“A Shirley Temple, please,” said 9-year-old Cameron, sitting tall on an underwater stool at the swim-up bar.
Also in sight was 16-year-old Al, who was bodysurfing Caribbean waves. I, their grandmother, was content to sip complimentary adult beverages and, while in a hammock with a stunning view, swing away the coach seat’s creaks and cramps.
Kids popped in the pool like Champagne bubbles. The breeze was salty; the sun was sultry. At home it was snowing.
I had thought Mexico’s Riviera Maya was an adult destination and an exotic wedding venue. A friend suggested that it had much more to offer. Thankfully, it was not Disney-Maya, but the region is family-friendly with activities for all ages.
The buffet at our hotel, the Barcelo Maya Palace Deluxe, identified its Generation McDonald’s selections with balloons above a buffet offering chicken nuggets, yogurt, fries, familiar fruits, hot dogs, donuts, and ice cream. Surprisingly, the 9-year-old headed for sushi while, predictably, the teen enjoyed a first course of fries and catsup.
Neither listened to my pedantic “one of the benefits of travel is sampling local cuisines.” Mexican food was abundant, and during our week of “all inclusive” dining—usually on a terrace overlooking the sea—the boys vetted grilled flank fillet with roasted cactus leaves, shrimp Mayan ceviche, and Mexican chocolate mousse as reasons to return next year.
On our second day, Cameron begged to swim with dolphins, but Al opted for jet skiing. The resort’s mile of white sand bloomed with bikinis, and his new swagger suggested Al would not be picking up shells to adorn the back of his jet ski. Leaving Al alone for half a day reaffirmed my selection of Riviera Maya over Cancun. There, I would not be comfortable leaving him unsupervised.
Not for Spring Breakers
The government made a wise decision about 20 years ago when Riviera Maya was just a few fishing villages hosting backpackers who could not afford Cancun. They instituted laws that no building could be more than four stories high and no resort property could build on more than 5 percent of its land.
Pools are not included in that 5 percent, we decided while floating along serpentine waterways with coves of waterfalls, underwater lounge chairs, waterslides, and the largest Jacuzzi in my 40-plus-country experience.
I longed for a sparkling pool, though, while standing in the murky waters of the dolphin lagoon. The only sparkle was in Cameron’s eyes as he readied himself for the finale. Would he soar above the waves, one foot on each dolphin, or would he splash down thrashing and sputtering? He soared!
Then I finally sparkled. Gamely, I held onto two fins and let the mammals hurl me to the end of the lagoon while I kept my lips pressed together. The brochures do not caution that a risk of swimming with dolphins is a possible close encounter with dolphin poop.
Happy to check “swimming with dolphins” off my bucket list, I will not do it again. Cameron is saving up for another ride. After he told Al that the experience was better than jet skiing, Al begged to go the next day. But I had other plans.
Exploring Mayan Culture
A bit of culture is an integral part of vacationing with grandkids, so I signed us up for a tour of Mayan ruins. Riviera Maya has a number of ruins that can be visited, but Tulum appeared to be the most well-known in our vicinity. Our guide explained that Tulum was inhabited until the 1500s, when the Mayan civilization was decimated by European diseases and swords.
He pointed out the three major structures: El Castillo, the castle; the Temple of the Frescoes, which was used as an observatory; and the Temple of the Descending God, where the Mayan Venus still graces the façade.
He left us to stroll along the level paths. Al climbed every structure that was not roped off and struck god-like poses to be posted that night on Facebook. Cameron wilted and whined in the blazing sun between the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God.
I was a bit annoyed. Was he going to ruin our half day of culture? Then, I remembered that Tulum is the only Mayan city right on the Caribbean Sea. A guide pointed to a sandy path that wound behind a temple and ended at a splendid beach. Cameron and I took a quick dip. Soaking wet and with humor restored, Cameron joined Al in conquering the city for our digital photo album.
The Mayan calendar suggests that the end of the world may befall us in December 2012, and the tourism industry wonders how many guests will buy one-way tickets for the festivities. I approached a deadline of more immediate dread: zip line day.
We went to Xplor Park, the venue of 11 zip lines my grandsons implored me to experience. They climbed a 10–story circular ramp to the highest zip line while I remained on terra firma wondering how I could earn their respect.
I consulted with a staff person who recommended the hammock zip line. For me, it was the perfect zip line experience. I sat in a hammock and zipped along a waterway until I splashed down, lost my flip-flops, and retained my title as “The Bravest Grandma Ever.”
The title was conferred on me by a 6-year-old some years ago when I opted for a rank outdoor toilet instead of the copperhead-infested Missouri forest. But the title should go to Barbara, 76, who did all of the zip lines twice and would have gone back for more if the park had not closed.
After I had enjoyed six elder-friendly rides on the zip line hammock, the boys returned from their high adventures. We enjoyed a magical 40–minute underground swim along lighted stalagmites and stalactites that ended in a waterfall. The boys swam the river again while I waited in a traditional hammock and read several chapters on my Kindle.
One benefit of XPlor is its unlimited enjoyment of the park’s adventure attractions and its bountiful buffet. The only restriction was the once-per-admission amphibious vehicle that tears through three miles of jungle, rivers, caves, and swaying wooden bridges.
Al drove, Cameron rode shotgun, and I was the back-seat driver who had no advice to offer about driving an amphibious vehicle. Despite a seat belt, my head hit the roll bar about every 30 seconds. I was amazed that the required helmet was so well padded I barely felt the bumps!
A Safe Place for Tourists
“Mexico?” friends gasped. “You took children?”
The dangers of Mexico do not include the entire country. The Riviera Maya, located on the eastern coast of Mexico along 81 miles of the Caribbean coast, is more than 1,000 miles from the regions specified in the U.S. State Department’s warning against travel to Mexico.
Because of the region’s strong tourism industry, cities such as Playa del Carmen have a 98 percent employment rate as well as prominent police forces. According to RE/MAX, tourist zones in Mexico, such as the Riviera Maya, are up to 26 times safer than tourist areas in New York City, Chicago, and Miami.
I was torn between citing safety statistics and striking my bravest grandmother pose.One of the charms of Riviera Maya is its lack of crowds. When more people know this extraordinary place is safe, will we have to wait in line to ride zip lines and dolphins? Worse, will I have to wrestle another granny for a hammock with a view?
Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer specializing in developing-nation poverty, microfinance, and travel. She lives in India every winter and in Rome every spring.