Playtime in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen

Updated July 06, 2013

“We are never flying again.”

These are the words I mouthed to my husband midway through our flight to Cancun after our toddler dumped a second glass of apple juice into my lap and then collapsed into a screaming pool of confused anger about her sudden lack of a beverage.

Months earlier, when we first started contemplating a family vacation with our two daughters – Kona, 4, and Mirielle, almost 2 —Mexico’s Riviera Maya seemed like the perfect destination. We almost could feel the crystal-clear waves splashing into our toes as our girls built sandcastles on the shore. The fact that the flight was relatively quick (just over four hours, including a layover in Houston — direct flights are also available) for an international destination was an added bonus.

I should note that I have traveled frequently to Mexico and felt comfortable going to the tourist-heavy state of Quintana Roo — which currently does not have any state department travel advisories in effect — with my family. If you have questions about traveling to Mexico or want to see current advisories, visit travel.state.gov/travel.

We arrived at Azul Fives Hotel in Playa del Carmen and were greeted with glasses of champagne (for us) and musical stuffed animals (for them). Because of a partnership with Fisher Price, toys are readily available in all areas of this resort — there’s even a “toy concierge” who can help you track down your child’s favorite dinosaur, cartoon character or princess.

Once we tired of practicing cannonballs in the infinity pool, searching for monkeys at the tops of leafy trees and sampling every food item known to man as part of our all-inclusive package, we decided to venture outside the resort to sample what else the Riviera Maya had to offer. Here are some can’t-miss activities to consider:

Coba ruins

The trek to the Coba ruins takes an hour and a half by car from Playa del Carmen, and at times it’s so bumpy that you wonder if you’re driving over giant egg cartons rather than dirt roads. A visit to this ancient city is well worth the effort, however, thanks to the fascinating insight it provides into the Mayan culture. (On a previous trip, I had visited the nearby ruins at Tulum, which I also highly recommend primarily because of its stunning location next to the ocean.)

We toured Coba on brightly colored rickshaws that made it easy to take in the sprawling space, which is said to have at one point been home to more than 50,000 people and served as the regional center of the Mayan government. It is also popular to explore the ruins by bicycle and by foot. We paid a small fee to hire a guide, Pedro, who pointed out the most important aspects of the ruins, such as a ball court and the carved “stela” tablets that conveyed information to citizens of Coba.

The highlight, however, was scaling more than 120 steps to the top of the Nohoch Mul pyramid and being rewarded with a panoramic view of the jungle below. Be warned, however, that the climb is steep and jagged (and terrifying if you’re a parent traveling with a fearless youngster). I’m still not sure if the elation I felt when I finally set foot back on solid ground was because we had conquered the pyramid or because no one had rolled down it.

Swimming with dolphins

There aren’t a lot of situations when you get excited to don matching life jackets and dunk yourself in chilly, murky water, but when you’re at Dolphin Discovery Puerto Aventuras (www.dolphindiscovery.com) and a mother-daughter dolphin duo is waiting to greet you, that’s exactly what happens.

During our $79 per person (kids 5 and younger are free) “dolphin encounter,” we got up close and personal with dolphin mom Liz and her cantankerous daughter Elena. Our 40-minute session included kisses, high fives, hugs, claps, a few games of fetch and loads of photo ops, of course.

After the session — which left both of our girls completely enamored with all things dolphin — and a brief meeting with a sea lion, we were shuffled to the gift shop to view our photos. Be warned that the photos are expensive — we shelled out $35 for a 6-inch-by-8-inch print – but in the moment they seem worth every penny.

Going underground

As you drive along the main road of the Riviera Maya, you’ll see numerous adventure parks along the side of the road. I had previously visited some of the larger parks including Xcaret and Xel-Ha, so this time we stopped into Aktun Chen, aka “Indiana Joe’s” (www.indiana-joes.com), which offers activities such as ziplining, snorkeling through a 130-yard-long cenote and exploring a massive cave.

We decided to take a tour of the cave, which our guide said was 5 million years old. As we strolled past towering stalagmites, spied small bats flitting near the top of the cave and wadded through 6-inch-deep puddles of water our guide told stories of indigenous people who were said to have once lived there.

Cave tours are $50 (free for kids 5 and younger) and include a guided tour and transportation from Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

Rest and relaxation

By the time we emerged from the cave and returned our hard hats, we were sweaty, tired and itchy from bug bites. Once we were situated in the van, Kona, who typically has an insatiable appetite for the outdoors, said simply, “I just want to go home and get a massage.”

Back at the hotel, that’s exactly what we did. And we drank more fruity drinks. And we did more cannonballs.

By the time we boarded the plane back to Austin, I was ready to admit that despite any hassles and headaches, I would totally come back again. Sooner, hopefully, rather than later.