Having three children of my own, I am always on the lookout for family activities in Playa del Carmen. Since we have five people to pay for, I also don’t want to have to shell out $50 or $100 USD dollars per person every weekend. We have had our fair share of memorable days on the beach (which never get old), riding waves on our body boards, building sand castles and playing ‘Tips’ (best Frisbee game ever!) However, with so much natural beauty throughout the Mexican Caribbean, road trips give us exciting opportunities to explore this magical, outdoor playground.
Here are our family’s top rated picks for experiencing the awe-inspiring flora, fauna, marine life and culture in the Mayan Riviera!
1) Visit A Cenote
There are thousands of sinkholes, known as cenotes, carved out of the limestone bed that sits beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula. These striking swimming holes are hidden wonders often situated amidst lush jungle. As you make your way around these exquisite pools, you cannot help but become awe-struck by the verdant setting surrounding these natural phenomena. Each is completely unique and offers a different experience. Some are deep enough to dive and navigate through underwater tunnels and caves showcasing impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations. Others are better for snorkeling and simply taking a dip in the refreshing waters. Most have modest cliffs and taking the plunge into the crystalline waters is one of our favorite pastimes. There are a few that have palapas, picnic tables and fire pits for camp-style cookouts.
Cenote Eden is one of our crew’s top choices. We pack a lunch with salads, drinks and some coal for the barbecue pit and roast hotdogs or grill pork tenderloin. There are covered picnic tables and washrooms as well as life jackets included in the entrance fee. This is one of the larger cenotes in the area, located just 20 minutes South of Playa del Carmen along Highway 307. Activities include diving, snorkeling (bring your own gear) and cliff jumping.
Cenote Azul (next to Eden) has about an 18-foot cliff, which our three kids (ages 7-10) love to leap from, but for younger children, there is a lower platform to jump from. The setting is very tranquil and the water just cool enough to refresh you on a hot day!
Cenote Cristalino (also along the highway 20 minutes from Playa) has both an open, natural pool to swim in, as well as a cave to explore. I often bring guests here who are tickled by the fish pedicures and enjoy the cold fresh cocos (fresh coconut water) available at the small on-site store.
If you ever have the opportunity to take a day trip to the ruins of Chichen Itza, the nearby Cenote Ik kil is one you will want to make room for in your itinerary! This exceptionally beautiful swimming hole is the most photographed in the Yucatan Peninsula. An opening in the ceiling of the cave let’s the sunlight shine through at high noon, lighting up the picturesque cavern and bright aqua-colored waters. Its beauty is too extraordinary to describe in words and should really be witnessed first hand when visiting Riviera Maya!
- Bring cash. The entrance fees range from $60-$100 pesos ($4 - $6USD) per person.
- Go early in the morning to avoid crowds.
- Bring your own dive or snorkel gear. Life jackets are included.
- Pack your own snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.
- Bring a camera – the caves and cliff diving make for some incredible photos!
- Wear biodegradable sunscreen so that generations for years to come can enjoy the remarkable nature of the region too!
- Water shoes are a good idea to pack with you if you have them. The stone both surrounding and within the cenotes the can be slippery.
- Getting there is easy! If you rent a car, you can combine a trip to a cenote with a visit an archeological ruin site or a snorkeling adventure with turtles in Akumal! There are also taxi vans called ‘colectivos’ which transport passengers all along the 307 from Cancun to Tulum for approximately $3 USD/person.
2) Parque Fundadores
Playa del Carmen’s main dining, shopping and entertainment district is located on the vibrant, pedestrian-only 5th Avenue. At the South end of this charming, cobblestone street is a central square in which visitors can view various free performances throughout the day. The ‘Voladores de Papantla,’ (Mayan Flying Men) climb an 80-foot pole and play traditional Mayan music with flutes and a drum. Four of the five men, spiral slowly downward, suspended upside down by their feet with a rope, which is attached to a rotating platform at the top of the pole. The 5th remains at the top to play the music while the others descend down, flying in a circular motion. It is a centuries old Mayan ceremony performed to honor the Gods of Sun, Wind, Earth and Water.
In late afternoon, passersby can also enjoy another Mayan ritual dance commonly performed in Parque Fundadores by Mayan warriors. Dressed in traditional costume and elaborate feathered headdresses, Mayan men, women and children dance to drums, passing balls of fire among the warriors under the famous, bronze Portal Maya (Mayan Gateway) sculpture.
On the sand near the sculpture is a playground area for children with a fort, slides and monkey bars. To walk along the white-sand shoreline and end at the park is a fantastic way to burn off some of the never-ending energy of a young child, and savor in Playa’s easy-breezy beach life.
There are various performers in this area of 5th Avenue including a talented group of break-dancers. Every once in a while, we love to head out with the kids for a walk along this effervescent avenue, take in one of these special cultural performances, grab some churros, (long and narrow, fried doughnut-type snacks) and people watch as we munch on the sweet treats.
3) Swim With Turtles In Akumal
This is one of our favorite outings when we have people visiting from out of town. Akumal is just a 20-minute drive South of Playa del Carmen. The small town offers much in the way of water activities including a tranquil bay in which you can snorkel with sea turtles, rays, crabs and dozens of species of colorful, tropical fish. The coral in the protected bay is the largest I have seen in the area.
A barrier reef system surrounds the bay so the water is always very calm and usually crystal clear. For young children, this is an ideal place to let the little explorers have some fun splashing around in the Caribbean’s warm, turquoise waters. There are enough palms standing tall along the beach to provide shade, along with a few restaurants facing the mesmerizing sea.
The area where visitors are almost guaranteed to catch a glimpse of a turtle or two is only about 150 meters from the shore. There is a bit of an ocean current, so we choose to book a tour with a guide since there are always children in our group. The guide leads the way pulling a life preserver to which the kiddos cling to. You have the choice to wear your own snorkel gear and head out solo for a captivating, underwater adventure. However, there is also the option to rent gear, which includes a life jacket and guide for approximately $200 ($13USD) pesos per person.
If you follow the main road past the parking for Akumal Bay, it bends to the left past a seaside residential area and Half Moon Bay. When in this area, particularly around lunchtime, La Buena Vida beach club offers comfy beachside seating including plush beanbag chairs, shaded areas and some amazing eats. The shore is quite rocky here, but we have flown kites and found some pretty cool dried coral formations that have washed up on along the picturesque shore.
Continuing on from Half Moon Bay to the end of the road, within about a 5-minute drive, you’ll end up at the Yal Ku Lagoon. The waters are calm and for the most part shallow, but an adult should accompany children, as there is a current. We have never seen a turtle here (although there have been many sightings) but have enjoyed observing the abundance of tropical fish species. If you have come to Akumal via a colectivo, the lagoon is a fair distance from the highway so you’ll need to catch a taxi if you plan to go to this northern part of the town. If you are simply going to the bay area, it is only a leisurely walk from the colectivo drop off on the highway. Please note that there is a fee of approximately $20USD to enter the lagoon that includes snorkel equipment.
Tips when visiting Akumal:
- When swimming in the reef, it is prohibited to touch the coral or other marine life. Even dragging snorkel gear over a coral can destroy an entire colony.
- Wear biodegradable sunscreen so as not to pollute the water.
- Bring a beach blanket or chairs, as there are no available loungers or umbrellas.
- There is an on-site dive shop that offers tours for deep sea fishing and diving from the bay.
- Visitors are allowed to bring their own cooler to the public beach in Akumal Bay, but not within the gates of the Yal-ku Lagoon.
- On the weekends, the beach can get very busy. If possible, visit this breathtaking bay during the week or go early to avoid crowds.
- The guided snorkeling tours in the bay last one 1 hour and are suitable for children ages 6 and up.
- If you decide to go on a guided tour, there a various companies offering guides and equipment. We have used a couple and would suggest paying the extra $50 pesos per person and using the company under the palapa. Other family-owned companies operate on the beach and are less expensive, but only have one guide. If you don’t mind waiting an hour until the guide returns from the last tour, then the family-owned operation might work for you. I did notice that the company under the palapa had a higher level of professionalism and seemed more knowledgeable about the reef area (we snorkeled in a more expansive area and saw more impressive coral formations and marine life.) Also, they had equipment and life jackets to fit an adult male, which the second (family-owned) company we used, unfortunately did not.
- Try the Turtle Bay Café near the main parking lot on the north side of the principle road at Akumal Bay. This restaurant serves up the best breakfasts, pies and casual beach eats in town!
4) See A Cultural Performance at El Teatro de la Cuidad
This stunning theatre located on Avenida 115 beside Wal-Mart on the west side of the 307 Highway, presents professionally produced dances, ballets and theatrical plays. In an effort to promote the arts, many of the performances are free! You will however, have to go in person beforehand to the box office to pick up tickets.
Some of the spectacles have included traditional dances of the Mexican states, a Christmas concert performed by a Royal Brass band and a contemporary dance performance presented by the Contemporary Dance Company of Playa del Carmen. If you are interested in enjoying the arts with your family, you can visit their Facebook page for details or ask your Bric Ambassador for a list of upcoming events.
5) Paddle Board In Paradise!
Hopping aboard a paddleboard is an exhilarating water sport that allows you to stay active with your family while on vacation. Furthermore, it gives you a prime vantage point from which to take in Playa’s spectacular sunrises and awe-inspiring views of the Mayan Riviera coastline!
I love the idea of gliding over the turquoise waters for an hour or two, but I have to admit, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to the open sea! The waters have to be almost glass-like to seduce me to paddle eight hundred yards from the shore! That is why I love booking with Compas Paddle Club. The company offers the option of a private family tour to Tulum, which includes transportation from Playa del Carmen, the board and paddle rental, a light snack, water, a 15-minute introductory lesson and free time paddling on the calm waters of a local cenote or lagoon. Compas’s representatives are bilingual and take photos of the fantastic family adventure for you to have as a keepsake.
If you and your children have some experience on a paddleboard, Fanny from Compas Paddle Club also takes a maximum of 5 paddlers out 3 times daily (weather permitting) - at sunrise or 6:45, 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The hour-long class sets out to sea from the Shangri-La beach just down from the Bric Vacation Rental offices on Calle 38 and the beach.
The cost for the class in Playa del Carmen is $20 USD per person and includes 15 minutes of introductory instruction as well as equipment rental. The Tulum tour is more costly ($80 US/person) but you have almost triple the amount of time on the board in a majestic setting. The instructors are passionate and their enthusiasm for nature and the sport of paddle boarding will leave you with a giddy smile and lasting memories of this truly extraordinary encounter.
Compas Paddle Club uses Naish boards which is the top manufacturing company for water sport equipment. The particular model they use is perfect for beginners and is more stable due its shape and size.
- If you book the class that leaves from Shangri-La, bring towels and water for your party.
- The instructors can store your belongings while you are out on the water.
- If you book a tour to Tulum, the transportation service leaves at 7:00a.m. from the Calle 38 meeting point and the trip lasts about 5 hours, including 1 hour 20 minutes travel time each way.
- Try to book at least 2 to 3 days in advance if possible as space is limited.
- A deposit is required on the day of the booking so as to hold your space, since there are only 5 spots available per outing. For your convenience, a representative of Compas Paddle Club will come to your hotel or condo to collect the deposit.
- Please be advised that water sport activities are subject to the mood of Mother Nature. If the water is too rough and the wind too strong, the tour will be canceled. Clients will receive a call from Mayoli if this happens, or you can check on their Facebook page where they post announcements if the classes are canceled.
- Appointments can be made via Facebook (Compas Paddle) or by calling Mayoli at (984) 801-0104.
6) Spend A Leisurely Day In Puerto Aventuras
Puerto Aventuras is just a short drive (under 20 minutes) South of Playa del Carmen. This gated, upscale marina community is built along the alabaster, Mexican Caribbean shores with canals running throughout, harboring some rather impressive boats and yachts. Our family loves to go and spend the day walking around this quiet Riviera Maya haven.
The main hub of Puerto consists of restaurants, shops, pubs and cafes surrounding a Dolphin Discovery. Although we have never actually swum here with the dolphins, it is a pretty spectacular scene to be lunching and watching these beautiful creatures leaping out of the water in the background!
Also in this general area is the CEDAM maritime museum that exhibits artifacts (including a cannon collection) that have been recovered from shipwrecks along the Yucatan coast. The museum is open from 9-5pm and they do not charge an entrance fee, however donations are accepted.
After treasure hunting at the local artisan shops and dining by the water, we always make a stop at Jesse Gelato for some of the richest, smoothest gelato you’ll come across in the Mayan Riviera! The fresh churned batches often include homemade blends like their own caramel recipe with whiskey. Even the creamy vanilla will knock your socks off! With gelatos in hand, we stroll along the dock to view the boldly colored tropical fish and jellyfish that call the deep-water marina home.
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.