Alabaster beaches, Mayan ruins, swim-up bars, sea turtlesand topless tourists.
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AS MUCH AS I LIKE to think of myself as a grand adventurer, an explorer of all things exotic, I have to admit that when it came time for my Mexican vacation, I headed straight for a beach resort. I’m not talking about a tiny hotel on a remote beach where you dine by candlelight because there is no electricity. I’m talking about one of the gigantic resorts that have sprung up along the Yucatán Peninsula on Mexico’s eastern seaboard, featuring parasailing, jet-skiing, scuba diving, water aerobics in the swimming pools, golf, kids’ clubs, cabaret shows in the hotel theater, and even the Cartoon Network beamed in by satellite to your room’s TV.
Laugh at me if you will. Call my vacation “Mexico Lite.” But the fact is that a Yucatán beach resort is the way hordes of Texans now experience Mexico, especially those traveling with children. If you hang around the Cancún airport, you’ll be amazed at the number of chartered and scheduled flights, run by packaged-tour companies like Funjet and Adventure Tours USA, that swoop in from Dallas, Houston, and Austin, unloading tourists who are bused straight to their resort. Some go to the high-rise hotels crammed into the frenetic, overdeveloped Cancún hotel zone. Others head south toward an area known as the Mayan Riviera. Those of you who last visited this region a decade ago, when it was considered a rustic paradise, would be amazed at what has happened. More than sixty resorts by my count, most of them the size of small college campuses, line the eighty-mile stretch of highway between Cancún and the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. Although you can still find a few resorts that strive for an intimate boutique feel—among them the Maroma Resort and Spa, which is operated by the Orient-Express hotel company; the Ikal del Mar, with palapa-style villas and an exquisite restaurant serving “Mexi-terranean” food; and the ultraglamorous Royal Hideaway Resort and Spa—the new resorts only get bigger and bigger. The recently opened Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret, south of Playa del Carmen, has 769 rooms in more than a dozen buildings, thirteen restaurants, ten bars, and five swimming pools, each big enough to hold the Fifth Fleet.
Because the smaller, high-priced resorts don’t allow children (or have little for them to do), my wife, Shannon, our five-year-old daughter, Tyler, and I took a taxi from the Cancún airport to the Riu Palace, a child-friendly hotel in the resort area of Playacar, just a couple of miles from the bustling town of Playa del Carmen. Eleven big resorts stand side by side at Playacar, and there is one reason why: They front a dazzling, palm-tree-dotted alabaster beach and ocean waters that are clearer, even at depths of twenty feet, than most backyard swimming pools. You can stand on the beach, look to your left and right, and see hundreds of people lounging on chairs or bobbing in the gentle surf and, farther out in the water, motorboats, banana boats, catamaran sailboats, paddleboats, and jet-skis zipping about. All the resorts have beach volleyball courts and huts where you can sign up for parasailing ($90 tandem or $50 per person for about ten minutes in the air), jet-skis ($50 for thirty minutes), and snorkeling or scuba diving trips (a two-hour snorkeling trip—a boat picks you up right on the beach and takes you to a nearby coral reef—is about $30, lunch included).
If beach activities aren’t your thing, the people-watching is spectacular. It’s not just Americans who are hitting this part of Mexico. European charter jets are unloading Germans, Brits, Danes, and even some French, who apparently are finding the Mayan Riviera just as good as their own. Many of the European women go topless, a source of endless titillation for American fathers and teenage boys. The culture clash between the glowering, cigarette-smoking Europeans, who lie on their beach chairs all day long reading existential novels, and the frisky Americans, who build giant sand castles and toss Frisbees and pump their fists in the air during beach volleyball games, is simply a wonder to behold.
The 434-room Riu Palace is considered one of the pricier of the eleven Playacar resorts. It’s an impressive-looking place, with an expansive lobby (complete with statues, urns, hand-painted Mexican murals, and even a small chapel), an outdoor courtyard (with splashing fountains, gazebos, a huge plaza, and lush gardens), and the obligatory enormous swimming pools with swim-up bars.
People accustomed to the best U.S. hotels won’t be overly thrilled with the guest rooms—the bedspreads are scratchy and the pillows ridiculously small, and there are never enough towels—nor will they swoon over the food. Like most of the big resorts on the Mayan Riviera, the Riu Palace is all-inclusive, meaning that the price you pay for your room covers all of your meals and drinks, including alcoholic beverages. As long as you stay on the property, you never have to carry any money or credit cards (you wear a colored wristband that identifies you as a guest of the hotel), and you can walk into any of the Riu Palace’s four restaurants and eat as much as you want. Almost everything is served buffet style, which ensures a certain blandness, except in the resort’s steak restaurant and at breakfast in the main restaurant, where chefs cook omelets and pancakes to order.
The biggest drawback of an all-inclusive resort, however, is that some people rarely leave it for the four or five days they are there, whether because they feel they are wasting money if they don’t eat the meals they’ve already paid for or because they are a little afraid of what might happen to them if they venture into non-tourist areas. They might as well be in Florida.
As much as my family is addicted to the ocean—on the first day of our four-day trip, we spent six hours just hanging out on the Playacar beach—I was determined that we were going to venture beyond the realm of “wristband people,” as the locals call the resort crowd, and see something of Mexico, which is not that difficult to do, even with a kindergartner in tow. After our day at the beach, we took a $5 cab ride into Playa del Carmen, which can be a surprisingly bohemian little town if you avoid the touristy places, like Señor Frog’s restaurant. Especially toward its north end, the main drag, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), is lined with shops, lively restaurants, and chic bars that are crowded with stylish young Mexicans and Europeans. Again, it’s hard to beat the people-watching. If you’re without children, head for a fashionable little hotel on Fifth Avenue called Deseo (which Condé Nast Traveler named one of this year’s Hot Hotels), ascend a marble staircase, and have a drink at the popular rooftop bar, which usually has a nice breeze.
On our second day we jumped on the ferry that shuttles between Playa del Carmen’s port and Cozumel several times a day ($16 a person). Forty-five minutes later we were on that small tropical island, where we rented two scooters (only $25 each for the day, but we were liable for any damage) and buzzed around. We stopped to snorkel at Chankanaab National Park (admission $10, snorkeling gear rental $10), where the reefs are swarming with colorful fish. Wearing a life vest, goggles, and flippers, Tyler had the time of her life looking at the fish while floating on the water’s surface. Next we walked to another part of the park and swam with the dolphins at the Dolphin Discovery exhibit (touristy, yes, and at $119 a person, wildly expensive, but it’s still a kick—especially when you hold on to a dolphin’s fin and race through the water). Then we headed back to Cozumel’s city center, turned in our scooters, and strolled around the main plaza at sunset. (Because it faces west, Cozumel has glorious ocean sunsets that you won’t see on the Yucatán coast.) We ate a dinner of grilled red snapper and a fish called mojarra in a little out-of-the-way restaurant recommended by someone on the street (about $25 for the three of us), jumped on the ferry back to Playa del Carmen, and were at our hotel by ten-fifteen.
On the third morning of our trip we took a thirty-minute taxi ride ($30) south to Tulum to view the Mayan ruins—dramatic remains of a sophisticated ancient culture, where kings vacationed more than one thousand years ago (admission $5). Tyler was impressed with an often-photographed Mayan temple that stands atop a steep cliff overlooking the sea. (I would recommend getting there early in the morning, to avoid the heat, and not taking a tour bus, whose schedule can keep you at the ruins for longer than you and your kids need to be there.)
From Tulum we took a $15 cab ride to Xcaret (“Iss-ca-ret“), a kind of theme park focusing on the area’s ecology. For the admission fee of $50 per person (in case you haven’t noticed, you can run through a lot of money on day trips alone), we swam in an underground river; walked through a butterfly sanctuary with nearly five thousand butterflies; stared at crocodiles, sharks, sea turtles, wild birds, tigers, and monkeys; went on a horseback ride through the jungle; and after dark, watched dancers reenact an ancient Mayan ceremony. The other park in the area, Xel-Há (“Shell-ha“), is like a natural aquarium with coral reefs and caverns where, for $25 a person, you can spy on an enormous variety of fish and other marine life (including stingrays and sea turtles) while you snorkel. Both parks have open-air restaurants and bars, beaches, cliffs for diving, and lagoons for swimming, as well as their own swim-with-the-dolphins programs and scuba diving expeditions.
Day four: back to the beach. Anyone who goes to the beach with young children longs for the freedom to do nothing but read for a few hours or take a nap in a hammock strung between two palm trees without worrying about the endless cry of “Mommy! Daddy!” This is where a resort’s “kids’ club” comes in—an area run by a couple of employees who keep the little monsters involved in activities ranging from treasure hunts and face painting to soccer games and water-balloon fights. (Among the eleven hotels along Playacar, I discovered that the best kids’ club belongs to the Gala Resort. It divides the youngsters into two age groups—two to six and seven to twelve—has a clubhouse just for teenagers that’s full of foosball, Ping-Pong, and billiards tables, and stays open from ten in the morning until eleven at night.) Although the Riu Palace has no children’s program of its own, its guests are allowed the free use of one of the kids’ clubs at the two adjoining Riu-owned resorts, just a couple of minutes’ walk away. We chose the more free-spirited Riu Tequila, where the club was open for three hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon.
While our five-year-old played a game of “pretend pirate” with some cute girls from Germany, Shannon fell asleep by the Riu Tequila pool, one page into her book. I tried to read too, until one of the resort’s “activities directors” persuaded me to join a water polo game. Five minutes later an English tourist who looked like a soccer hooligan threw the ball and hit me in the face. He gave me a bear hug by way of apology as I stumbled, red-faced, out of the pool. A few minutes later another activities director got me to join a bunch of tipsy people for a salsa-dancing lesson. When I noticed a couple of stunning, topless Spanish women laughing at me, I slunk over to the swim-up bar and listened to people talk in four languages.
Shannon swam up, still yawning from her nap. “You realize, don’t you, that we’ve turned into those wristband people?” she asked. For a moment the leaves of the palm trees shimmered in the afternoon breeze. There was not a cloud in the powder-blue sky.
“I know,” I said. “And it’s not all that bad, is it?”
Getting there: There are nonstop flights to Cancún from Dallas-Fort Worth (American and Funjet), Houston (Continental and Funjet), and San Antonio (Continental). To book either your airfare alone or an airfare-and-hotel package with a company like Adventure Tours USA, you must call a travel agent. At $240 a person round-trip, our Adventure Tours charter flight was far less expensive than a commercial flight. Our 45-minute taxi ride from the airport to Playacar was $40.
Where to stay: Riu Palace, 011-52-984-877-4200, fax 984-877-4210; riu.com, [email protected]. The published rates for the hotel, which are almost always higher than the rates you would get through a tour company, run from $130 a person a night, double occupancy, during the low season (September through December) to $306 a person a night during the Christmas holidays. If you book an airfare-and-hotel package through Adventure Tours USA, the average price for four nights is $550 a person, which includes bus transportation from the airport to the hotel.
What to do: Hotel Deseo, Quinta Av. at Doce, Playa del Carmen. Xcaret and Xel-Há: Buses will pick you up at the Riu Palace and take you to the parks; make arrangements through the hotel’s hospitality desk; $77 round-trip to Xcaret (includes admission and the night show), $75 to Xel-Há (all-inclusive). The hospitality desk can also arrange for a bus to pick you up to visit the Tulum ruins; $38 round-trip. To ensure a place for one of the dolphin swims at Dolphin Discovery, have the hospitality desk make reservations the day before you go.
Only connect: If you are connecting with another flight in Mexico City, allow at least two hours—especially on the way home, when you will have to claim your bags before boarding. Consider using one of the U.S.-based carriers, which offer more flights between Mexico City and Texas, just in case you miss your connection.