It was the accessibility of both fun and culture that convinced me Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was an ideal place to road trip with my two nephews. Long-time readers will remember the epic homeschooling adventure I undertook with my niece Ana. Hard to believe that we left four years ago. Ana had just turned 11-years-old and instead of entering the 6th grade, she and I spent nearly seven months traveling Southeast Asia. As my two nephews neared that same age, it was time take them on adventures too. In fact, the day my nephew Eric turned 11 years-old, he informed me that it was “his turn” and so what did I have planned? He put me on the spot.
My two nephews, Vic and Eric, are 10- and 11-years-old. What would be a good trip for the three of us? I’m not brave enough to travel with them for seven months. But I wanted a place that would—like Asia did for Ana—inspire them to dream of other places and find interests outside of their tiny lives in Florida. Mexico has long been one of my favorite places. The Yucatán Peninsula in particular has a unique mix of Maya culture and ancient ruins. And the region’s miles of sandy beaches are also perfect for two active (and naughty) little boys. I won’t lie, having a lot of kid-friendly activities for them was a big consideration. I was a tad terrified to travel with both kids solo. The plan took shape earlier this year; I passport-ed them both and secured their travel documents before I left for Japan in the spring.
In the weeks leading up to our road trip, I used Google image searches to show them the possible adventures. They exclaimed over the Maya temples, begged to zip-line high over the Mexican jungle, loved the idea of seeing wild animals, and dreamed of swimming in the icy blue waters of the sunken cenotes.
With three weeks and a rental car, my nephews and I spent the bulk of July driving a winding route around the Yucatán Peninsula. We backtracked at points to visit family. We drove two extra hours to return for a beloved pair of forgotten swimming trunks. There were hairy moments when I knew I was crazy to travel alone with the two kids. But we also had adventures—man, did we have some adventures. A few months out from the trip and I still can’t imagine a better place to have road-tripped with my nephews. Readers often email me asking how I chose when and where to visit—they want to know the reasoning that goes into picking each new place. That question likely goes doubly so when traveling with kids, so here goes. Four main things factored into why I picked the Yucatán for traveling with the two boys:
- Everything is condensed and close. Driving days are never longer than three to four hours, and even that long is rare. (unless you backtrack for beloved swimming trunks… … … :::facepalm::: )
- Spanish culture and language are accessible. They both loved practicing the new words and Eric is taking Spanish classes in school this year. Plus, two young kids are hard work and I speak Spanish, so I thought that would help ensure a smoother trip. Places like Japan are fascinating, but add an extra layer of difficulty. I would have dealt with their culture shock and my inability to speak the language, on top of juggling two kids who have never left the country. Mexico—and the Yucatan Peninsula specifically—seemed like a solid first adventure for us all.
- A huge range of cultural and kid-friendly activities. The Yucatán has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It’s safe, and has a diverse range of things to do in every area: swimming, beaches, ruins, wildlife, walkable towns, and even theme parks.
- It’s affordable. The boys live in Florida. It was a quick skip over the Gulf of Mexico, and once we arrived, I could afford to keep us flush in tacos and fun kid-friendly activities.
After my trip with Ana, many of you guys emailed me to say although seven months was too long, that you’d love to do something similar with your own nieces/nephews/kids. Here it is, an alternative adventure. Three weeks of family-style (mis)adventures all through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This is more of a photo-journey through our road-trip with stories—hover over each photo for more information. We started on the beaches, then wound our way inland to the cultural heart, and ended at a biosphere reserve.
For the nitty-gritty and how-tos, I posted detailed detailed Yucatan Road Trip planning resources on our driving route, the places we stayed, and the companies we used to make it all come together.
Before we left to Isla Mujeres, I’ll also own to a travel n00b mistake that I can only blame on being totally overwhelmed. It took hours to secure the rental car. It was a headache navigating into the city at rush hour. Once checked in, we headed out to a great park I knew from a previous trip, Parque de las Palapas. I was hungry, the boys were hungry, and they were also humming with excited energy. So we headed to the ATM and then planned on getting food. Sheer chaotic excitement is the only explanation I have for my nephew Vic. He grabbed the cash from the ATM, fanned it out and waved it around the glass booth (which faced the busy street), and exclaimed in sheer elation, “MONOPOLY MONEY.” I was so startled that I left my ATM card in the machine. And yeah, if you follow the site, I’ve done that gem before. I can look at this now and see the humor. Mexican pesos are colorful and he’s never seen them before. It’s funny, right? Right? Sob. Anyway, it set the tone for three weeks of shenanigans.
With only the pesos I had just withdrawn and a small safety stash of U.S. cash, I tried hard not to wig out. I was lucky my dad hadn’t yet left on his cruise. Since he’s on all my accounts (precisely for situations like this), he wired me money. Walmart wire transfer is fantastically cheap by the way (#thingsIwishIdidntknow). Schwab, my bank, which I love dearly, mailed me a new card asap and my parents brought it with them since we were meeting up six days later in Cozumel.
Crisis averted. And with an alarming amount of cash in my purse (and a stern conversation about ATM behavior), we began the adventure.
The Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm was a highlight of the entire trip and it was the perfect way to start our travels. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun, but it’s a world apart from the vibe of Cancun. Ferries run all day between Cancun and Isla so we ditched the frenetic party atmosphere and ritzy hotel boulevard in Cancun. Within an hour of leaving Cancun, we found ourselves in a great apartment just a block off of the shallow beach waters.
My Seattle-based aunt was jonesing for the tropics, so she joined us at the start of our trip. The four of us golf-carted around the sweet little island. We spent three days sipping coconuts and digging in the sand. We bought two pool noodles; they proved fun and useful as we moved from pools to shallow bays to sometimes more unpredictable waters. My aunt is a swim instructor and it was fun to watch both boys soak up her advice on how to better their strokes and become stronger swimmers. Although we’re from Florida, they don’t have a pool at their house and I’ve long worried about their weak skills. This trip was an invaluable chance for them to spend a lot of time practicing (and in a place where it doesn’t feel like forced practice!). This was an excellent way to start the trip because the town is small and navigable, and the waters in Playa Norte are shallow for a hundred meters at least.
Much to my amusement, Vic was a little entrepreneur on the island. He is convinced he could have launched a thriving coconut selling business and made millions if we had stayed—he talked one local hammock vendor into buying his coconut for an impressive 75 cents. It was endlessly cute.
Cozumel was the island of fun coincidences and meetups. The boys and I timed our Cozumel trip to meet my parents the morning their cruise ship docked. Having already explored the island for two days, the boys and I took them to a hole-in-the-wall spot for Mexican street food. Together we all wandered through the town squares and capped it off with a snorkel. The time passed all too fast before we brought them back to their ship and waved goodbye. But the fun continued and I owe a big thanks to Tam from Travels with Tam. She is a friend, blogger, and A Little Adrift reader, and she welcomed my unruly gang to her home in Cozumel for the afternoon.
In our days on the island, it was the sea life that won out with the kids. Eric raved about his snorkel north of Money Bar; he saw all kinds of fish and sea-crawlies. In the evenings, we wandered the shores near downtown Cozumel; the boys skipped rocks and dug through all the tide pools looking for snails. I’ll likely never claim it’s my favorite spot in the region, but we found beautiful underwater sea life and had a wonderful time visiting friends and family. As my parents continued through the Caribbean, the boys and I journeyed back to the mainland—we had some Maya temples to find!
Xplor Theme Park and Playa del Carmen
But first, before the Maya temples, we had a theme park to explore. My nephews have spent their entire lives living in south-central Florida—they’re adrenaline junkies. We have a dozen parks within an hours driving distance of my hometown. They live and breathe theme parks. I don’t know where they get it from, I’m terrified of rollercoasters. Two things coincided though. They found out I took Ana zip-lining in Thailand years back. And they found images online of the dizzying number of adventure parks in the Yucatán. The folks at Olympus Tours offered to comp an experience for us, all I had to do was pick. I felt confident traveling the interior once we were poking around through Mexico’s small towns and community based organizations—that’s my thing—but I never neared the theme parks on my last trip to the region. Marhuata and Leo teamed up to take my nephews on a day that they continue to recount at speeds a mile a minute.
We headed out to Xplor early in the day, a theme park that plays off of the natural landscape. It’s actually built into underwater rivers and cenotes—with ziplining, of course, that was paramount to the boys. The park was beautiful, more than I was expecting. We paddled through the underground river, sped across the tree canopy on zip-lines, and generally got our thrills out. I’m usually that aunt. The who gives books and educational toys on holidays. So they were justifiably psyched that I agreed to a Mexican theme park. And as a plus, it also scored me a trade-off promise that they would each read age-appropriate information on Maya culture. Win. It was good fun; it’s a fantastic thing to do with kids and the other nearby parks have varying types of activities. I reviewed the park’s rides, pros, cons, etc at Xplor here.
Hidden bonus? They wolfed down dinner and then passed out cold that day. Who am I kidding, I did too. :)
We began to shift the tone of our trip in Tulum. While we spent our early days on beaches and with family, Tulum marks the beginning of the history and culture part of the trip. We could have been on any white sandy beaches in the world in the first week of the road trip. We couldn’t help but know we were in Mexico once we reached the sprawling Maya temple complex at Tulum.
These Maya, they sure knew some prime real estate.
Tulum’s ruins run right up to the water’s edge. Grey stone temple complexes all but tumble into the Caribbean waters.
The boys’ fascination with the Yucatan’s iguanas continued here; but I’d be lying if I said the boys loved Tulum. It was a scorchingly sunny day at the ruins. While I wandered and read about Tulum, the boys camped out in the shade near several massive iguanas and soaked in the vibe. The beach waters were also too rough for them, so we passed through Tulum en route to the verdant heart of the region. Next up was Valladolid and the tiny Mexican towns awash in culture, food, and history. (Side note: Tulum is where we left those beloved swimming trunks I had to backtrack for… I am still doing a facepalm that I actually returned for a pair of shorts. I can only say that after the despair we had over losing a pair of beloved goggles, it just seemed easier).
Looking back now, I wish that I had slowed down one bit more and actually done the Akumal turtle swimming experience, which we would have done between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Instead, I thought we needed some history in our trip and skipped it. That was a #fail for me. Lesson learned. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the ruins more if we had started with some sea turtle interactions.
The vibe definitely changed when we reached Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500s. This is also when we got down with some serious street eats. I was able to find more of the informal food that I usually eat in Mexico. Before that, the beach towns tended to cater to tourists. The good street food was farther from the tourist areas than we could easily travel on foot. But here, we booked a place on the Plaza Central and used this as a base to go temple-hunting and cenote swimming. The biggest site is Chichén Itzá, and we marveled at the echoing acoustics built into the ball court. Vic fixated for ten minutes on mastering the clap that would travel down the expansive ball court and then bounce back as an echo. He was thoroughly impressed when finally managed to get the echo to sound out.
The real winner though, was Ek’ Balam. The site is far less touristed than nearby Chichén Itzá. There are ruins that you can climb up and see high views of the region. The relief work on one of the tombs is also impressive and the best in the entire region—among the best restored in all the known Maya temples. A huge jaguar mouth sits open with carvings on all sides—serpents, winged men, and hellish creatures. This was a hit with the kiddos. It’s been restored, which makes it easier to see and imagine what these temples might have looked like at the hey-day of the Maya kingdom. It was a small complex, so we headed to the sunken cenotes after, the water cool and refreshing in the heat of July in Mexico!
Chichén Itzá and Cenote Dzitnup
All of us agree, there is just something special about Izamal and there’s no way to put our finger on it. If we had only used our guidebook, we might have skipped this tiny, sleepy, yellow Mexican town. But I turned to my friend Wandering Earl for travel planning advice—he lived in the region for years—and he said this was a must-do. We had planned to spend two days. We ended up settling in and spending four days doing little more than playing with new Dutch friends and eating street eats in the central plaza.
The boys loved it. Horses clomped through the cobblestone streets, the boys understood the small town’s walkable layout, and they loved the nightly pork sandwiches. The photos perhaps say it better than I can express. It’s just a magical little spot in the heart of the Yucatán.
En route to Celestún, we broke up the drive with a horse-drawn carriage ride out to a trio of cenotes. Cenotes are underground cave sinkholes. The limestone bedrock in the Yucatán Peninsula is so porous that all lakes and rivers are actually underground. They are the best way to cool off in the interior. A local community based organization operates the Cuzamá cenote. This CBO ensures that profit-sharing among the families near this rural and off-beat tourist attraction. Getting to Cuzamá is half the fun too. If you hadn’t yet woven through the pothole strewn back roads of Mexico, you will en route. Notable is that there is a scammy business just before you reach the CBO. If you’re driving, keep driving until you reach a sun-drenched and informal spot at the end of the road. Men will be waiting there ready to whisk you to the swimming holes. The horse ride was good fun, and the third swimming hole, Cenote Chacsinicche, was by far the best for the kids. They delighted in cannon-balling from the ledge into the cool, clear blue water.
We came to Celestún for the flamingos and crocodiles—it was all about visiting the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Eric loves animals, and his one big request for the trip was seeing crocodiles in the wild. We only saw one baby crocodile, but he was so distracted by the flamingos, birds, and swimming holes that he never noticed (I wondered after if we would have had more success at Río Lagartos :-/ ). The town of Celestún is low-key and tiny. I mean little. It’s a Mexican vacation spot more than a tourist spot, so there wasn’t much English spoken. Most of the families (umm, all of them) were Mexicans taking in the summer vibes. The kids had a blast digging deep holes in the sand, and their industriousness attracted the other kids who helped them dig and collect worms from the sand—an activity that apparently needs no spoken words.
The shenanigans continued here, too, lest I paint too rosy a picture of it all. The boys found a small, beached boat and attempted to drag it out to sea while I procured Gatorade for us all. I sent them back to the sand digging, pulled my sunhat lower, traded my Gatorade for a Sol, and was just glad they hadn’t gotten in the boat and headed for Cuba.
One of the sweetest towns in Mexico, Mérida, has a vibe all its own. Each area of town boasts its own central park area, but the main one near the touristy areas is abuzz in activity every night of the week. There isn’t a lot to do in Mérida per se. My nephews were scarcely interested in the museums. They did, however, find the markets intriguing, the parks filled with other children, and plenty of street food and ice cream to keep them chugging along as we toured the various churches and architectural sites. They were little champs most of the time. The three weeks had passed in a blur and Mérida and Celestún were the last stops on our trip. By the third Saturday, we were wheels up on the airplane by 9am and I had them deposited back to my brother soon after. I welcomed the break. Traveling with them gave me a fresh perspective on all the work that goes into juggling two kiddos on the road. But it was a good tired too, for the most part.
On the whole, I had long hoped to share a travel experience with my nephews, and this tripped served in that capacity. With the mix of food, culture, and beach-fun time, it was the perfect place to take two active little boys. Many of my readers have pondered taking a niece, nephew, or sibling overseas, but the logistics can seem overwhelming. In this case, I am so happy I had the chance to show those two kiddos a small part of why I love traveling the world. It wasn’t always easy—they were exceedingly naughty—but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.
For readers who have long followed this journey, you may wonder about where Ana was while her brother Vic and cousin Eric went on an adventure? While we road-tripped across Mexico, Ana met up with Dani, a friend Ana and I last traveled with in Cambodia. Dani and Ana have stayed in touch over the years, and since Ana continues to beg for the chance to explore other places, Dani invited her to NYC for a week. They palled around the city, sending me Snapchats and texts. I was so glad she had her own adventure, too. And I am happy to report that Ana, now in the 10th grade, has stayed interested and curious about the world. I hope, if nothing else, this trip ignited in my nephews a lasting curiosity about the people and places outside their home bubble, and that they continue to use that curiosity to finish school and travel more.
So, whatdya think? I felt crazy at times for going solo with them, but it was an adventure. Do you have any plans to travel with kids/siblings/nephews?
And PS: If you’re planning a similar trip, the Road Trip Yucatan planning details page is here.