Tulum Ruins and Beach via Shutterstock

Tulum Ruins and Beach via Shutterstock

Have you ever taken a vacation and come away with a sense of regret that next time you’d do things a whole lot differently? That was our recent trip to the Mayan Riviera. While the trip was definitely enjoyable, we could have benefited from some additional research and trip planning in advance. This was our first time visiting the Mayan Riviera side of Mexico and we were used to an “easier” way of life on the Puerto Vallarta side. Past trips were simple: show up at your all-inclusive resort and sign up for a tour, hop on your shuttle bus or take a taxi and enjoy your day. Touring around the Mayan Riviera was a bit more complicated though and I feel like we learned some important lessons on our recent trip.

Mexicos Mayan Riviera Day Tours Climbing at Coba

Climbing at Coba. Picture by Tanya Koob

Ten Tips for Happy Touring around the Mayan Riviera with Kids

One – Don’t try to do it ALL. Staying near Playa del Carmen? Enjoy tours near this city and save the Tulum area for your next trip. Visit the Island of Cozumel, take the family to Xcaret, or plan one longer trip to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam. If staying near Tulum, focus on visiting the ruins of Tulum, take a longer day tour to the Mayan ruins of Coba, or take the family to Xel-Ha for the day. Some tours will require 4+ hours of driving (why we had to skip visiting the ruins of Ek Balam this time).

Live the adventure in Xel-Há, Xplor, Xplor fuego or Xenotes at Cancun & Riviera Maya.

Two – Choose a resort that is close to the areas you most want to explore. We stayed at a fun eco-lodge in the tiny resort area of Xpu-Ha and ended up being isolated and far from both Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Next time, we’ll stay somewhere closer to one of the more popular resort areas.

Three – Skip the guided history tours with kids. If you want to visit some Mayan ruins while in the area, look for a transfer company such as “Canada Transfers”  and pay for your transportation/entrance fees only. The kids will enjoy mountain biking around Coba much more than they will standing around listening to a history lesson (and you can always give your children the condensed lesson before or after your trip.) Ek Balam is another fantastic place to run wild and explore at will without an official tour guide telling you what to do. And finally, the kids will probably enjoy the beach at Tulum much more than they will the ruins themselves. Arrive early, run around the ruins, and then spend a couple of hours at the beach.

Mexicos Mayan Riviera Day Tours Xel Ha

Floating at Xel Ha. Photo Credit: Tanya Koob

Four – Pay attention to the details when booking an official tour. How long will the tour be? Most day tours last a minimum of 8 hours (which is really long for small children). Will there be opportunities for snack breaks and lunch or should you bring some snacks with you for the kids? Will there be a guided tour or will you be able to explore on your own? Will there be bathrooms in the area or places to buy food?

Five – Book private tours whenever possible. A family at our resort skipped the official tour company we were using and used a transfer company instead to just set up transportation to the places they wanted to visit. They had a private van, got to explore freely on their own, and had their whole day planned around their children’s needs. We learned a lot from this family and will be following their example next time we return to the Mayan Riviera. If this ends up being too expensive for your family, hook up with another family you meet at your resort and go together. In the end, it will be much more affordable than a guided tour.

Six – Do your research and find most affordable tour. Not all tours are equally priced so don’t just walk up to the tour desk at your resort and sign up for the first tour to Tulum or Coba. Check the Internet before you go, look at companies that offer transfers (much cheaper than companies offering guided tours,) and investigate local companies that might be more affordable. Trip Advisor can be a great place to find information as well and to get reviews before you sign up with some strange tour company.

Seven – Know what to expect from popular tours and tourist sites in advance. For example there are no bathrooms inside the ruins of Tulum or Coba and I imagine it’s the same for other historical sites so pack wet wipes and a change of clothes in case of emergency. Likewise, there are also no changeroom facilities at many beaches. Imagine our surprise when we got to the beach at Tulum and realized that there were no bathrooms or change rooms inside the ruins. Unless you want to change behind a towel, wear your suit under your clothes! We also discovered GoPro cameras are considered to be “professional video cameras” and you will be charged extra to bring them into tourist sites.

Mexicos Mayan Riviera Day Tours Floating at Xel Ha

Floating through the mangroves in Xel Ha. Photo Credit: Tanya Koob

Eight – Skip the taxi and take the public Colectivos. This van service offers transportation up and down the main highway from Cancun to Tulum. You’ll share a ride with locals and tourists alike for a fraction of the cost of a taxi. More information on Colectivos can be found here at www.travelyucatan.com/collectivo. Note, they will not take you off the highway to a beach or exact location. If you want to visit a beach at Akumal for example, you will have to catch a taxi or walk once you arrive at the town and get dropped off on the highway.

Nine – Go early when visiting popular tourist sites. If you haven’t arrived at the ruins of Tulum in time for the gates opening for the day, you are too late. Most tourist sites are unbearably crowded by 10:30am so go early and leave by noon at the very latest to beat the heat.

Ten – Research family theme parks carefully. The theme parks of Xel-Ha, Xcaret, and Xplor (among others) are a lot of fun if planned out and if done with the right age of children. Many of these parks are best suited for older children and teens.