Kid-tested travel It’s been three months since Hurricane Wilma arrived in Cancun for a three-day visit that nearly blew away this resort community. Despite the hearty Mexican workers, who started to rebuild as soon as the flood waters subsided, many of the hotels and tourist attractions still sport plywood where the windows used to be.
An hour south of Cancun at the newer resort community known as the Riviera Maya, it’s tough to tell a storm ever hit—with the exception of the broken trees and barren vegetation that no carpenter can fix. All of the hotels and attractions were open and fully operational when my family and I visited in early January.
Mexico’s tourism authorities promise that most Cancun hotels will be open by the end of February. For travelers, that means it’s still possible to book a spring break trip to Cancun or Riviera Maya. Rooms that should have been booked last fall still are available and the tour companies and hotels are offering deals to attract hurricane-shy consumers.
And it’s worth a trip with kids. Cancun, once a spring break destination of another kind, is attempting to shift its image from a college student free-for-all to a family-friendly vacation spot.
Last May, my daughter, Tess, 9, and I stayed at the Casa Magna, an opulent hotel with first-class service in the heart of the Cancun hotel district. It was heavily damaged in the hurricane and isn’t slated to reopen before June. On our return visit in January, we were guest of Funjet Vacations who paid for us to stay at the equally nice Riu Palace Mexico in the heart of the Riviera Maya–a better choice for families is the slightly less opulent but decidedly more kid-friendly Riu Tequila across the street.
Cancun and Riviera Maya both are within an hour’s drive of the Cancun International Airport (a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Chicago), which makes either destination an easy trip with kids. Of the two, I think the Riviera was a better choice for kids—and its laid-back atmosphere was more restful for me as an overworked mom.
Tess says she recommends the Riviera Maya over Cancun because "Cancun is really commercial."
Cancun is jammed full of hotels and has a more crowded, urban feel. On the plus side, everything you need or want is within walking distance or can be reached by city bus (60 cents a person, $1.10 for buses with air conditioning).
Regardless of where you stay, there’s no need to be stuck in a hotel. The area offers everything from ancient Mayan ruins to exhilarating water sports. Our favorites were:
• Captain Hook cruise. This is pure campy fun for everyone. These two large sailboats are filled with pirates who double as waiters and put on a hilarious show that culminates in a battle over a "treasure." (Both warring pirate factions declared victory at the end, as far as I could tell.)
• Xcaret (Ish-ca-ret). This eco-archeological park is worth a full day of exploring between the coral reef museum, the opportunity to pet a stingray and a cooling float down an underground river (beware: it can be dark in the underground passages and some of the kids found it scary). At the end of the day, there’s a traditional horse show (included) and a Mayan dinner theater (for an extra fee) that includes a demonstration of the famous Mayan ball game and death-defying Mayan pole dance. To snorkel here, you’ll need biodegradeable sun screen, which burned when it touched our skin. We bought ours at Tulum, where it was much cheaper.
• 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 wear sunscreen; there isn’t much shade.
• Snorkeling. This worked for my husband and me, but not the kids. They didn’t like the big fish that surrounded us in the aqua blue waters. The snorkeling tour we took from Maroma Beach stopped in two places along the Mesoamerican reef, the second longest in the world (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), but the kids stayed on the catamaran while we floated over the reef and were awed by the amazing schools of fish. They did enjoy the horseback ride we took at Maroma—especially the part where they rode bareback into the water.
• Isla Mujeres. This island off the coast is reached by ferry, and we loved it when we visited in May. It was severely damaged by the hurricane and is expected to reopen soon. When it does, it’s well worth the trip. The snorkeling along the reef is wonderful (the fish were smaller and more colorful, therefore less scary for Tess), the hammocks hung between the palm trees are restful and the buffet at the restaurant is plentiful and delicious.
• Jalebs (ha-lebs). At least that’s what the locals called this large rodent outside our hotel balcony. The kids tossed out plums and watched with delight as it peeled the skin and ate the meat.
• Fifth Avenue, Playa del Carmen. This the place for bargains in the Riviera Maya. But only if you negotiate hard—and are willing to walk away.
A final note: Whether you opt for an all-inclusive vacation in which the flight, food, drinks and many hotel activities are included, or an à la carte trip that you plan yourself, bring plenty of cash. Most of these people work for (and appreciate) tips.
Cindy Richards is the senior editor and travel editor of Chicago Parent and the mom of Evan and Tess.