We first fell in love with the Maya Riviera region of Mexico on a shore excursion we took as part of a cruise with our extended family. We only had eight hours in Playa del Carmen and we realized it wasn’t enough for all that this area had to offer. Determined to make it back to Mexico, we came home from our cruise and put our house on the market so we could downsize not only our square footage but our mortgage and free up more money to travel. What made this slice of paradise so alluring we’d want to reorient our life to be able to go back to Playa del Carmen with kids and spend more time there?
The Riviera Maya
Before I gush on about how much I love the Riviera Maya region, let’s get geographically oriented. The Riviera Maya stretches along the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Starting in Cancun it extends through Playa del Carmen down to Tulum in the south. Cancun’s international airport is the best to fly in to when visiting the Riviera Maya. The Cancun airport is modern, and well serviced by direct flights from around North America.
For many Cancun in the north is synonymous with spring breakers partying and more of an adult scene. What I didn’t realize until our first quick visit was what an abundance of culture, historic sights, idyllic beaches and amazing all-inclusive resorts there were for families a little further down the coast in Playa del Carmen. The hardest part was deciding where to stay and what to do.
After spending months pouring through reviews and watching video tours on YouTube we selected a resort that really seemed to stand out. We selected The Barcelo Maya Palace Deluxe.
Located on one of the longest stretches of private beach in Riviera Maya, the Barcelo resort is comprised of 5 adjacent, all-inclusive resorts. Each of which sits directly on the beach. There is the Barcelo Maya Beach; Caribe; Tropical; Colonial; and Palace Deluxe.
When you stay at one of the Barcelo properties, you’re actually considered a guest of all five resorts. The one exception being that guests of the other properties may not use the facilities of the Barcelo Maya Palace. You can easily zip back and forth among properties via a complimentary double decker bus. And believe me, you’re going to want to get out and explore, because the Barcelo complex has a mind-boggling array of dining, entertainment and recreation options. We’ll come back to all that awesome in a minute.
We opted to go with a lower level room at the Deluxe Palace section so we could have full use of the Palace pool and restaurants over a “Club Premium” room (with ocean view and concierge service) at one of the other resorts. When I say “lower level” there was really nothing bad about it. The room itself was actually pretty amazing!
All rooms in the Palace section are suites so it felt huge for a hotel room. We had two double beds AND two sofa beds in a separate sitting area. All rooms come with two closets, two desk spaces, a mini bar and balacony patio. The bathroom even had a deep tub AND two showers. I was kind of crazy about the bathroom. Compared to our teeny tiny shower stall on our cruise vacation before it, the value here just couldn’t be beat.
You Can’t Go Wrong!
There are spacious rooms and suites just exuding Mexican charm at each of the Barcelo Maya Resort properties. I really feel like you can’t go wrong staying in any section of the resort. Especially when you consider that prices are by the room type and not per person. So, for example, our room was a Junior Suite Deluxe (which again, is the most basic type of room) and slept five people. If you only had two people sleeping in it the value wouldn’t be quite as great but with two adults and three kids it made for a great deal.
We spent our entire first day just going back and forth between the beach, the buffets the four fabulous whimsically themed water parks and the nine sprawling pools. They would more aptly be called “lakes” because they are truly enormous.
The Perfect Place to Relax
We also spent plenty of time just hanging out in the hammocks and sipping drinks. The kids loved that they could order an alcohol-free version of the strawberry daiquiris and pina coladas at any of the swim up bars. I loved having my toes in the turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea as I built Mayan pyramid themed sandcastles with the kids.
As I mentioned, the Barcelo Maya Palace is an all-inclusive resort. This meant that all our food and drinks at any of the 20 different themed restaurants and 19 bars and lounges was included. And the food was ahhh-mazimg! Our favorites were the Brazilian themed restaurant Rodizio and the French themed restaurant, Brassiere at the Palace. We also loved the hibachi style Japanese restaurant, Tokyo and the Caribe restaurant where we dined overlooking the water.
We alternated our days between adventuring at the eco-parks (more on those in a minute) with time spent just relaxing and exploring the resort. There is every type of water sport you can think of, a miniature golf course, bowling alley and sports bar complex, rock climbing, a disco for adults and one for teens and a mall complete with a carousel and four large theaters. We rode the double decker bus around which was an exciting attraction for our kids in and of itself.
Something for Everyone!
When we wanted a break Brian and I spent some time indulging in the enormous world class spa getting massages and doing the hydrotherapy circuit while the kids enjoyed the Barcy Kid’ss Club.
We LOVED the Barcy Kid’s Club! Our kids didn’t want to leave! The terrific team there took the kids on scavenger hunts, played all kinds of fun games and took them out for lunch and ice cream.
I took our girls to the Barcelo’s U Kids Spa. Yes there is a spa just for kids! They offer manicures, pedicures, hair styling and other services.
We even got a got a free scuba lesson as a family.
There’s even a Dolphinarium!
If all of that wasn’t enough they have their own on-site dolphinarium. Each day you can see a free dolphin show or get up close and personal with their interactive dolphin programs such as the dolphin swim and “Trainer for a Day.”
And with it being “all-inclusive” everything, with the exception of spa services and certain activities such as the dolphin encounter, is included in your stay. From meals to snacks to cocktails to the kids club and more, you pay one price and then just sit back and enjoy the Barcelo experience.
More to See!
There is so much to do here at the resort that you could have a very full vacation in Playa del Carmen with kids entirely ensconced in the beautiful Barcelo complex but we are the type of people who do like to take in the area attractions. We wanted to get a glimpse of the Mayan culture end enjoy some of the other outdoor pursuits on offer in the Riviera Maya and there are many. Which brings me to the next reason I’m in love with the Riviera Maya…The eco adventure parks!
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Xcaret (esh-ka-ret) is the eco adventure park we first visited while on our cruise. I had no idea before our shore excursion that this giant jungle playground with underground rivers and lagoons, top notch entertainment, tons of animals and cultural experiences existed. It’s like being in the dark about the existence of Disney World. Speaking of Disney, at over 200 acres this park rivals the size of any theme park in Orlando. And every inch is full of fun and educational things to do with your family.
We began our day with a swim through the natural network of crystal clear underground rivers that run through the park. You can choose between the Blue River, Maya River and Manatee River. Or experience them all! Xcaret provides life jackets for all sizes, including infants and small children. Snorkels and fins are also included if you have an Xcaret plus ticket. Though the lengths of the rivers somewhat vary, all of them are around 600 meters long with various points to exit along the way.
You don’t have to worry about your belongings as Xcaret provides locked duffle bags (you keep the key) at the entrance to the rivers that they shuttle to the exit of the rivers where they are ready and waiting for you and your next adventure. They really have thought of everything!
From there we went to the lagoon for some snorkeling. Xcaret has a gorgeous location right on the Caribbean Sea, with a calm-water lagoon that has its own the beach. There are lots of hammocks and palapas perfect for relaxing. We spent some time here doing just that while the kids made their way across the rope bridge over the water.
Tip: Only biodegradable sunscreen is allowed into the park. This is to keep the coral reefs free of potentially toxic chemicals. You can trade your own regular sunscreen at the park entrance and receive sample packets to try in return. You can also buy biodegradable sunscreen at the gift shop inside. This is the sunscreen we brought with us.
We then enjoyed lunch at the Meixan buffet one of ten restaurants to choose from at Xcaret and then checked out some of the ruins on the property
We discovered the incredible Children’s World section of the park! We could have spent all day there! There are slides into cenotes with waterfalls, hanging bridges and tunnels a parakeet habitat and playground all built right into the surrounding jungle.
Our other favorite spots at Xcaret included the butterfly pavilion and the massive aviary. We also enjoyed the replica of a Mayan village complete with a colorful cemetery and artisans working on traditional crafts. It felt like at every turn we encountered a performance or demonstration highlighting the colors, sights and sounds of Mexico.
I recommend taking advantage of the numerous automatic photo points located around the park to capture your day at Xcaret. The system could not be easier! You simply scan the barcode on the wristband that you are given that is tied to your park ticket and smile for the cameras. These are especially great for getting pictures in places like the underground rivers and while snorkeling. I loved utilizing the many professional photographers in distinctive yellow shirts that can be found all around the park as well for family shots.
The online system keeps track of your photos throughout the day. At the end of your visit, you stop by a kiosk, and can get the digital photos of your entire group. You can also opt to pre-pay for them as part of your admission at a discount.
Tip: The photo package can be added when you purchase your park tickets online. The best deal for the photo packages as well for tickets to Xcaret is online. Here is link for 50% off children’s tickets. And 15% off adult tickets here.
Mexico Espectacular Evening Show
To conclude our day of awesomeness at Xcaret we saw the Mexico Espectacular Show at the Gran Tlacho Theater. This show, which is included with your ticket to Xcaret, is not to be missed. It really is magnificent! The traditions, history, and culture of Mexico come alive in a fiesta of colors and music. We added the seven course dinner to our ticket package and we were so glad we did. Not only did this give us an ideal seat for the show the food was phenomenal and so creatively presented.
The show is divided into different segments – an ancient Mayan ballgame played with real fire balls and the history of Mexico from the time of the Maya to the present. The story telling is through music, dance and elaborate costumes. With such spectacular scenes laid out before you, you almost forget that it is all being narrated in Spanish! Our kids were mesmerized!
You can find a video of our day at Xcaret here.
It’s crazy to think that we’ve still only scratched the surface of all there is to enjoy at Xcaret.
For families like ours that love a good adventure there is nothing quite like Xplor (ex-plor)! In one action packed day we ziplined through waterfalls, swam and rafted in stalagmite filled caves and raced ATVs through the jungle!
We started at the heart of the park. Literally. The center of Xplor is actually a giant mosaic heart from which paths branch in all directions to the activities. Our first adventure was the Hammock Splash. It was a great way to get the adrenaline going.
From there we headed to the zip line circuits. The courses included 14 zip lines stretching over several miles plus two hanging bridges. They range in height from 8 to 45 meters high and have unique features. One circuit even includes a water slide and the other ends with a splash down into a waterfall. Normally these circuits take an hour and a half each but we were able to do both the “Deer” and “Jaguar” in about half that time as the park wasn’t crowded at all.
While there are height and weight limits, I loved that we were allowed to do some of the ziplines in tandem. Each person has two clips to the zip-line here for extra safety so the weight is distributed in such a way that’s very even. The views were spectacular and the adrenaline rush from zipping into a freshwater cenote is exhilarating.
Underground River Adventures
Next up we made our way underground to do the river raft adventure where we saw rock formations sculpted from dripping water called stalactites and stalagmites.
We then we went for a swim in the 430-yard-long river full of twists and turns that open into magnificent caverns. As with the rafting river, there is plenty of light to see by, but we still had the distinct feeling of being in an underground oasis.
The most amazing part of the river swim came right at the very end. As the river dead ended, we swam through a waterfall into a circular room where light poured in from above ground. It was quite the finale!
Between the paddling in the river and the stair climbing for the zip lines, we had worked up quite an appetite, so it was time for lunch. Xplor is all-inclusive, so all we needed to do was show up to the bountiful buffet and dig in. Unlike Xcaret there is no alcohol at Xplor (one of the activities involves driving) however, there is a huge variety of juices, flavored waters, and delicious smoothies. We hit up the smoothie bar between adventures and we all loved the oatmeal cookies.
Recharged from lunch, it was time for us to check out the amphibious vehicles. They’re not called “amphibious” for nothing. Over the course of the 6-mile exploration, we raced down rugged jungle labyrinths into dark, water-filled caves and across bridges where the river nearly overtook the road. It was a great adventure and definitely unlike anything we’ve ever done before. We finished our day with another round of both zip line circuits.
The Freedom to Enjoy Everything!
The photo system here again is ingenious! There are sensors and cameras all over the park that pick up your helmet number and snap your photos as you enjoy the activities. I can’t tell you how much I loved this aspect of all the Experiences Xcaret parks!! Especially as a mom who takes so many photos but doesn’t always end up in them. I felt such freedom to enjoy everything myself and still have it captured forever.
This is a video of our action packed day at Xplor.
The last eco park we visited was Xelha. In Maya, Xel-Ha (shell-ha) means “the place where water is born,” and you can see why from the moment you enter the park. There is turquoise blue water just about everywhere you look. It. is. paradise!
This beautiful network of cool rivers and grottos, mystical cenotes and idyllic blue lagoons is brimming with sea life and has a multitude of activities.
We started our aquatic adventures at Xelha with snuba diving. Snuba diving is one of the many awesome optional activities at Xelha. Kids have to be 8 years old to be able to do this activity at Xelha so our youngest just made the cut off but did brilliantly with it. The instructor was wonderful and stayed beside her the entire time.
We saw sting rays and hundreds upon hundreds of fish. The fresh water from underground rivers meets the warm salt water of the Caribbean Sea here and makes for a mesmerizing blend of colors.
We then took the tram to the beginning of the river and grabbed snorkel equipment and rafts. The water is so clear and calm it’s ideal for snorkeling through the mangroves out into the open river.
Tip: Bring an underwater camera for some amazing pictures. This is the one that we use.
There are also many other fun things to stop and do along the way. We braved the five-meter-high “Cliffs of Courage”, the “Trepachanga” ropes course and the “Salpichanga” zip line course into the water. These ziplines aren’t very long and definitely not as high as those at Xplor. Instead they are relatively short and whisk you right back in to the refreshing water. We had so much fun that we did it over and over again.
After all that swimming we enjoyed lunch at the Mexican buffet. From the tacos to the Três leches cake to the perfect margaritas (because Mexico!!) everything was delicious! And 100% included in our admission along with the towels, lockers, snorkeling equipment, life jackets, and inner tubes – pretty much everything we needed for the day.
Refueled, from lunch we headed out to explore the lush jungle trails to the cenotes. We encountered iguanas and parrots, and even a toucan! The kids couldn’t get enough of the rope swing and all the fun photos opportunities! Again I absolutely love the Experiencias park’s system for capturing photos.
We ended our day with another swim through the river and visit to the extensive children’s playground. We left Xelha with a multitude of wonderful memories, and already desperately yearning to return again soon to discover more of this magnificent park.
Tip: The cheapest and easiest way to get tickets for Xcaret, Xelha and Xplor is on the Experiencias Xcaret website. You can save about 10-15% by buying your tickets ahead of time online than at the gate. If you plan to visit more than one park (and I highly recommend you do) you can save further by creating a package. You can also book transportation to the parks when you purchase your park tickets. The buses for the parks will pick you up right at your hotel. We found them to be perfectly punctual and very easy to use.
Last, but not least, you can’t visit the Riviera Maya without carving out some time to see some ruins.
We originally figured we’d just see the smaller ruins in Tulum twenty minutes from our resort but when we went to confirm our return airport transfer (included with your stay at the Barcelo) we learned about a tour to Chichen Itza. We figured five years from now we would be kicking ourselves if we went to the Yucatán Penisula and didn’t see one of the seven wonders of the world. It would be like going to Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal. Or Paris and passing up on the Eiffel Tower. So we made the decision to just go for it!
Touring Chichen Itza
The private tour was absolutely the way see Chichen Itza! Our van driver picked us up from our hotel promptly at 6:40 AM. There were breakfast bars and bananas available to fuel us up for the day. Even with a stop to pick up our tour guide we made it to Chichen Itza in two hours.
We arrived just as the park was about to open. Our tour guide’s name was Jeromino. He was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the Mayan culture and history. The UNESCO World Heritage Site and ancient Mayan capital is massive! Jeronimo made sure we saw everything including the majestic observatory, the sacred cenote, the ball court, temple of the Jaguars and the temple of the warriors, the thousand pillars and of course the iconic Castillo.
We even had about an hour to just wander and shop among the many Mayan vendors selling their hand made wares and crafts.
Beat the Crowds!
As we were leaving we could see the masses of buses and tourists just arriving at the archeological park. By that point it was hot. The only point we felt hot all week in Mexico and we were so glad to be leaving instead of just starting out. We ate a surprisingly delicious picnic lunch on the way back to our resort and had plenty of time unwind and get ready for dinner that night.
This was definitely a great option for seeing this mysterious and magical place with kids without it being too hot or overwhelming.
You can see more of our Chichen Itza adventures in this video.
And You can book your own Chichen Itza tour ahead of time here. You can’t save even more when you make it a combo with the Experiencias Xcaret parks.
Your next vacation destination!
Whether your family’s idea of a perfect vacation involves lazy days at the beach, active days exploring every nook and cranny of the local culture or a combination, think about Mexico’s Riviera Maya for your next getaway. From lazing on the beach to exploring eco-adventure parks and Mayan ruins, there is something for everyone. I know families tend towards Disney and Crusing when they think of family vacations (and we do love those options) but I’m telling you all inclusives and eco parks in Mexico needs to be your next trip! I can’t wait to return with my family!
Here ‘s one last video highlighting our time in Mexico…
Have you been to Xcaret, Xplor, Xelha or one of the other Experiencias parks? What was your favorite? Share your comments below. And be sure to subscribe to Mom Abroad for more travel tips and vacation inspiration.
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