don’ts…
Flights from Europe generally arrive late afternoon/early evening so I would recommend an overnight stay in Cancun. We stayed at Beachscape Kin Ha Hotel which is a mid-range hotel just 25 minutes’ transfer from the airport and situated on the best beach in Cancun, facing the turquoise, tranquil Caribbean Sea.
The hotel is low key and offers great value. Rooms are arranged in blocks set within a tropical garden. There is a pool-side restaurant and a beach-front restaurant as well as nice communal areas with books and board games to borrow, a pool table and air hockey. For longer stays there is even a self-service laundry room, ideal when travelling with children.
From the hotel, you can stroll along the beach passing the neighbouring hotels or it’s an easy 10-minute walk to various nearby shopping malls with restaurants, fast food outlets and supermarkets.
Do: take an early morning walk to have the beach to yourself and enjoy the sunrise.
Don’t: change money at your hotel as there are exchange bureaux within a 5 minute walk of your hotel offering a better exchange rate.
There is a great range of hotels in Cancun and along the Riviera Maya’s Caribbean coastline to suit every budget – from “unlimited luxury” resorts to small eco boutique hotels. We stayed in Tulum, 130 km south of Cancun, with a transfer time of around 1½ hours. Tulum and the beaches south of Cancun are suffering at the moment from unsightly sargassum seaweed which gets washed ashore onto the previously pristine shores. So why stay here and not in Cancun? Eco-friendly and laid-back, you are much closer to nature and can get away from the crowds. The archaeological site of Tulum is literally on your doorstep. Built on a cliff above the sea in honour of the sun, Tulum is the only walled Mayan city to be discovered.
We stayed at the El Pez Colibri boutique hotel where the service was second-to-none. From the turndown service with tea and chocolates.. to the tray of morning coffee (and hot chocolate for our son) delivered to our room.. to the concierge’s call to our room at 10 pm on our first night to let us know that there was a sea turtle laying her eggs on the sand if we wanted to quietly come and watch.
Close to Tulum, there are gorgeous and easily accessible “cenotes”, natural freshwater pools in the rock – the water is deep and refreshingly cool after the heat of the beaches. Bring a mask and snorkel (or rent them along with buoyancy vests) and see the fish and turtles swimming in the crystal clear water. My personal highlight was a visit to the little-visited Muyil archaeological ruins and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling protected area and home to tons of wildlife, particularly birds and flamingos. Here you can take a boat ride through a freshwater lagoon and float down Mayan-built canals through the Yucatan jungle.
Along the Riviera Maya, there are also various eco-parks that make ideal day excursions for families with children. Xcaret is an eco-archaeological park with its own beach and natural pools as well as a coral reef aquarium, aviary and various shows. Xel-Ha is another eco-park with a collection of cenotes, lagoons, caves and zip-lines – ideal for families looking for adventure and adrenaline-pumping activities!
Do: visit the Tulum ruins in the evening (between 5-7 pm when the day-trippers have gone home) for picture-perfect views and gorgeous sunsets.
A 2-hour drive from Tulum, Chichen Itza is in the heart of the Yucatan. We stayed at the Lodge at Chichen Itza, part of the Mayaland Hotel, set in extensive tropical gardens with towering Royal palm trees. Within the gardens, there is a planetarium (with various shows each day), a spa and several swimming pools. In the tropical jungle heat, I recommend an afternoon by the swimming pool where you can spot different birds and huge lizards!
With a private entrance to the ruins from Mayaland Hotel, Chichen Itza can be visited in the early morning before the day visitors arrive and before the heat rises. A truly magical experience to see the sun rise over the pyramid of “El Castillo”.
Do: take a sunrise tour of the ruins and beat the crowds!
Don’t: try to do too much – it’s hot and humid so take time and relax.
From Chichen Itza, it’s a two-hour transfer to Mérida and I would recommend a stop at Izamal, a small traditional town with a pretty main square with market and its impressive yellow-painted Convento. The journey takes you along straight roads passing by small pueblos and Mayan communities and tropical forest.
Mérida is a charming city of wide tree-lined boulevards and historic mansions. We visited on a Saturday evening which is Noche Mexicana when Paseo de Montejo is closed to traffic and there was a lovely atmosphere with families strolling by and riding bicycles and musical and dance performances. Paseo de Montejo leads to the pretty downtown area with squares, churches, palm trees and good restaurants and pavement cafés. Both the Mayan ruins of Uxmal and the Celestún Biosphere Reserve with flocks of flamingos and birdlife are within easy reach for day excursions from Mérida .
We stayed at Hacienda Misne, a beautiful oasis 20 minutes’ drive outside Mérida (one-way taxi to downtown Mérida cost around US$5). The hacienda is situated in a rather plain suburb but once you step into the walled garden, you’re in another world with tall old trees, hammocks, an outside football table, small gym, two swimming pools with excellent waiter service and a superb restaurant. The guest rooms are situated in separate buildings lining the perimeter of the walled garden, built in similar style to the original hacienda building with high ceilings and steep roof.
Do: take a walking tour of the city to best appreciate its colonial architecture and fine churches.
Don’t: miss the opportunity to visit the ruins of Uxmal – one of the great showpieces of Mayan architecture.
It’s a pleasingly easy journey to the island of Holbox, situated just off the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. From Mérida, it’s a 3½ hour drive along straight roads through the tropical forest to the port of Chiquila. En route, you can stop at the charming town of Valladolid with its lovely main square and interesting shops.
Valladolid would also make an ideal overnight stop for those who want to stay a little off the beaten track with a lovely colonial style hotel overlooking the square. From Chiquila, the ferry departs every 30 minutes and takes 20 minutes to cross the water to reach Holbox – all very straightforward with luggage loaded and unloaded quickly and efficiently. On arrival on Holbox, you are met by the “taxi rank” of golf buggies ready to take you along the sand road to your hotel as very few cars are permitted on the island.
There is a good selection of hotels to choose on Holbox – most are beach-front and “barefoot chic”. We stayed at Holbox Dreams Beachfront Hotel which is a mid-range hotel. Guest rooms are simple but attractively decorated with nice touches. There was no water on a couple of occasions but it came back pretty quickly and is one of the challenges of being on a small island. The hotel has two small swimming pools which are kept very clean and were lit at night. Walk through the gardens to reach the beautiful white sand beach with calm, shallow waters ideal for small children and a convenient beach club with restaurant, sun loungers and shade and excellent waiter service.
Holbox is easily walkable (or you can rent bicycles) with a small downtown area with good shops and restaurants. Our highlight on Holbox was a boat trip to swim with whale sharks. My initial nerves were swiftly allayed as these gentle giants are shy and docile and the experience of swimming alongside them is quite magical. Very well organised with experienced and helpful crew and snorkeling equipment and buoyancy vest provided, this is a full day tour with time also to snorkel on the reef and stop for a delicious ceviche lunch on the beach. I would recommend a 4 or 5 night stay on Holbox. There are various island tours and if you visit when there is no moon you have the opportunity to see the “Bioluminescence” – the phenomenon where the water on the beach is illuminated by micro-organisms in the sea.
After your stay on Holbox, you can easily make the transfer (ferry + drive) directly to Cancun airport for your flight home as most of the flights back to the UK and Europe depart in the late afternoon/evening. The transfer time to the airport is around 2 – 2 ½ hours plus the 20 minute ferry crossing.
Do: take a boat trip to swim with the whale sharks – a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Don’t: over-pack – there are some superb restaurants on Holbox but island life is low key and informal.
All our transfers were arranged with a private car and driver with the flexibility to stop for lunch or to pick up water and supplies or change money, or even with time for a quick swim in a cenote en route.
Another option would be to have a rental car and self-drive. With straight roads passing through low forest and small towns, the peninsula is safe and easy to navigate.
Wishing you all happy planning, and remember that Mexico is not just beach. There is much more to explore inland and to experience the warmth of the Mexican welcome – travelling with or without children!