Traveling with an infant or a pre-schooler can be a taxing ordeal. The usually smooth daily routine is askew and some kids do not handle the abandonment of schedule well. If you have ever been trapped in an airplane with a screaming toddler, you understand the feelings of utter despair. After one particular nightmare of a flight with my son, I vowed to never fly with him again until he had graduated from high school. But we tend to recall only the good times. Within months, we found ourselves back on-board an aircraft with the kids along for the ride.
Flying is no longer a luxury only the wealthy can afford. Many families travel for business and pleasure several times a year. This day and age, there are six-year-old kids that can navigate through a multi-terminal airport better than some adults. There are countless globetrotting families that provide proof that international travel with young children can and should be done.
If you have a deep passion for travel, why postpone your dreams of roaming cobblestone streets in Italy or swimming alongside whale sharks in Mexico if you can do it now? The journey can have its hurdles, (think zigzagging customs lines with an irritable two-year-old) but the destination is always worth it in the end.
With a little planning and preparation, you can be on your way to fulfilling your travel desires whether your kids are at the ideal age or not.
Having flown on enough international flights, our twelve, ten and nine-year old have grown accustomed to making packing checklists and preparing their own suitcases. They download their favourite movies and music on their devices, and double check to make sure they have packed their charges, along with a book, some clean underwear and a cherished stuffy.
The three musketeers are pretty good about rationing their treats and snacks to last them the entire flight. They understand that there is no point in complaining while we wait at the gate to board, although at times in the middle of the flight, we still get asked ‘Are we there yet?’
Color by number books kept my tiny travelling companions busy for hours on long flights. Leave the Play-doh at home as it will be confiscated at customs.
Deciding On Your Destination
As mentioned above, a nine-hour flight combined with a dragging line-up at the customs check points, can be enough to send your little one(s) into a raging tailspin. For North Americans, the Riviera Maya, in Mexico’s Caribbean, is an optimal, nearby destination that presents a long list of fun-filled activities for young families.
If your kids are like most, they love the water− and there is no shortage in The Riviera Maya! No matter if you are an ocean or pool person, you will discover an enticing array of salt and freshwater options to suit your preference in this tropical paradise.
There are at least ten thousand natural swimming holes, known as cenotes, in the region. It is said that these limestone sinkholes and the Yucatan Peninsula’s awe-inspiring underground cave system were formed over eleven thousand years ago as the Ice Age came to an end. The porous limestone acts as a natural filtration system cleaning the rainwater as it passes through. The result if nothing short of extraordinary – glistening, crystal clear pools shrouded in a peaceful, jungle setting.
When visiting the area’s cenotes, be sure to bring pesos with you. The entrance fees range from about $70 to $100 Mexican pesos and include life jackets. Check out my Tips for Visiting Cenotes.
Through the centuries, the waves of the Caribbean Sea have relentlessly ground millions of shells and coral, creating the Riviera Maya’s powdery soft shoreline. Along the seventy plus miles of silky, white sand, are dozens of sprawling, luxury and budget-friendly all-inclusive resorts. These expansive hotels feature multiple on-site pools, which your little goldfish will love to paddle in.
As forementioned, the Riviera Maya borders the most alluring body of water on the planet. Your young ones will delight for hours constructing their sand masterpieces, and then cooling off in the shallow water’s edge. Days spent at the beach, under the shade of palms never get old. Neither does watching your captivated architects sift through the sand, or wading through the warm, turquoise waters together with their tiny hand cupping yours. These moments of uninterrupted, quality time are what inspire an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life.
For the ideal home base, Playa del Carmen is a top choice. Just forty minutes south of the Cancun International Airport, this seaside city is about one fifth the size of Cancun. Not only is Playa simpler to navigate through, but also it is much closer to the bounty of eco-parks, archaeological sites, as well as the popular Riviera Maya towns of Akumal and Tulum.
From lavish resort properties and family-oriented all-inclusives to boutique hotels and vacation condos, Playa del Carmen has a varied inventory of accommodations to choose from whether your funds are limited or not.
On vacation, obviously the first order of business is to relax. Cooking and cleaning duties have been relinquished for a week and a poolside margarita is the only “to do” on your list. But year after year of the same type of vacation can eventually become a bore. If you find that your family’s travel style is evolving, as ours did, you might consider a vacation rental.
There are several reasons to choose to rent a condo over an all-inclusive. First, finding hotel rooms that accommodate a family with more than two children can be a challenge. Due to most hotel regulations, extra guests are not allowed in a room with two double beds. A reservations agent will often suggest a second room. For a family of five or more, not only is booking two separate rooms not economical, but who wants to be separated on a family vacation? Every vacation home we have rented has been able to provide an air mattress or extra sheets and blankets for the couch.
Second, the kids have their own space in a separate room in the same condo. While still together, parents do not have to go to sleep on the kids’ schedule. I appreciate that we can put the children to sleep and still have our own adult time in the living area to sip some wine or kick back and relax with our favourite Netflix series. (Smart TVs – another benefit of vacation rentals!)
Third, your family does not have to adhere to a fixed calendar of dining times or events, as an all-inclusive hotel operates on. When on trips before our children could walk or talk, I remember having to wait until 6:30 until the resort restaurants opened for dinner. By that time of day, after spending hours in the sun and inhaling all of that fresh air, the kids were tired and hungry. In a vacation rental, we can eat what and when we choose, or we can usually find amazing eateries that are open early and are walking distance from our property.
Speaking of fixed calendars, the events are always the same at an all-inclusive – Karaoke night, Michael Jackson impersonator and a Mexican dance night. There is far more variety in entertainment options such as museums or dinner on the beach with live music that you miss out on when you stay on the confines of a resort.
Fourth, when traveling with children, packing light is almost impossible. It is a nice option to have in-suite laundry. The kids will need fewer clothes and can share a suitcase, minimizing the load you will be lugging to and from the airport.
Finally, the main appeal of all-inclusive resorts is just that – they include everything. This convenience means that you never have to pull out your wallets, and you can find plenty of activities within the boundaries of the resort to keep busy for a week. The unfortunate side however, is that while you get a taste of the warm Mexican hospitality, you never encounter the true beauty and essence of place, the food or its people.
Shopping at the souvenir market at the hotel is a completely different experience from stumbling upon an endearing shop with unique pieces (and much more reasonable prices) in town. Eating mouth-watering tacos al pastor at a colourful taqueria, while a one-man-band plays La Bamba on his accordion, is something you will not taste or see at an all-inclusive. On the resort, the excursion salespeople sell group tours on full buses to the most popular (crowded) attractions. If you stay in a vacation rental, you are more likely to find a smaller company or private van to chauffeur and guide you to the lesser-known gems in the Riviera Maya.
Each time we leave our condo, we set out on a mini adventure, even if the outing is for groceries. While on vacation in Playa del Carmen, we found fantastic fresh juice bars that made the best green juice out of cactus, tried fried grasshoppers, and came across incredible street art around every corner.
One rental company that has been around for more than a decade in Playa del Carmen is Bric Vacation Rentals. They offer a wide selection of spacious and modern homes ranging from spectacular ocean view homes, villas for groups, budget-friendly condos with full kitchens and laundry, or penthouses with private roof terraces and jacuzzis.
For our needs, their condo-hotel style properties are perfect. We enjoy the tranquillity and the kids still get to swim in gorgeous pools (minus the intoxicated, mid-afternoon swim up bar loiterers.) All of their rentals are within Playa del Carmen and walking distance to the beaches and restaurants.
Upon arrival, a Bric ambassador greets you with the keys and introduces the property ‘s main features and amenities. Inside the comfortable home away from home is a welcome basket with goodies like homemade cookies, local area maps, snacks and a souvenir bottle opener. Although you are staying in a rental, you can still count on a visit by the cleaning crew halfway through the stay. They change the sheets, sweep up the sand the munchkins are sure to track in, ensure you have all the supplies you need and leave the condo like new.
As for sheets, when traveling with infants, pack their own crib sheet from home. The familiar scent always helped our babies…well, sleep like babies.
Another cool aspect about Bric’s service is that you receive a local cell phone with the ambassador’s private cell number programmed on speed dial. The company reps are excellent to have around when deciding on day trips or where to eat. The local ambassadors know Playa del Carmen well. If you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path dining experience or tour, these guys are the ones to talk to. Having been on the day trips themselves, they can explain in detail what to expect. Based on the ages of your children, they make recommendations and take into consideration the drive times and length of the tours. There is no sales pressure and it seems these ambassadors genuinely want to see you have the time of your lives.
Via taxi, bus, shuttle or private van service, there are several options to get you from point A (Airport) to point B (Beach Bliss!)
The typical cost for a small taxi is about $70 USD. If you have a stroller and luggage, you may need a larger vehicle. The ADO bus schedule is convenient and travels to Playa del Carmen every half hour to forty-five minutes. If you have just missed a scheduled departure, that extra wait time with weary mini travellers can be excruciating. The price is $190 MXN ($10.50 USD) per person. So if you have a family, it will cost the same as a private van.
If you do decide to stay at a resort and transportation is included in the price, you will be brought by bus to your hotel. The buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable. However, the downfall is that the driver must make multiple stops along the way for guests staying at various resorts. If your group is set to get off at the last stop, it could mean an extra hour or so on the bus.
A private van service checks all of the boxes. Your family has plenty of space and you can reach your destination in about forty minutes. Travel Yucatan offers affordable private transportation services to basically anywhere in the Yucatan Peninsula. The price to Playa del Carmen is $55 USD or $105 USD for round trip transportation. For the reliability, space, family cost, and direct route, we find this option to be a no-brainer.
Why We Love Playa del Carmen
Our crew has fallen in love with Playa del Carmen for many reasons. Even though we have been a handful of times, the city continues to transform. With each visit, we discover something new, whether it is a new favourite restaurant or a new eco-park. On our last trip, we visited Xenses Park, just minutes from Playa. It was a wonderful mix of fascinating experiences that left us thinking ‘How’d they do that?’
We trekked along a downward sloping street that felt as though we were drudging uphill. The children loved the houses with the chandeliers on the floor and the tables on the ceilings. At one point we soared like birds on a zip line safely fastened in body harnesses. There was a swim in the muddy river, a slide into a cenote and rest at secluded waterfall. This is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in nature with the kids and the park tour lasts only three to four hours, which is perfect for young children.
Other points to shine the spotlight on around Playa del Carmen are Xcaret Park for a full day of cultural and water activities, the Xplor zip line circuit recommended for older children and Xelha with its limitless water adventures.
The Mayan Water Complex, about twenty minutes north of Playa del Carmen features inflatables and a chance to wake-board all year round. Just down the road, is the venue for the mesmerizing Cirque du Soleil show, Joya.
Besides the boundless opportunities to spend quality time with your brood in the great outdoors, Playa del Carmen offers some fun indoor options as well. The Frida Kahlo Museum and L’Aquarium sit along 5th Avenue. On 10th in the downtown core is the 3-D Museum of Wonders, which offers an ideal solace from the sun.
At night, we like to take our bunch out for a walk along 5th Avenue, the city’s main dining and shopping district. Lined with galleries, boutique stores and restaurants incorporating sacred Mayan Ceiba trees into their design, this vibrant street runs through Playa’s entire downtown core. People-watching is an event itself. On our lively strolls, we have seen fire dancers, Mayan warriors in massive, feathered headdresses, The Flying Men in Parque Fundadores, and breakdancing B-boys. There never seems to be a dull moment and the unusual sights certainly capture the full attention of our little ones.
The long evening walks are a perfect way to unwind from our daily activities. We were glad that we had packed our stroller. As for beach toys, water floaties, hats and diapers, we recommend leaving them at home because these items can be bought in every corner store in town. But do bring biodegradable reef-safe sunscreen, as it is expensive to buy in Mexico.
Where To Eat
One of qualities of Mexico I love most is the family-oriented mentality. Any chance to join together with loved ones is a cherished opportunity. Playa del Carmen is no exception, so when you arrive at a restaurant, there are no eye rolls when the waiter see the ducklings trailing behind you. That being said, there are a few family-friendly restaurants that stand out and have become our favorites.
Towards the north end of the city, just off 5th Avenue and Calle 38, is La Cueva del Chango (The Monkey’s Cave.) Seems fitting if you have children, does it not? The service is the most warm and welcoming that we have ever encountered in Playa del Carmen. You can taste typical Mexican dishes such as enchiladas and sopes. The creamed chile poblano soup is outstanding. Highchairs are available and the kids love the turtle and Koi fishpond in the center of the restaurant.
On the beach at Calle 2 is one of Playa del Carmen’s first established restaurants, La Tarraya. This is our go-to restaurant for its kid-friendly menu options like spaghetti, hamburgers and fajitas. An order of fish tacos comes in three for a reasonable $60 pesos ($3.30 USD) and they make nice sangria.
PapaCharly Pasta Factory is a few blocks from 5th Avenue, but still walking distance, on Calle 30 between 25th & 30th Avenue. This was one of the restaurants we would have never found had it not been mentioned by our Bric ambassador. For lunch, they offer a fantastic menu of the day, which includes a choice of soup or salad, the main entrée, dessert and a juice of the day for around $120 pesos ($6.75 USD). The menu is vast with a choice of fresh made pastas, fish, and even falafel pitas. From start to finish, the food is delicious, especially their signature carrot cake.
You may need to take a taxi to Cheester’s (40th Avenue and Calle 4) if you are staying near 5th Avenue. It is a bit of a trek if you have young children, but worth all of the effort. Follow the writing on the wall, literally. Visitors can leave their autograph (if you can find space) on their walls filled with signatures of past patrons. The servings are massive so a couple dishes to share is all you will need. The Pasthai and Smoked Salmon in a cream sauce are hits with our family and each table receives a basket of warm bread with whipped garlic butter to start.
I might compare this next family favourite to a Mexican version of McDonald’s. Although Pollo Feliz is located on the other side of the highway, the rotisserie chicken and hand-made tortillas make for a tasty and economic meal. Their family packs include an entire chicken, corn tortillas, and a choice of two, bean soup, rice or fries. This was the first time we had the opportunity to try horchata, a sweetened, rice milk with cinnamon. Our family of five ate and drank to our hearts’ content for under $20 USD.
Whether you choose to stay in a hotel or a vacation rental, do not be afraid to venture off of the property and integrate into the local mix. Try a dish or even a fruit you have never heard of before. Walk in a different direction every night for a change of scenery and ask locals for tips; they are always friendly and willing to help. Playa del Carmen is a place that beckons you to come back and eventually starts to feel like home.
With a passion for traveling and writing about their escapades, there is no place off limits for Juanita and her family. Having visited several states in Mexico, they have grown especially fond of the country and consider it their second home.