Cozumel, a 30-mile island off the coast of the Mayan Riviera, has long been a popular cruising destination known for its beach clubs and coral reefs. Even if the island has made your itinerary before, it’s time to go back with the family to experience new outdoor activities and cultural tours.
One of Cozumel’s oldest marine parks, Chankanaab (Carr. Costera Sur km 9; 011-52-987-872-9760; adults, from $21*; children, $14), which means “little sea” in Mayan, has expanded several times throughout the decades. What started as a bare-bones jumping-off point to superb tropical reefs has transformed into a lovely park with a placid lagoon. It can be an ideal spot for little ones to take a dip or you can go on guided kayak adventures in glass-bottomed boats through which you might spot angelfish or snapper. For tuckered-out kiddos, there’s a beach with lounge chairs.
Consider booking a trip to Stingray Beach (Carr. Costera Sur km 2.8; 011-52-987-872-4932; adults, $64; children, $29), on the island’s west-central coast, and stick with the morning or the weekend to avoid big-ship crowds. Here, families have the opportunity to swim alongside a grouping of nearly 50 southern stingrays, which vary in size from about 18 inches to more than three feet. After a guided tutorial on stingray behaviors and habitat, you can strap on snorkel gear and observe the graceful creatures underwater. Also keep an eye out for the park’s rescued coral reefs, transplanted from endangered locations, and its newest resident, a nurse shark.
The Mayan history of Cozumel—the island of the Ixchel goddess, once worshipped for fertility and medicine—comes alive at Pueblo de Maiz (Transversal km 5, Camino a San Gervacio; 011-52-984-146-5771; admission, $15), a re-created pre-Hispanic village. In one workshop you can sample various types of tortillas, made by hand on the spot; during another you can take a more active role and weave henequen fibers into bracelets. You can also play an ancient ball game or dress up in colorful feathered headdresses and learn Mayan dances.
Have a sweet tooth or two in your family? In San Miguel de Cozumel, the island’s main town, the Kaokao Chocolate Factory (1a. Bis Sur S. and 80 Bis. Av. Sur, Flores Magón; 011-52-987-869-4705; tours, $20 a person) offers tours that take you through a small museum displaying replicas of pre-Columbian tools and vessels that were used to make hot chocolate, believed by the Mayans to have spiritual powers. You’ll be handed an apron and hat before entering the chocolate-making room, where you can help chocolatiers grind beans (all sourced from Mexican plantations) and make souvenir chocolate wafers. Most exciting of all, there are samples galore, from dark-chocolate bars made with nopales (or cactus fruits) to cocoa infused with local honey and vanilla.
A series of theme parks flanks the Mayan Riviera’s Highway 307, which runs south from Cancún nearly all the way to Belize. Experiencias Xcaret owns five parks, but its first, Xcaret (Carr. Chetúmal–Puerto Juárez km 282; 855-326-0682; adults, from $99; children, $49) remains the biggest draw. It now fills 200 acres and sees more than a million visitors every year, with activities that show off the region’s natural and cultural riches. With options ranging from dolphin swims to butterfly sanctuaries, it’s worth mapping out the day’s plans before diving in. Start off at the Henequen Museum, where you’ll find handicrafts from all over Mexico, including a collection of toys. Zoologist wannabes won’t want to miss Spider Monkey Island or the park’s latest addition, a new aviary, where endangered macaws and parrots fly overhead. You can also snorkel through the extensive network of cenotes, or underground rivers, teeming with small freshwater fish. At night, stick around for dinner and Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, an impressive music and dance performance on the history of the country. It features colorful costumes and no less than 300 performers. It won’t be long before the words ¡Viva México! are rolling off of your tongue.
If you have a troop of daredevils (who are older than 7), then don’t miss a trip to Xplor (Carr. Cancún–Tulum km 282; 855-326-2696; adults, from $107; children, $53), Experiencias Xcaret’s newest park. Zip lines crisscross the skies throughout the 146-acre green space; the tallest begins at a height of about 150 feet, affording views of the Caribbean and even Cozumel, and ends over a waterfall. Families can also strap into 4×4 mini jeeps and drive miles of jungle and cave trails. You can also explore caverns by raft, paddling on an underground river surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. Refuel on healthy Mexican favorites like fragrant mangoes and crunchy jicama at Xplor’s El Troglodita restaurant.
Inland Culture Breaks
You’d be remiss to leave the Yucatán without seeing Mayan ruins. While the photogenic pyramid at the Chichén Itzá complex graces many a brochure cover, the ruins are roped off. The Cobá complex (Carr. Federal 307 Cancún–Chetumal; 011-52-984-128-8709; admission, $3.25) is less crowded, and here you can climb Ixmoja, the Yucatán’s tallest pyramid. Bike rentals are available just past Cobá’s entrance and are a great way to travel the jungle roads that connect the area’s monuments, all of which date back to 200 to 600 A.D. En route, listen for tropical birds and monkeys.
From Cobá it’s another hour northwest to reach the colonial city of Valladolid. Its scenic town square and small collection of mansions speak to its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, when Valladolid was one of the Yucatán’s largest cities. Today the charming town is a favorite among expats and artists alike and is home to independent boutiques and restaurants. Aspiring fashionistas will love shopping up and down Calzada de los Frailes, also known as Calle 41A. At the Coqui Coqui Perfumeria (No. 207A, Calle 41A; 011-52-985-856-3065), fragrances such as Flor de Naranjo (orange flower) or Agave are made with essential oils extracted throughout the Yucatán. Across the street, stop into Dutzi (No. 209, Calle 41A; 011-52-985-856-1950), the flagship of German designer Ariane Dutzi, whose natural-fiber handbags and hammocks are also carried by stores in Istanbul and Tokyo.
Get your culture fix at Casa de los Venados (Calle 40 Local 204; 011-52-985-856-2289; admission, free), just off of Valladolid’s main square. The renovated 16th-century private residence holds more than 3,000 works of Mexican art—ceramics from Puebla, metalworks from Jalisco, papier-mâché skeletons from Mexico City—collected by American expats John and Dorianne Venator. To see the collection, join the free daily house tour, held at 10 a.m.
While many restaurants along the coastline cater to tourists, Valladolid gives you a chance to try delicious interior Mexican food. For breakfast, head to Yerba Buena (No. 217, Calle 54A; 011-52-985-856-1406; breakfast for two, $20) and snag a colorful table on the back patio. The kitchen uses many of the fruits and vegetables from the surrounding garden to make delicious smoothies, and rich moles are flown in from the chef’s family in Oaxaca to top cazuelas, skillets of egg, cheese and plantain. Local dishes like calabazas (pumpkins) filled with cheese and mushroom, and cochinita pibil, pork slow-cooked in banana leaves, make the menu at El Jardin de los Frailes (Calle 41A between 48th and 50th Sts.; 011-52-985-856-2593; lunch for two, $25), all of which pair nicely with agua fresca, or fresh watermelon or pineapple juice.
If you happen to be in town on the weekend, head to the Parque Francisco Cantón in the evening. A 10-piece band plays music here after Sunday mass, and the entire village, it seems, comes to dance. Thanks to the friendly locals, your family will be learning the cha-cha in no time.
RCI® affiliated resorts in Mexico include:
Choose from suites with their own terrace or swim-up access. Carretera Coster Sur km. 12.9, Cozumel
Member Review: “Great entertainment staff.”
Kids can enjoy a red-carpet entrance on arrival and on-site activities. Carretera Coster Sur km. 12.8, Cozumel
Member Review: “Fun diving spots nearby.”
A stunning view of the Caribbean and access to a Mayan ruin await guests. Carretera Cancún-Tulum km. 258.693, Akumal Caleta Yalku
Member Review: “Resort restaurants were phenomenal.”
Amenities include a stone-walled pool area and marble bathrooms. Kilómetro 48 Carretera Federal Cancún-Playa del Carmen Riviera Maya
Member Review: “Excellent shopping in the on-site stores.”
This adults-only all-inclusive hotel offers a full-service salon and barbershop. Carretera Chetumal-Puerto Juarez Mza 022 Lote 084, Kantenah
Member Review: Not yet rated
Enjoy on-site activities, such as tango classes and sushi making. 5A Ave. Esq Calle 88 Norte MZA 569, Lote 1, Playa del Carmen
Member Review: “Immaculate facilities.”
Set inside a 326-acre nature park with trails for exploring. Km. 54 Carretera Federal Carillo Puerto-Cancún Municipio de Solidaridad
Member Review: “The beaches and activities were perfect for the whole family!”
Looking for a great deal on vacations in Cozumel and the Mayan Riviera? Visit RCI.com/MexicoOffers, where you can choose from sophisticated adults-only or fun family-friendly resorts and take advantage of deals such as low all-inclusive rates, resort credits, kids-stay-free offers and more!**
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Mexico include:
Posada San Juan, Valladolid
Simple rooms with comfortable beds and day hammocks overlook a central courtyard pool and garden. Days start with freshly made breakfasts like scrambled eggs served with tortillas and salsas. Corner of Calles 40 and 49, Valladolid; 011-52-985-856-0129; posadasanjuan.com; doubles from $100 a night
Located on Xpu-Ha Beach, one of the Mayan Riviera’s most secluded coastlines, this plush hotel has 29 suites and villas and a new spa and health club. Days are best spent lounging under a beach umbrella, especially with a margarita in hand. Cancún-Tulum km. 265, Playa del Carmen; 011-52-984-873-4830; hotelesencia.com; doubles from $400 a night
This resort, located between Cancún and Playa del Carmen, has 130 suites designed with local materials, such as limestone and wood, as well as a signature spa with a series of plunge and relaxation pools. Ctra. Federal Cancún-Playa del Carmen, Km. 298, Playa del Carmen; 011-52-984-875-8000; rosewoodhotels.com; doubles from $500 a night
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- **These vacations are limited and subject to availability.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Summer 2017