This March our family made our first international trip together as a family, flying to the Riviera Maya in Mexico for a week. It was an incredible time of being in the water with manatees & swimming with sea turtles, exploring ancient Mayan ruins & swimming in a handful of the thousands of cenotes that dot the Yucatan; of experiencing pristine white beaches, Caribbean blues, palm trees, jungles & an abundance of wildlife; of staying in a little rustic bungalow tucked away in the jungle & being woken up by the tropical birdlife &, last but not least, the wonderful, warm & friendly Mexican people!
Activities we did as a family
Swimming with turtles: Before leaving on our trip, we had read that it was a guarantee to snorkel (for free) with turtles at Akumal Beach, which ended up being 15 minutes from where we were staying, so that became a must-do family activity. Our first day there, we caught a colectivo on the highway outside of our resort to Akumal. Dropped off on the side of the highway at Akumal, we crossed over & walked 10 minutes to the beach.
The closer we got to the beach, the more we were approached by persistent guides who told us that we had to pay a rather large amount to see the sea turtles. We knew this activity was free & that we did not have to pay a fee, so we politely declined, continuing on.
Just out past the main swimming beach is an area where you can snorkel with the turtles on guided tours. However, if you prefer to go for free & without a guide, like we did, there is a large section to the right of the main swimming beach, where you can see plenty of turtles. We had brought our own snorkels & goggles with us from Colorado, so we didn’t have to rent them. We did, however, have to rent lifejackets because they are mandatory. The sea turtles eat the sea grass just off shore & it is a protected area, so the lifejacket keeps you buoyant, preventing you from dangling your legs or standing up & damaging the turtles’ food source. Fins are not allowed either for the same reason. You are also instructed to stay 3 meters, which is almost 10 feet, away from them. Anyway, so it is not 100% free, unless you have your own lifejacket, goggles & snorkels!
We didn’t end up swimming with the turtles this first day we visited Akumal as it was close to sunset. We just walked around exploring the area & then sat on the beach while our boys played in the sea. We came back another day in our rental car & parked in the little town. This time, we had an absolutely wonderful experience snorkeling with a handful of the turtles as they peacefully & happily munched away on the sea grass! They were just lovely & one of our children’s favorite experiences in life!
- Colectivo 25 pesos/each
- Akumal Parking 50 pesos
- Life jacket rentals 100 pesos/each
- Akumal Total 675 pesos/$40 for our family of 5
Cenotes are sinkholes in the ground filled with water caused by the collapse of cave ceilings. They can be open, semi-open, or closed … out in the open or down in caves. They are now ovely, clear & very refreshing natural swimming holes! Thousands of them dot the Yucatan. They are considered holy places to the Mayans, who see them as gateways to the underworld … much like the Anasazi cliff dwellers with their kivas here in Colorado.
We were out exploring, thinking of seeing a more popular (& crowded) cenote when a local Mayan approached us & said, “Come, I’ll tell you about a secret cenote that is not the map. It’s in my village. You can go there.”
Following his directions, we drove down a little dirt road to a cluster of huts. We climbed down into the cenote & spent a couple amazing hours snorkeling & exploring this beautiful underground world of gorgeous, clear blues, caves & tunnels branching off in every direction, stalactites, tree roots, dark & creepy crevasses we swam over, fish, & bats. The icing on the cake was that we had the whole place to ourselves.
This was one of several cenotes we swam in while in Mexico. This particular cenote is part of an underground river that’s 61kms long, interconnecting a whole series of caves & tunnels. While we were snorkeling, we saw some flashlights bobbing around under the water, coming from the dark recesses of the cave. 3 scuba divers eventually appeared, having worked their way through the underground labyrinth to appear in our cave.
Coba Ruins Cenotes: We explored 2 of the 3 cenotes near the Coba Ruins: Choo-Ha & Tamcach-Ha. We liked Choo-Ha, but were not as impressed with it as much as Tamcach-Ha, which we loved! Tamcach-Ha is huge & beautiful, the water a deep royal blue & so cool & refreshing. It had 2 jumping platforms … one around 30ft tall, the second 45ft tall. We went down I think 6 levels of stairs in to this particular cenote that had a very high ceiling & a water depth that reached down 88 feet.
- Choo-Ha 55 pesos/each
- Tamcach-Ha 55 pesos/each
- Coba Cenotes Total 550 pesos/$32 for our family of 5
Bel-Air cenotes: The resort where we stayed has several exclusive cenotes on its property, less than a handful of minutes walk from our bungalow. They were away from the crowds, peaceful & just lovely. Our favorite was Estero which you can both swim & kayak in. It’s a big one! Beautiful, clear, cool & refreshing. It is hemmed in by mangroves & home to manatees that we got to see a few times!
This is the land of the ancient Mayan ruins – some dating back 3,000 years! Some uncovered, many still buried in jungle growth. Archaeologists continue making discoveries.
The Coba Ruins: About 45 minutes inland from Tulum are the The Coba ruins – an ancient Mayan city. The Coba Pyramid – Nohoc Mul – is the tallest in the Yucatan at 137 feet. It is the only Mayan pyramid in Mexico that you are still allowed to climb, giving it the unique aspect of being one of the few ancient ruins in the world you can physically experience without it being roped off. There are around 6,500 ruins that dot this area of the jungle & apparently only 5% of them have been uncovered. Around 50,000 people used to inhabit this ancient thriving city that was built approximately 1,400ish years ago.
After spending a couple hours swimming in nearby cenotes, we headed over to the Coba ruins to watch the sunset from the top of the pyramid. Our family of 5 (kids aged 16, 13, & 8) were the only ones there! It was a magical experience!
We rented bikes for the 2ish kms to the Nohoc Mul pyramid to catch the sunset in time. It was so much fun biking down the road through the lovely tree canopy, stopping at the other various other ruins along the way to the pyramid!
The 120 steps up the pyramid are smooth, making it somewhat slippery if you’re not careful. They are narrow, uneven & steep. It was easier going up than coming down. Easier to scoot down on your bottom coming down & the rope is definitely very helpful!
Once you get to the top, they still have the ceremonial sacrifice stone up there. It’s rather horrifying to imagine what actually took place at the top of the pyramid at one time in history! And, fascinating to think how the Mayans actually built these amazing cities!
The view from the top was spectacular! Getting to see the sun set over the nearby lake, the vast jungle spreading out as far as the eye can see in every direction with various other ruins peeking out above the canopy, & being the only ones there was just magical!
- Coba Ruins parking – 50 pesos
- Coba Ruins – 240 pesos/each (we’re fairly certain we were charged triple the regular price from what we saw others post on Trip Advisor for the same time period which was 70 pesos! We were not charged for our 8 year old. The guys at the gate seemed ready to call it a day when we showed up & didn’t seem too impressed to let us in, even though we still had 1.5 hours until closing. Maybe that’s why they charged us so much?!)
- CBike rentals – 80 pesos/each
- CCoba Ruins Total – 1,410 pesos/Roughly $83 for our family of 5!
Tulum Ruins: Zamá – Place of the Dawning Sun. Or, better known as the Tulum Ruins. This is one of the ancient Mayan’s very few walled cities. It is protected on 3 sides by walls, the east protected by the Caribbean Sea. Stelae date it back to A.D. 564 & it was once home to 1,600 people in its day. It was the major crossroads hub for international trade for the Yucatán, both through maritime & land routes. Its population was killed off by Spaniards during the Conquest through Old World diseases. One good way to beat the heat & crowds for this very popular attraction? Hit it at sunrise or sunset & you may find yourselves lucky enough to have it all to yourselves.
- Tulum Ruins – 420 pesos. We were charged more for going for the sunrise, before it officially opened. They did not charge us for our 3 children, but we still believe we were charged double here from what we read on Trip Advisor.
- Tulum Ruins Total – 840 pesos/$49
Dreamy. Laid-back. Hip. Hippy. Creative. Vibrant, colorful art … all the turquoise & yellow & pink & green everywhere … a feast for the eyes. Beach town paradise. We absolutely loved Tulum! Located 1.5 hours south of Cancun down towards Belize, it is nestled between the Caribbean & the jungle. Delicious, authentic food eaten with beautiful views of the ocean or jungle … jungle stretching for as far as the eye can see in one direction … Caribbean blues stretching for as far as the eye can see in the other direction … in between you’ll find pristine, white beaches, palm trees, hammocks, sea turtles, open-roofed cenotes with long tree roots dangling down & crystal, clear water to swim in, ancient Mayan ruins to explore.
Where we stayed
We booked 2 bungalow rooms at Bel Air Collection Xpu Ha Riviera Maya … just over an hour south of Cancun & about 30 minutes north of Tulum. It was quiet & beautiful, simple & rustic, tucked away in the jungle. It is not fancy. Being campers & backpackers, this appeals to our tastes far more than a fancy hotel with tall buildings, lots of concrete, & people. The bungalows have thatched roofs, wooden balconies, hammocks & each room faced the jungle. We were woken up in the morning by the tropical bird life & loved that!
The resort is spread out over a lot of land with a 10 minute walk to the front desk or to the swimming pool/restaurant/beach area in the other direction. The beach area is small & rocky, but you can catch a complimentary colectivo from the lobby to nearby Xpu Ha beach, which is about 5 minutes away. We loved all the walking through the lovely walkways/green & shady canopies! If you prefer not to walk, you can call from your room for a golf cart to come & pick you up.
The resort has several exclusive cenotes on its property. Our favorite was Estero which you can both swim & kayak in. It’s big, beautiful, clear, cool & refreshing. It is hemmed in by mangroves & home to manatees, including a baby manatee that we got to see a few times!
We saw an abundance of wildlife & loved that … coatis which flock by day, raccoons which flock by night, iguanas everywhere, agoutis, tepezcuintles, manatees, crocodiles (in an enclosure, so you’re safe to swim!), & birdlife.
The staff were all so warm & friendly & the times we needed help, they were helpful.
If you head down to the beach area & turn right, past a sign warning to proceed at your own risk, walking along a path & old boardwalk along the ocean front, you will come across the abandoned ruins of the Xpu Ha Palace, the former Bel Air resort that was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 & is slowly being taken over by the jungle. Wandering amongst the ruins, it had a somewhat apocalyptic feel to it. There is a beautiful lagoon there, with Cenote Estero on the other side. There is a beautiful beach, too. It is a pity it was destroyed by the hurricane as it is in a beautiful area spread out along the ocean front & tucked away in the jungle at the same time, built around the lagoon & cenote Estero. We cracked open a fresh coconut on our walk & drank from it, which was fun & delicious!
Overall, we loved our stay there!
How We Got Around
We hired a private shuttle to pick us up at the airport to drive us the +1 hours to our resort & then to pick us up & drive us back to the airport at the end of our trip. It was $100 roundtrip.
We hired a car rental from a private owner through Turo for 3 of our days there. It was around $20/day.
We used a colectivo twice for a 30 mile roundtrip to Akumal beach & paid 25 pesos/each person/each way so 250 pesos roundtrip/$15 roughly.
Transportation Total for 6 days for a family of 5 = $165