The "Mayan Riviera", or "Riviera Maya", south of Cancun in Mexico is a top spot for families for two reasons:
- Many all-inclusive resorts offer water sports, kids' programs for ages 4 to 12, and land sports and family activities
- The 130 km from Cancun south to Tulum offers fun and fascinating activities
Your driving route to the resorts and attractions of the Mayan Riviera is Highway 307. Despite the "Riviera" label, the drive isn't scenic; most of the highway is inland, about a kilometer from the shore, and is flat and straight with no view of the sea.
Mayan Riviera Highlights
- Second-largest barrier coral reef in the world
- Unique "eco-archeological" theme park Xcaret
- Lagoons full of colorful fish
- "Cenotes" (natural pools of clear water-- lovely to swim in)
- Fascinating Mayan ruins at Tulum and Coba
18 km from Airport: Town of Puerto Morelos; Marina El Cid and Azul Resorts
So close to tourist powerhouse Cancun, Puerto Morelos has -- somewhat miraculously-- survived as a laid-back small town; whereas Playa del Carmen, just a notch down the highway has been utterly transformed by tourism.
Puerto Morelos' residents are savvy about the ecology of the nearby coral reef (-second largest barrier reef in the world) and potential environmental damages of development. So far, little large-scale resort development.
If you're driving down Highway 307, stop in at Puerto Morelos and shop for souvenirs around the town square, or book a snorkeling trip to the reef with one of Puerto Morelos' knowledgeable guides.
All Inclusive Resorts in the Puerto Morelos Area
Resorts in this area have two big advantages: they're just 20-minutes from the Cancun airport, and they're right by the wonderful coral barrier reef. Guests should be sure to take a snorkeling trip.
Just south of town is the all-suites Marina El Cid Riviera Maya Resort. Families like the big freeform pool with waterslide and cliff jump. the resort has a kids club for ages 4 to 12, and a marina with sailing and snorkeling outings (- extra charge). Platinum-level service adds perks such as ocean-view, special check-in, butler service.
Also in the area are two AZUL Hotels by Karisma "gourmet inclusive" resorts: the boutique AZUL Beach Hotel, and larger AZUL Sensatori. Both have special programs for under-fives, complimentary gear for babies, kids clubs and features such as beach butlers and 24-hour room service.
Kilometer 25: Iberostar Playa Paraiso Multiple Resort Complex
This giant complex on the Mayan Riviera has five resorts with lush grounds and white-sand beach; pool complex with lazy river, wave pool, kids' pools; many restaurants, shopping center, spa, and P.B. Dye golf course.
Generally, guests at one resort can "dine around" and play at the other resorts, but with some restrictions depending on the home base resort. The most upscale resort is the most exclusive, and its guests have free range everywhere.
One pair of resorts has the Hotel Iberostar Paraiso Beach and the Hotel Iberostar Paraiso del Mar, with 386 rooms in 2-story buildings, 6 specialty restaurants, many bars, nightclub, discotheque and pool area with kids' pool.
The second duo --Iberostar Paraiso Lindo and Iberostar Paraiso Maya -- share a lake-style pool, lazy river, wave pool, kids' pool and activity pool. The Paraiso Maya also has some exclusive pools and restaurants and special amenities.
The top resort (so far) is the Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso, which is the first resort in Iberostar's luxury "Grand Hotel" brand. The Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso has suites and villages with butler service, four a-la-carte restaurants, three pools, a private spa and concierge services.
Kilometer 53: Playa del Carmen and Playacar
Playa del Carmen is a tourist hotspot, bustling with souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, small hotels; ferry departures for the island of Cozumel; a busy beach; an upscale shopping zone of air-conditioned shops. A few kilometers south of Playa del Carmen is a tourist development called Playacar.
Playacar has most of the area's all-inclusive resorts.
For example, in Playacar, the Iberostar Tucan has:
- A large freeform pool area with activities pool, lagoon, adults’ pool with swim-up-bar, and children’s pool
- Bike tours, air rifles, archery, dance classes, Spanish classes, water polo
- Lush grounds with trails past jungle foliage, ponds, cenote wells
- Nearby 18-hole golf course
- Kids Clubs for three different age groups
There are also two Viva Wyndham Resorts in Playacar. Viva Resorts had eight all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico and has an alliance with the giant Wyndham hotel chain -- hence the Viva Wyndham brand. Viva Wyndham is known for their good price point, which could interest families with an eye on the budget, as the Riviera Maya area generally tends to higher prices.
Kilometer 59 - Xcaret Eco-Archeological Theme Park
Imagine Disney-meets-National-Geographic: Xcaret aims to package the Yucatan's Mayan history and its tropical lagoon ecology into one day-long fun experience. The result is well-executed; Xcaret is a terrific place for a family to spend a day.
- Underground River Float: 1,590-foot swim in an underground river; life jackets and gear provided; even kids as young as five can go
- Premium (i.e. extra charge) activities such as dolphin encounter, sea trekking, and snuba
- Butterfly Pavilion, Tropical Reef Aquarium
- Pumas and jaguars in large "cageless" area in Jaguar Island
- Mayan Village
- Live entertainment including horseback show and Papantla Flyers (flying around a pole, 30 meters in the air)
- A spectacular night-time show
All resorts organize excursions to Xcaret, but you can also rent a car and drive yourself, or take one of the buses that fly down the highway, and then return to your resort by one of the taxis waiting at the end of the Night Show.
Other eco-parks in the Mayan Riviera include:
- Rio Secreto: underground river with stalactites and stalagmites. The minimum age for this tour is four years old.
86 km: Puerto Aventuras
Puerto Aventuras is an upscale tourist community in the central part of the Mayan Riviera, 20 minutes south of Playa Del Carmen, with marina, shops, golf courses, etc. Families can rent villas or condos, or choose an all-inclusive resort. For example:
Barcelo Maya, a four-resort complex, with:
- A mile of white-sand beach
- Natural coral reef so you can snorkel on-site
- Lagoon-like free-form pool, kids pool area
- Minigolf around a cenote
- Dance courses; open-air fitness area; jogging trail
- Nightly entertainment in an amphitheater, weekly Folklorico show
- Playground, game room, teen disco, kids club for ages 4 to 12 shallow beach areas
89 Km: Akumal
Just south of Puerto Aventures is another tourist center, Akumal, with three bays, and coral reef nearby. Snorkeling is a highlight in this area: kids will especially like the calm waters in the beautiful Yal-Ku Lagoon. (Expect to pay an admission fee.)
Akumal has shops, restaurants, condos, villa rentals, and some all-inclusives, of course.
The Gran Bahia Principe Resort is a complex of three resorts -- Gran Bahía Príncipe Akumal, Gran Bahía Príncipe Tulum, and Gran Bahía Príncipe Coba-- that share a shopping/entertainment area; a trolley runs every 10 minutes, to help guests get around this large resort.
Also in the area -- 3 miles from Akumal on Playa Kantenah (and just five minutes south of the Barcelo Riviera Maya) -- is the Grand Palladium complex of four resorts, which share a half-mile of white sand beach, and 173 lush acres with flamingo ponds and orchid gardens. Be prepared to do some walking, on pathways and wooden bridges. Lodgings include villas, bungalows, rooms, suites; some can sleep five.
Features include a lagoon-style pool, kiddie pool, complimentary snorkeling, and Hobie cats; fishing, sunfish sailing, scuba, windsurfing, snorkeling excursions, at an extra charge; kids club, and nightly kids' shows; teen program at peak times.
122 Km: Xel-Ha Eco-Park
Xel-Ha (pronounced "Shel-ha") is owned by the same company as Xcaret. Xel-Ha is billed as a "water theme park" and offers excellent snorkeling and a number of activities.
Arrive early, and expect to spend the whole day; families will find hammocks and spots to relax. Kids might enjoy bike-riding, hiking and exploring in jungle-type vegetation, a children's playground, and a lazy river you can do by tube-float or snorkeling. Several "Adventure Activities" are offered such as "Courage Cliff" (jumping five meters into a river), or jumping from a rope into a cenote.
Water activities include swimming in cenotes, and swimming with dolphins (for an extra charge.)
Many resorts sell day trips that include both Xel-Ha and a visit to the Tulum Mayan ruins, but some visitors report that they would have preferred more time at Xel-Ha. Families may be better to visit Xel-Ha on their own, by rental car or cab.
117 Km: Tulum
The Mayan ruins at Tulum get full marks for scenic locations: they're the only Mayan ruins right by the sea. Take a tour, to learn about history and architecture from one of the knowledgeable trained Guides; then, after you've walked the extensive grounds in the hot sun, head to the beach and cool down with a swim. Try to visit early, before the tour buses from Cancun arrive!
Visitors who want to stay near Tulum, in the south end of the Riviera Maya, can choose the all-inclusive Dreams Tulum.
Dreams Tulum Resort
This all-inclusive resort -- part of the same company as the Sunscape brand-- has two miles of beach, a natural cenote, and 23 acres; colonial-style architecture, 24-hr. room service; "Explorers Club" for kids age 3 to 12. Guests can take a bike tour of the Tulum ruins.
Near Tulum, a road heads inland; travelers with a car can explore the Aktun Chen caves, and the vast ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Coba. Meanwhile, on the coast further south from Tulum is the Si'an Kaan Biosphere Reserve.
Bottom Line: the Riviera Maya is an amazing area for family vacations, thanks to its natural wonders and Mayan ruins; and its array of all-inclusive resorts provide all the infrastructure -- meals, drinks, kids' club, activities, watersports, spa-- so many families want on their getaways.