While Mexico’s Cancun and Riviera Maya might bring to mind spring-breakers and party animals gone wild, under the sea, the Great Mayan Reef is home to a more appealing array of wild animals. Turtles nest on the beach, and the solitary whale sharks come here to mate. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System stretches from the Yucatan peninsula to Belize and Honduras.
Because I was with a 15-year-old who wanted to mostly chill and Instagram our enviable vay-cay, I choose to pack several activates into one day and found the perfect trip that combined visiting the Tulum ruins, snorkeling with turtles and exploring cenotes.
The tour outfitter (playdelcarmen.com) used to guarantee that snorkelers would spot sea turtles. But as of just recently, they no longer promise this. Turtle populations are in trouble. Conservation efforts are stepping up now, as there’s a new awareness to human impact.
Luckily, we did get to tag along with a turtle or two while snorkeling off the gorgeous beach at Playa Maya. We followed one slow poke underwater for a while and I swear he waved at me. If you’re traveling with a teen or a child (Or come to think of it, just by yourself) a Go Pro makes everything underwater extra fun, especially turtle-trailing. And bat caves…
The Yucatan in Mexico is known for its extensive array of Cenotes— underground fresh water-filled caves formed from collapsed sinkholes in the limestone. There are narrow sink holes, some shallow some deep. Some are wide lakes, as the ground above has caved-in more fully. And some are dry caverns that you can walk through. I could (and maybe still will) spend another entire vacation smorgasbording cenotes.
After a bumpy van ride through the jungle, we descended steep steps through a smallish ground hole and bounded into a clear pool of water. Swimming away from narrow beams of sunlight, our guide lead our small group behind a rock into what felt like a secret chamber where we needed her flashlight to navigate the nooks and see the fossils and the limestone formations.
We swam around stalagmites and stalactites, ducked from bats and saw networks of tree roots reaching down from the jungle above. Eerie and mystical, these cenotes were used by ancient Mayans for rain, life and death rituals. I had never heard of cenotes and the trip was really magical to us, something that has stayed with me weeks later.
I also scuba-dived for the first time, something I’ve always wanted to do and have always been scared to do. But the conditions were ideal; our hotel, the Mahekal Beach Resort has its own dive center, the Vida Aquática Dive Center, with kind, patient and hunky instructors who teach technique in the pool and then take you out into the ocean.
I was the only one who showed up for that morning’s intro class and although I was nervous, I couldn’t chicken out since I couldn’t imagine better circumstances. I don’t think my chill Scandinavian instructor had ever met such a neurotic, panic-stricken scuba novice. I used twice as much oxygen as he did. But thanks to his Zen-guru cheer leading, I crushed it.
If you’re with younger kids, the Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park in Cancun is a terrific all-you-can-eat buffet of water adventure. Its a natural aquatic park, a water theme park on steroids. At Xcaret (and Xel-Há, a companion eco-park) you can snorkel, hang with dolphins and sea life, swim in cenotes, high-dive into lagoons, traverse jungles, zip-line and see authentic Mayan artifacts.
The park is on a lagoon, not in the Caribbean, so there isn’t the to-die-for turquoise blue waters and colorful fish and the activities are well-regulated. While there are lines and crowds, it’s a neat way to introduce kids to natural wonders, culture and new physical activities. You might get the honor to hang out with an Iguana who will snatch fallen French fries from under your table like a pigeon. Plus open bar.
Here I had always thought that the Mayan Riviera was all about Margaritas on the beach or parasailing for the adventurous, party cruises for the college kids. Turns out, all of Yucatan peninsula was a vast underwater reef and, millions of years later, it’s a unique environment with stunning natural wonders and opportunities aplenty to check off items on your bucket list.