Yes, Cancun is for families

By | Category: Travel destinations

face-to-face at the underwater museum

Back in 1980, when I was a very lucky 21-year-old who landed a job in Cancun, it was paradise. Just a few hotels dotted the strip, the town was populated by an extraordinarily friendly lot of native Mayans, iguanas were feasting on watermelon and hibiscus flowers and the ambience was very exciting – after all, we were tourism pioneers in Mexico’s newest destination.

For me, as public relations director of a new major hotel – it was more than exciting, it was thrilling. Thirty years later, I somewhat dreaded a trip back. I’d heard the stories of wanton US teenagers on school vacations, the tales of US chain restaurants like Denny’s Pizza Hut and McDonalds and the overbuilding. Would I, as a middle-aged parent, still love my old home?

Yes, I most definitely do. I recently visited Cancun and the adjacent 110-mile Riviera Maya with my twin daughters and found it to be a delightful, marvelous family destination – in many ways far superior to yesteryear. Our experiences were full of native animals and marine life, incredible eco-parks, nature and wilderness adventures – with nary a tattoo shop or piercing shop within sight. If you’re looking for endless nightlife and raunchy attractions, it is certainly to be found. But I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the overall ambience in the area is, happily, still directed to families and couples who love the Caribbean and want to experience a bit of local culture and ecotourism.

Hurricane Wilma struck in 2005 with a vengeance, but the government and private enterprise jumped into the restoration effort with fervor, determined to modernize and revamp, as well as to hurricane-proof, as much as possible. Cancun’s US$20.33 million project recovered nine miles of eroded beach.

Cancun has been Mexico’s most visited tourist destination for over ten years. In 2012, 363,142 Brits visited Mexico – the overwhelming majority to Cancun. Swinging nightclubs, upscale shopping and dining complement miles of magnificent white-sand beaches with turquoise waters. Cancun’s nickname of ‘Gateway to Mundo Maya’ is even more apt now than it was years ago – with recent enhancements to the infrastructure of many Mayan ruins, ranging from immense to tiny, dotting the hotel strip and surrounding areas.

Xcaret

After years of frenzied building, reconstructing and phenomenal population growth, the once-tiny Cancun is a city, fronted by a 14-mile long hotel zone which extends out between the Nichup-te Lagoon and the glittering Caribbean like a crooked finger. Most of the hotels are quite astonishing – fabulous palaces and pyramids with hundreds of rooms, abundant restaurant choices and fantastic swimming pools striving to outdo their neighbors.

In the last ten years or so, Cancun had started to develop a reputation as the Magaluf of Mexico. That stuff about wild and crazy teenagers in Cancun – it’s true, but the key word is SOMEtimes. During U.S. college spring break weeks (these run any week from mid-February to mid-April) and the beginning of June, when high school seniors arrive for their ‘summer break,’ Cancun does indeed cater to the young and very restless. Happily, the rest of the year, however, is for the OTHER generations. The quiet, charming Mayan-flavored Cancun that I experienced and loved as a college student myself can still be found.

fish obscuring the view at the underwater museum

Side trips in the area abound, but a ‘don’t miss’ place is Xcaret. This spectacularly designed eco-archeological park is everything, naturally, that many amusement parks try to be artificially. Xcaret, just 35 miles from Cancun, offers a true nature paradise, including a 1590-feet long underground river of cool natural spring water, down which you’ll float, through ancient limestone caves, Mayan ruins and lush vegetation. You’ll see many endangered local animals, such as jaguars, pumas, tapirs, sea turtles, and flamingoes, in special protection and research islands. The butterfly pavilion is exquisite, and the aviary, full of toucans, macaws and more, is thrilling. Stay for the extraordinary evening events, with two action-packed Mayan ball games, played by athletes in full regalia, and for the mystical pre-Hispanic procession through caves, gazing upon reenactments of Mayan fire rituals and Mayan village scenes.

Xcaret offers 25+ attractions, including snorkeling, swimming with dolphins (additional charge,) Mayan village tour, an aquarium, an active bat cave, and a Mexican rodeo. New features are added regularly, such as the recently completed mock Mexican village cemetery, where the traditional celebrations of Day of the Dead are re-enacted. Xcaret is open all year, from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the winter, until 10 p.m. in summer. Several admission packages are available.

Xel-Ha

Other excellent side trips in the area are completely family-friendly, including the wonderful lagoon snorkeling site of Xel-Ha. This huge salt-water inlet mixed with its unique surface fresh-water river is famed for numerous nooks and crannies, in which myriads of multicolored fish collect. I was very pleased and relieved to see that while today’s facilities accept tourists in tour buses, the crowds are not a problem, and the fish have not been driven away. Xel-Ha’s Aquatic Institute promotes responsible snorkeling with the awareness of ecological concerns. An experience at the Institute is a comprehensive class in snorkeling, including equipment, training and a tour of Xel-Ha waters.

The delightful tiny island of Isla Mujeres, is still relatively undeveloped and provides superb shallow snorkeling with rainbows of fish flocking around. Less than five miles long and about 1,600 feet wide, Isla Mujeres offers hotels of all categories along with the outstanding natural park, El Garrafon. The park is the site of an excellent snorkeling reef, along with options for kayaking, scuba, Snuba and Sea Trek, ziplining and bungee jumping. We especially enjoyed the glorious winding pathway at the south side of the park, a veritable mini-Big Sur, overlooking the brilliantly blue crashing Caribbean waves below. The walk brought us to the most eastern point of Mexico, where a sign advised us to return in the morning so that we’d be the first in the nation to feel the sun. El Garrafon is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Between Isla Mujeres and Cancun is the fascinating and very enjoyable Cancun Underwater Museum, which offers snorkeling and diving tours of its 400+ incredible underwater sculptures, created by British artist Jason Decaires Taylor. You’ll also see schools of tropical fish and maybe a sea turtle or two surrounding them!

clever ziplining?

Extreme sports enthusiasts and eco-tour fans alike will enjoy various zip-lining canopy tour companies in the area. After zip-lining, many of the sites take visitors to a short mountain bike trail (or drive) to cenotes, where they can splash, swim and refresh themselves in the crystal-clear waters. Cenotes are limestone grottoes or sinkholes which are spread through the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, some underground, some not, all offering cool, clear, mystical waters.

Find your inner James Bond (or Jane Bond) at Exotic Rides Cancun, opened just about one year ago near Cancun International Airport. “Awesome,” “once in a lifetime,” “what a rush,” and “amazing” are some typical responses from visitors, some of whom choose to drive the sportscars themselves (track day) and others who prefer to enjoy sitting back as a copilot (hot lap) while a professional NASCAR and/or Rally Mexico-trained drivers whip them around the course, trying to beat their previous lap records.

shall I choose this...

Exotic Rides Mexico, has invested US$4.5 million in its fully restored car track. Its collection of some of the finest and most powerful cars in the world includes such makes as Lamborghini (Murcielago and Gallardo,) Lotus, Audi (R8,) Mercedes (SLS AMG) and Ferrari (F430 and Scaglietti 612.) Customers are provided with insurance and a driving and safety class before heading out to the course with their assigned pro driver. All customers must have valid drivers’ licenses from their home states or countries, and must sign waiver forms. After watching the safety video and selecting the car, the driver is fitted with a helmet and taken out to the course, a 1.25 mile-long speedway with a curving circuit and straightaways, allowing for top speeds of up to 148 MPH.

Exotic Rides also provides for “Road Tours,” for which visitors can book the cars (with pro drivers) for drives to Tulum, Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya or even to visit fine dining establishments – in style. For real adventure junkies, there is the Drifting Experience, in which customers hop into a Camaro SS (having a top speed of 173MPH) as copilot while the pro driver “drifts” through the track and spins the car intentionally making 360’s and 180’s.

...or this?

There is a strong America feel to the place, not surprising given that Americans are the main visitors so you’ll find US style diners and restaurants in abundance but why not experience some local culture and cuisine. Relish the outstanding local specialties served at several restaurants in town – Cochinita Pibil (spicy barbecued pork,) Tikin Chic (achiote-rubbed fresh grilled fish) and a cool drink with the anise-like Mayan liqueur, Xtabentun.

Mexico is extremely popular with British holidaymakers. Holidays are provided by the major tour operators and over 25 smaller and independent ones. Alternatively, Virgin Atlantic fly regularly for those who travel independently.

For more information about Cancun, click here.

For more information about Mexico, click here.

Images © Cancun Tourism Board and Newlink

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