Fun for all on the Riviera Maya
By Barbara Barton Sloane

"I’ve just been kissed by a dolphin!" This shriek of unbridled surprise and joy emanates from participants in a Swim with Dolphins experience on the Riviera Maya in Mexico. This amazing activity is only one of the singularly special adventures found at this pleasure spot on the Yucatan Peninsula. There are hundreds of possibilities for kids, teens, parents and even grandparents to enjoy at this tropical paradise.

The Riviera Maya is a strip 60 miles long located on the coast of Quintana Roo in the far east of the Yucatan Peninsula starting 20 miles south of Cancun. Between 500 and 300 AD, the indigenous people developed one of the most astonishing civilizations: Mayan. They built monumental cities, among them Tulum, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. The presence of the Mayan culture is ever present here – in art, in architecture and in the vivid colors which surround you – from exotic flowers, the tone of the sea to the forest birds’ plumage: sheer primitive beauty.

Water, Water Everywhere

What comes to mind when you hear the words "water park?" Probably kids careening down slides into a pool or splashing about in fake waves. On the Riviera Maya, the words water park take on a whole new meaning. Xel-Ha (pronounced shel-ha ) in ancient Mayan means "the place where the water begins to flow." Here seawater mixes with the cool currents from the underwater rivers to form a unique ecosystem.

The forests within the park conceal cenotes , which are limestone-walled underground rivers. You can jump into an inner tube and let the gentle current carry you along, all the while marveling at the beauty of these mysterious caves. At the Dolphin Center, you can swim, shake hands and yes, even let one of these friendly mammals plant one on you! Swing from one side of the water to the other on vines and ropes, kayak in the sea or spend the afternoon lazing in a hammock on the shore of a lagoon accompanied by the sound of locally-bred macaws. At Xel-Ha everything is included with the entrance fee, all food, drink, snacks and equipment: life vests, snorkel ear, inner tubes, kayaks and more.

When you visit Xcaret (pronounced Schcar-et ) you have the chance to truly interact with nature and because there’s so much to see and do, Xcaret makes it simple: they will organize your day from morning to evening. Early in the day, visit the Butterfly Pavilion when these creatures are most active. At noon, when it’s hot, put on a life jacket and take a tour of the cool, underground rivers where you can also check out Spider Monkey Island.

There’s afternoon snorkeling, feeding sea turtles, and visiting mangrove swamps containing crocodiles. Check out the Coral Reef Aquarium, which is an exact copy of the Great Mayan Reef. You’ll leave calm, collected and ready for the evening’s excitement, Xcaret’s Mexico Spectacular with 300 performers. They play a Burning Ball Game, act out the history and culture of Mexico, and dance a folkloric ballet. This Mexican fiesta will keep you awed, amazed and astonished from start to finish.

Both parks offer a full day and evening of family fun, and best of all, they are eco-archeological , which means they are committed to preserving fragile reefs, tropical forests, their 4,000 species of wild and marine flora and fauna and one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, which has existed for almost 500 million years. Visitors are asked to leave their sun block lotion in lockers because these will affect the water of the inlets, rivers, pools and lagoons. The parks provide you with biodegradable sun block and your product is returned when you leave. This mini-lesson in ecology resounds with kids and adults alike.

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Another unforgettable experience is to hook up with Alltournative Track Adventures for their Jungle Crossing expedition. An all-terrain vehicle takes you deep into the jungle to Rancho San Felipe where you’ll visit an isolated community of Mayas and eat a delicious lunch of empanadas, rice and beans and other typical Mexican fare prepared by the women of this community.

The ride out to this jungle destination is like nothing you’ve experienced before. Bumping, grinding, almost flying out of your seat, the ATV makes sure it hits every crater and hole. You’ll arrive all in one piece but decidedly "all shook up!"

Playas and Pools
The Yucatan Peninsula abounds with wonderful resorts which tend to be of the "all-inclusive" variety. With the cost of your room, all food, drink and entertainment is included. For families with young ones, this is an appealing arrangement. At breakfast and lunch, kids can sample until they find something that pleases them.

Most of the resorts also have a kid’s club on site. From morning till dinner time, you can enjoy free time while the kids are kept amused and busy with games, classes and activities, all under close supervision of trained adults. If you like, the resorts will organize daytrips to archeological sites such as the ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum or a shopping excursion to Fifth Avenue, the area’s spot for good retail therapy. Once the kiddies are tucked in for the night, adults can enjoy nightly entertainment at the resorts’ clubs.

On your Riviera Maya vacation, you’ll come away impressed by the sheer dedication of the people to protect their environment. Here your feet will have touched the sand, the mangrove swamp, and the solid rock on which the ancient Mayans stopped to gaze at the horizon, to reaffirm life and to dream. This ancient people conceived of the world as having three parts: the underworld, heaven and earth. They were, indeed, on to something because your time here will seem a bit like heaven on earth.


Alltournative Off Track Adventures

Tel: +52 984 803 9451

Barbara Barton Sloane is a travel writer in New York and a regular contributor to BAFT

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