The Yucatan Peninsula: A Guide To The Best Kid-Friendly Summer Vacations
Being based out of Playa del Carmen, Mexico has its advantages. Besides its central location, this area receives over 300 days of sunshine per year. Due to this ideal warm-weather climate, kids can spend most of their time in the great outdoors. As any parent is well aware, children have boundless energy. Behaviorally speaking, they tend to operate at their best when they have a healthy outlet for that non-stop enthusiasm.
A Mexico vacation will not only do wonders for your little energizer bunnies but spending a week immersed in nature boosts moods all around. They’ll get plenty of fresh air splashing in the pool, building sandcastles, biking through the jungle, and engaging in a myriad of water sports. Furthermore, the dozens of eco-parks in the area offer enough exhilarating activities to keep a family busy year-round. Most importantly, you’ll won’t hear those dreadful words, “I’m bored.”
Our troop has discovered an endless list of best places to travel in Mexico with family. But in this article, we will start with 6 top family-friendly summer vacation spots in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Why Travel To The Yucatan Peninsula Is A Perfect Choice For A Family Vacation
Covering the Southeastern states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, the Yucatan Peninsula is incredibly rich in scenic and historical routes. Scattered throughout the region are thousands of cenotes and ancient Mayan cities. Whether you plan a relaxing beach vacation, a spellbinding road trip, or a combination of both, there is no doubt your travel experience will be unforgettable.
Millions of annual visitors find that navigating this area is a piece of cake. Take for example the father and son duo I recently met in a restaurant in Tulum. The two were on their second trip to Mexico to explore lesser-visited archaeological sites such as Kabah, Dzibilchaltun, and Calakmul. With toll roads cutting travel time, 6 Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) and 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to discover, the Yucatan Peninsula is bursting with hundreds of activities to easily fill a weeklong vacation itinerary.
1. Merida, Yucatan
Things to do in Merida
One of the safest cities in Mexico to vacation, you’ll fall in love with Merida and its unique union of historic, modern and artful appeal. The city’s downtown core is best discovered by foot. There are storefronts out of a 1940 country and western film, charming squares shaded by massive trees and surrounded by delightful cafes. The opera house, Teatro Peon Contreras, is an architectural masterpiece with opulent staircases. Furthermore, the Municipal Palace features stunning murals by Yucateco painter Fernando Castro Pacheco.
Located near the northwestern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, this captivating colonial city was built upon the former Mayan city of T’Ho. When the Spanish moved in to take over, the Mayan structures were dismantled. Those same stones were used in the construction of some of the 13 cathedrals still standing in Merida’s historical zone. On Friday nights, a free, video-mapping light and sound show is produced on the façade of the grand Merida Cathedral in the Plaza Grande.
If your children are fans of the popular movie ‘Coco’, they will definitely be enthralled with a visit to the Merida cemetery. Rows upon rows of multi-colored mausoleums laden with dried flowers, candles and photos give a glance into the lives of lost loved ones.
Day trips from Merida
Izamal, ‘The Yellow Town’
- A 45-minute drive from Merida
- Famous for Pope John Paul’s visit in 1993
- Earned Pueblo Magico status in 2002.
- Visit the Convent San Antonio de Padua, which was built upon a flattened tip of a former Mayan pyramid. The mustard yellow, colonial monastery features frescos from 16thcentury and overlooks the town’s main plaza.
Uxmal, Archaeological Site
- 1-hour drive from Merida
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Explore the sacred pyramids including the Temple of the Magician, which legend tells, was built by a magical dwarf in one night
- Visit Choco-Story Museum to learn the history of chocolate in the Mayan culture. Handicrafts and cacao products are available for purchase as a memento
Yucatan Ring of Cenotes
- The same meteor impact that is believed to have killed the dinosaurs is also said to have created the Yucatan Ring Of Cenotes
- A 180 km band of limestone sinkholes fed by the longest subterranean river system in the world
- At least 99 extraordinary cenotes to explore, including Cenotes Santa Rosa, Bal-Min and Tzau Jun Cat
- Cost $20 – $300 Mexican Pesos ($1 – $16 USD)
Where to Stay in Merida
Hotel Victoria sits on Paseo de Montejo, a ‘Street of Dreams’-type avenue boasting awe-inspiring mansions. Built in the 1900s by wealthy henequen farmers, the stately architecture was intended to rival the most captivating Parisian streets of that period. Today, these homes operate as bank branches, office buildings, museums and one of the most gorgeous Starbucks you will ever drink a latte in.
Airbnb is also a great option as you can stay in beautifully restored colonial homes with cathedral ceilings, chequered floors, and picturesque gardens. In the city center, Hotel Mision Panamericana offers the perfect location. Walk to the Santa Lucia for dinner, have an exceptional breakfast at La Chaya Maya, and shop for spices and shoes at the Lucas de Galvez Mercado.
If your budget allows, a stay in an elegant hacienda is an experience like no other. In the 1800s, when the henequen industry thrived, landowners built their own villages behind the walls of these sprawling estates. Peruse the chapels, doctors’ offices, school classrooms and impressive living quarters that have since been transformed into luxury hotel properties.
2. Cancun. Quintana Roo
Things to do in Cancun
While Cancun does have a notorious reputation for being a rowdy spring break destination, it still has many admirable features going for it. Vast, white sand beaches and a slew of exceptional family-friendly attractions continue to attract sun-seekers from around the globe.
Get wet and wild at Ventura Park, an all-inclusive outdoor arena for fun and adventure. Teenagers can be a tough crowd when it comes to planning activities they will not yawn over. However, Ventura’s wide range of installations from wedgy-inducing water slides to go-karts and riveting roller coasters, make this attraction a guaranteed winner. Young adults, preschoolers, and adults who are teens at heart will have a great time testing the array of installations within this ultimate fun zone.
La Isla is a high-end outdoor shopping village within the hotel zone but offers much more beyond popular brand name stores. Dozens of restaurants line the serene canal and present a gorgeous view of the sunset. Thai Lounge is one such restaurant with a spectacular lagoon setting. Take in the awesome panoramic views from the Ferris Wheel and visit the interactive Aquarium where the kids can observe exotic sea creatures and dolphins at play.
Pirate Show & Dinner at Sea. Sailors of every age will become mesmerized when their ship encounters a pirate invasion. Both the actors and exquisite surf and turf menu make this sunset dinner cruise a delight. The show begins at 6:30 p.m. and lasts 4 hours. Tickets start at $70 USD; kids are half price, but book ahead online to save.
Day Trips From Cancun
Swim with Whale Sharks, Isla Mujeres
- Snorkel with the gentle giants of the sea
- From Marine Ferry Terminal At Punta Sam
- Whale Shark tours offered from June 1 until mid-September
- Children must be 5 and older
- The majority of tours last approximately 7 hours and start from $165 USD (less for young children.) Transportation, food, and water or pop is included
- Newest, most adrenaline-filled park by the top-notch Xcaret Experiences Group
- Various degrees of adrenaline-pumping features. Mild activities include water slides, kayaks and, rope obstacle courses and for the extreme adventurers, a class 3 white water rapid excursion
- Restaurants on-site, but all-inclusive packages are available
- Open from 8 am to 5 pm daily. Prices start at $107 USD for adults and half price for kids. Book ahead online for discounted rates.
- Minimum age is 5
- Xavage is located 15 minutes from Cancun
- Safe and interactive petting zoo featuring encounters with local wildlife including monkeys, turtles, iguanas, parrots, snakes, and crocodiles
- Conservation project with an initiative for wildlife preservation. Most animals are seized from illegal trade or rescued
- 60 to 75-minute guided tours
- 20 minutes from Cancun
- Adults $32 USD, Children $22 USD, Kids 5 $ under are free
Where to Stay in Cancun
The hotel zone is an optimal Cancun location if you are staying with your kids. Incredible all-inclusive hotels at every price range line the splendid Caribbean shores. Our top picks highlight the best kids clubs and offer an abundance of activities from cooking classes and a flying trapeze school to water sports. Even your teens will enjoy clubs that separate the little kids from the big ones, so they can have their own space to relax and have fun.
For the best all-inclusive family vacations in Cancun, our votes go to Club Med Cancun Yucatan, Paradisus Cancun in the heart of the hotel zone, and Moon Palace just south of the airport.
3. Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo
Things to do in Playa del Carmen
One of the things our visiting relatives love is walking along Playa del Carmen’s famous 5thAvenue, a cobblestone street blocked to traffic. It’s the perfect spot to indulge in an upscale dinner, window shop and enjoy an ice cream or a churro (a Mexican pastry sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon).
At the south end of 5thAvenue, is Parque Fundadores, where the iconic Portal Maya structure stands looking onto the majestic Caribbean. Every day, there are free cultural performances such as the ‘Danza de los Voladores’ as well as Mayan warrior ceremonies. Just 3 blocks up the street, on the corner of 15 Avenue and Benito Juarez, try the best authentic Mexican street food including tacos and empanadas.
In the heart of downtown between Calle 12 and 14, just steps from 5this El Acuario. This a chance for an up-close encounter with tropical creatures such as lionfish, seahorses, stingrays, and jellyfish. In the same neighborhood, on 10th Avenue in between Calle 8 and 10, is the 3-D Museum of Wonders. Get your camera ready to capture the amusing illusions that invite visitors to become part of the artwork.
Joya Dinner Show takes place at the beautiful Vidanta jungle venue approximately 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen. This highly entertaining resident Circle du Soleil spectacle features theatrics, acrobatics, and contortionists. Tickets for adults start at $77 USD. However, if possible, splurge on the dinner option, which features creatively designed courses to accompany the outstanding show.
Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
- Ecological Park with over 50 natural and cultural attractions, located 5 minutes from Playa del Carmen
- Nature-lover’s paradise featuring lazy rivers, first-rate snorkeling, a giant, man-sized birdcage, Children’s World, Mayan Village, Mexcian Cemetery, Butterfly Pavilion, Aviary, Coral Reef Aquarium, and a 2-hour cultural show extravaganza
- Extra Activities for an additional cost: Snuba Family and Adventure Kids (feed stingrays)
- Open daily from 8:30 – 10:30 rain or shine
- Admission starts at $107 USD for adults and $54 USD for kids
Akumal Monkey Sanctuary
- A project aiming to educate visitors and protect rescued animals such as lemurs, goats, deer, macaws, and spider monkeys
- Guided 2.5-hour tours beginning at 9:00 a.m.
- Includes 20 minutes inside to interact with a group of primates
- Half an hour from Playa del Carmen
- The regular cost is $65 USD for adults, $45 USD for kids. Book online in advance for up to 20% discount
Chikin Ha Park
- A half-day adventure within a sublime nature park
- The 4-hour tour includes rappelling, exploring underground caves, swimming in 3 cenotes, ceremony with a Mayan Shaman, bike ride over jungle paths and zip lining
- Extra activities such as Temazcal ceremony for an additional cost
- Prices are $37 USD without buffet, $45 USD with lunch
- Open from 8:30 am to 6 pm
Where To Stay In Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen has a modest all-inclusive hotel zone and a handful of oceanfront hotels in the downtown area. The downside of an all-inclusive stay it that guests are less inclined to leave the confines of the property. Many visitors miss the chance to discover the friendly local feel and delicious authentic tastes of this magnificent region. Besides the monotony of an all-inclusive stay, parents are forced to succumb to the same bedtimes as their young children. A condo rental allows for your own privacy to unwind in your own space after the juniors are asleep.
Staying in a vacation rental does not mean that you must sacrifice amenities. Bric Vacation Rentals provides a superb inventory of properties featuring beach clubs with snack bars as well as lavish, resort-style pools. Most importantly, you receive 24/7 access to a designated or on-site Bric ambassador. This Playa expert can answer any questions you have, as well as help to arrange transportation, grocery delivery, dinner reservations, and tours. Having a trusted and knowledgeable person to show you the way to the best the city has to offer, ensures your holiday’s success.
4. Holbox, Quintana Roo
Things to do in Holbox
Jade green waters of the Gulf of Mexico surround this sleepy, little island. It is our go-to weekend getaway for relaxing and unplugging, as it is only 1 hour 20 minutes from Playa del Carmen. Consider a three nights stay in Holbox a perfect accompaniment to a few nights in the Riviera Maya.
From June 1st to September 15th, whale sharks feed off the rich plankton source in the Yum Balam Biosphere near Holbox. One of our family’s most memorable weekends since living here was an excursion to swim with these spotted goliaths. On that unforgettable Holbox boat tour, we saw sea turtles, dolphins, flying fish, whale sharks and flamingos in their natural habitats. Finally, we parked on the rustic shore of a heavenly island boasting astoundingly clear, blue waters that left us speechless. As we sipped on cold cervezas, the captain prepared us freshly prepared ceviche.
Another not-to-be-missed summertime activity in Holbox is witnessing the glowing blue nightly phenomenon. Select the guided kayak tour option, or investigate to find the best location for viewing the plankton on your own. As the water along the shoreline is stirred, these fascinating microorganisms begin to glow. This natural wonder is known as bioluminescence.
Day Trips From Holbox
Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins and Cenote Ik’il
- A full day adventure with pick up from Chiquila Ferry Terminal
- Spend 3 hours exploring one of the New Seven Wonders of The World and the site of the massive Kukulkan pyramid
- Swim in the breathtaking waters of the partially enclosed Cenote Ik’il. Kids have a chance to jump from the cliff and you will have plenty of photo-op moments
- Stop and stroll along the charming streets of the colonial town of Valladolid. Visit the stunning cathedral and taste Mexican treats from vendors in the bustling square
- Lunch included
- A private tour starting at $79USD per adult
Where To Stay in Holbox
A place we return to time and time again is Ensueño Holbox Apartments. The tropical oasis provides accommodations to fit a family of 5, with a kitchenette. The booking comes with breakfast, access to a palm-fringed swimming pool, and a discount at the nearby Carolinda Beach Club. The Caribbean vibe inspires nothing more than basking in the sun and cooling off in the hammocks in the shallow waters a few feet from the shore. There are bike, paddleboard or golf cart rentals just a 10-minute walk down the glorious coastline.
When it comes to dining, the lobster pizza at Cariocas Pizzas is a must. One of our favorite off-the-beaten-path island eateries for casual Mexican and seafood dishes is El Crustaceo Kascarudo. For lunch, sample some of the best local cuisine such as tamales, ceviche, and tacos at the quaint, 100% authentic Las Panchas.
5. Cozumel, Quintana Roo
Things To Do In Cozumel
On account of the extremely high water clarity, Cozumel became known for its superior diving and snorkeling conditions. Moreover, the close proximity of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second-largest in the world) presents coral reefs teeming with colorful Caribbean Sea life. In these waters, it’s highly likely to have a run-in with Nemo and Dory, along with more hair-raising creatures like sea spiders. The best aspect of staying in a Cozumel hotel or condo rental is that you can snorkel right from your property.
In the center of the western shoreline of Cozumel is Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park. Within the pristine natural setting are white sand beaches, tropical gardens, manatee and dolphin exhibitions, sea trek and snuba excursions, zip lines, and a tequila tasting experience.
Also in Chankanaab Park is the Atlantis Submarine adventure. As a passenger, you will sink to depths of 100 feet to explore the local reef. The one-of-a-kind underwater expedition gives you the chance to peer out the portholes at sunken ships, manta rays and sea turtles. If you’re lucky, you may even see a mermaid!
Where To Stay In Cozumel
Towards the southwestern shore is the Reef Residences. Choose from stylish 1 to 4 bedroom vacation homes, some of which boast their own plunge pools. Engulfed in exotic foliage, the communal pool sits at the heart of the substantial, oceanfront property. A silky sand beach is speckled with lounge chairs shaded by thatched-roof huts. Paradise Beach is just a short stroll away and has restaurants as well as an inflatable water park. You can relax and savor the view, while the kids to burn off some of their energy reserves.
Reef Residences is about a 15-minute drive to the city center, so we rent a jeep during our stays in Cozumel. Spend a full day touring laid-back beach clubs such as Palancar, The Money Bar, and Coconuts. On the southern tip of the island is Punta Sur with its lighthouse, maritime museum, and lagoons, home to toothy local residents, the American crocodiles.
Day Trips From Cozumel
El Cielo (Heaven)
- 4-5 hour boat tour to the strikingly clear bay El Cielo, which is only accessible by boat and home to stingrays, turtles, and starfish
- 2 stops at local reefs for snorkeling
- Lunch and non-alcoholic beverages included
- Snorkel gear and lifejackets included
- Starting at $50 USD/adult, $40 USD/child
6. Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Things To Do In Bacalar
Breathe deep. You’ll want to savor every magical moment of your time in Bacalar, a.k.a the Lagoon of 7 Colors. This small town, approximately 3 hours from Playa del Carmen, was once a tiny village frequently pillaged by real-life pirates of the Caribbean.
While in Bacalar, you will want to spend as much of your two or three-day visit (max) on the water. Boat tours take you to two cenotes that feed into the lake. The kiddos can spend time swinging from a rope into the refreshing waters, and then head over to the Pirate’s Canal for more dips in water as blue as the Maldives.
At Fort San Felipe Museum is an intriguing display of artifacts and historical information of the area. Read reports on the infamous pirates who once ransacked the town. Plus, be sure to get a photo next to the cannons, which line the stone rampart and overlook the dazzling lagoon.
Day Trips From Bacalar
- Spend a couple of hours allowing the mild rapids to carry you along the turquoise river in an incredibly scenic and rustic setting
- Discover Stromatolites, the Earth’s oldest, living fossils
- 20 minutes from Bacalar
- Restaurant and hammocks on-site
- $100 Mxn fee/adults ($5.50 USD)
Where To Stay In Bacalar
Villa Pehaltun is an expansive property offering a friendly atmosphere similar to that of a charming Mexican camping adventure. Yet the 3 cabanas have all of the convenient amenities you need. The hosts have every water toy you can think of and will gladly take you on the lake for an exhilarating afternoon of water skiing and wakeboarding. Go for an early morning paddle and relish the tranquillity of the calm waters in front of this prime piece of Bacalar real estate.
For an unbeatable ambiance and picture-perfect setting, request a table at La Playita. Enjoy casual Mexican and seafood dishes and choose from a vast drink menu. It’s a superb spot to end an enchanting day and to create lasting childhood memories in the Yucatan Peninsula.