Cancun Family Vacation
See nure sharks and other marinelife while snorkeling in Cancun.
Mayan Deity on view in Tulum, an old temple on the coast.

Cancun is one of those destinations that has taken on a certain mythical status, after four decades as one of the major beach destinations in the Western Hemisphere. In those years it has grown in a planned, considered fashion from a jungle fishing village to bustling tourist town. Though its gorgeous coastal neighbor to the south, the Riviera Maya, has stolen some of its thunder, Cancun is still a major family beach vacation destination, now more upscale than ever. Yet Cancun is also a city of over 600,000 people with a rich and vital local culture worthy of exploration. It offers both beach and city pleasures and an excellent base from which to explore the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Cancun’s Beautiful White Sand Beach & Reefs

Clean, beautiful, crushed-coral sand beaches (with some flat rock patches) line the number 7-shaped strip known as the Cancún Peninsula. Despite years of successful promotional campaigns portraying Cancún as ‘Mexico’s Caribbean,’ the crystalline, sky blue water out your hotel window is actually the Atlantic Ocean.

Families with toddlers and younger children should keep in mind that the hotels on the north side, or the top part of the seven, front the calmest parts of the ocean. Hotels on the sloping, eastern coast face an Atlantic that can be deceptively gentle or lashed by winds, with an ever-present riptide. Many resorts have lifeguards stationed by color-coded warning flags, and even skilled swimmers are urged to swim within their jurisdiction and honor the warnings. Under close supervision, though, your youngest kids will have a wonderful time splashing in the shallowest part of the surf.

The Yucatan’s naturally mild climate hovers in the mid-80°s F (27°-32°C), with strong sun and brief daily showers in summer, some boisterous winds in the August to November hurricane season, and the occasional cold rain and wind between December and March. Breezes off the Gulf of Mexico keep the sea between 82°-86°F (27°-30°C) year round — great kid-friendly sea water.

Snorkeling and diving are rich experiences on the Great Mesoamerican Reef that runs 450 miles down the length of the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way into Honduaras. It is the second largest coral reef in the world, behind only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. 

With a population that ballooned from 3,000 to almost 650,000 after the region was selected for tourist development, it’s fortunate that Cancún planned for waste treatment to avoid spoiling the region’s rich environment. When you snorkel in a marine preserve you’ll appreciate the flourishing undersea reef system. You can enjoy the wonderful swimming, observe or play with dolphins, and admire the marine life being successfully bred or rehabilitated in captivity.

Behold Cancun’s Lagoons, Jungles & Turtles

A few budget hotels and numerous picturesque restaurants face the Nichupté Lagoon contained between the Cancun Peninsula and the mainland where the modern city, Cancún Ciudad, is located. Yes, it’s scenic and yes, the sunset is breathtaking, but mosquitoes can be a real nuisance. (They’re present, much less so, in other areas, so bring kid-friendly bug repellent.)

The lagoon waters, part of which are mangrove forests, are allegedly filled with crocodiles and other indigenous wildlife, but also busy with romantic coastal cruises and adventurers. Watersports are popular both within and beyond the lagoon — kayaking, jet skiing, snorkeling, fishing, parasailing, submarine tours and even dinner cruises might suit your brood.  Contact AquaWorld (52/998/848-8327) for more information; their excursion boats leave from the Nichupté Lagoon at either the AquaRay marina or from the newly rebuilt La Isla shopping center marina.

Other operators also run many lagoon tours via kayak and wave runner, as well as glass bottom boat cruises, deep sea fishing, and scuba diving excursions. More experienced divers should try snorkeling in the area’s unusual cenotes, spring-fed wells that provide access to underground rivers used by Mayan traders. Sailboats can also be chartered both with crew and bare.

Or if you would rather see the beautiful jungle from up above, Selvatica! (52/998/898-4312) offers the longest zip line in all of Mexico: over 2 miles, 24 platforms and 12 lines lcoated about one hour outside of Cancun. The entire course takes 2 hours, and transportation to and from the hotel is included in the price. When you’re done traversing through the trees, the adventure course continues with mountain biking. After a one-mile journey, the group arrives at the cenote “Verde Lucero” whose waters have had ancient spiritual meaning to the Mayan people for over a century. Also, although the tour is intense, children as young as 3 can participate and will be assisted by the trained Costa Rican-born tour operators and guides.

Animal lovers will be excited to visit Tortugranja (52/998/877-0595), a turtle farm on Isla Mujeres. (A day trip to this beautiful island, reached by ferry from the Cancun Pier, is itself a fun adventure.) Created in 1994 as the Mexican government’s effort to save the declining turtle population, Tortugranja is the perfect place for children to get up close and personal. Although you cannot touch the turtles, you can feed them and observe the younger ones in one of the three pools or the larger turtles in sea pens. There is also a small museum with displays about turtles and the ecosystem. All proceeds from the nominal admission go to saving these creatures.

Cancun’s Eco-Aware Tour Operators

Families with teens should be interested in the offerings of Alltournative Tours (877/437-4990 from the U.S. and Canada), a Cancun-based tour operator with a selection of active daytrips. Fit family members can rappell inside a cave; tour the Mayan sites of Coba;  partake in a jungle canoe adventure; cross through the jungle in an all-terrain vehicle, sea-kayak to a spectacular reef for snorkeling, swimming and rappelling into cenotes (underground rivers); zip line over the jungle’s foliage and visit Mayan communities.

Those interested in getting in touch with the Mexican culture, might be interested in some of the environmentally-friendly ecotours that Dos Palmas (52/684/802-2461) offers. They describe the experiences they provide in an authentic Mayan village this way: “It allows you to experience the way of life, the customs and traditions of ancient Mayan civilization first hand, as if you indeed were taken back in time.” Escorted by their guides, your family can swim with a whaleshark or experience a Mayan Ceremonial Night, which consists of visiting a Temazcal (sweat lodge) for a spiritual cleansing, then taking a dip in a cenote or sinkhole. Not only does Dos Palmas offer a wide variety of unique and diverse activities, but the company also helps Mayan families and communities to become economically self-sustainable through ecotourism.

Cancun Dining & Nightlife

Wonderful resort hotels, elegant boutique hideaways, great nightlife for those under 30, air-conditioned malls, kitschy and quality crafts markets, and fine continental and gourmet Mexican cuisine abound.

La Disteleria, one of the favorites for ambiance, food and kid-friendliness, is a fun and lively Mexican restaurant built on the site of an old Tequila distillery. The enthusiastic wait staff will give you a soup-to-nuts tour of how Mexican firewater is made. There’s an unsupervised playroom upstairs where the kids can run around while you’re involved in the tequila taste-testing. They have a gringo kids’ menu and a large, tasty variety of Mexican fare, plus a wonderful sunset view.

Families are often suprised to learn that Cancun has many fine ethnic restaurants; great Italian, French, Thai and Japanese restaurants serve tourists from all over the world. But when in Mexico, eat Mexican. Some of the better Mexican food restaurants include Maria Bonita (52/998/883-1730) overlooking the Bay, and Pericos (52/998/884-0415) with strolling Mariachi and Marimba bands.

When it comes to nightlife, Cancún has few equals. Sure, Carlos n’ Charlies still sells US$8 margaritas and announces their presence with music blaring from their strip-view patios. But families who enjoy a stroll al fresco will find lots of other options along Yaxchilan, downtown’s prime restaurant row and a safe and lively night time destination. We loved sitting near the big grill at La Parilla and sampling its specialties: poc chuc (grilled pork), codzitos (rolled tortillas with tomato and cheese) and a pitcher of sangria. For US$5 we had the mariachi serenade us, too, much to my son’s embarrassment.

My family also enjoyed a stroll around the Parque de las Palapas, downtown’s main public park. In this very cool quarter there are several cafes serving World cuisine; local quesadilla vendors for a cheap snack (not for the turista-phobic); restaurants such as La Habichuela (52/998/884-3158) for Carib-Mex fusion.

Whether you like live music nightly or a cool afternoon frappe, stop at one of the city’s cafebrerias such as El Pabilo (52/998/205-0674), which we admired for its book collection and show of watercolors.

One night at the Plaza las Americas mall, we tried Cinépolis VIP, a new concept cinema where tickets mean reserved seats in cushy leather armchairs, a small screening room ambiance and “room service” to your theatre seat from any of the food court’s vendors. We ordered sushi and fruit punches and popcorn before the film, took our seats, and in the middle of a tense scene in our movie, had a waiter deliver a tray full of food. Don’t ask me how he found us in the dark!

Of the many world-class discos that change with the season, nothing really compares with The City (011/52/998/848-8385), a 4,500 person-occupancy club with live dancers shimmying on trapezes. It’s an amazing place and has hosted 50 Cent, Beyoncé, Deep Dish and many others for tapings of “MTV Spring Break.” Recent concert performers include Fergie, Ludacris, Akon, Flo Rida, American Eagle, Sasha, Tiësto, Paul Van Dyk… the list goes on. City also has nightly live performances of acrobatics, fire dancers, bungee artists, hip hop dancers and more. Let’s say they try to give you your money’s worth, and your teens will adore it. However, we have heard 16 is the minimum admission age, and 18 is the legal minimum drinking age… but things seem pretty loose in town.

Cancun Cooking, Arts, Crafts, Shopping & Kids Play

One of the greatest cultural arts in Mexico is its delicious cuisine, and many families enjoy spending a day at the Little Mexican Cooking School in nearby Puerto Morelos. You’ll start with breakfast, review and cook at least five recipes, and can invite other family members to join in the late lunch  taste-testing session for a nominal fee. Call ahead for private lessons and to find out if the class is age appropriate for your kids. All teaching is in English.

The La Casa del Arte Popular Mexicano (011/52/998/849/4332) is at El Embarcadero, on the Isla Mujeres ferry pier, and it’s a wonderful collection of more than 3,400 folk and religious pieces of art, set in attractive displays. The tableaux of daily life with tiny, miniature painted figures will especially delight children. This collection is open daily from 9am-9pm so there’s no excuse to pass it by; the comprehensive gift shop of folk art items can take care of your entire shopping list. Next door is a gently swirling Scenic Tower ride that your little ones will enjoy.

Traditional shopping and ageless bargaining continue at several mercados in downtown El Centro, where you’ll find huarache sandals, huipiles (embroidered Mayan dresses), carved wood, weavings, very stylish silver and pewter ware, talavere ceramics, pottery and baskets. Some modern shopping malls are their own indoor amusement parks, air-conditioned to appeal to local shoppers and cafe-packed to appeal to tourists.

Plaza Kukulcan has a multi-story atrium at the center of the tourist strip with a few hundred shops. The smaller Plaza Caracol and Forum by the Sea sell very high end merchandise. The most fun of the newer malls and one that just reopened is the high concept La Isla, a lifestyle complex criss-crossed with canals , the terrific Cancun Aquarium, fancy shops with more exclusive merchandise, a number of American brand-name stores and eateries, mimes and other performers, and a variety of outdoor restaurants.

So, as you can see, for the visiting family, there is much to do, buy, see, swim, laze, and so so little time.  Enjoy!

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