It may be quite cold outside, but there’s no time like the present to dream about the long, lazy days of summer and start making your plans. From the glitzy resorts of the Pacific Coast to the eco-playgrounds of the Caribbean beaches, Mexico is an excellent choice for a fun family vacation.
Two Coasts to Boast
With 6,000 miles of coastline and an amazing variety of beachfronts, Mexico’s seaside resorts are a sure draw for summer fun.
Often called the “Pearl of the Pacific,” Mazatlán is still relatively undiscovered by the tourist hordes. A thoughtful investment in the historic downtown area has transformed it into a lovingly restored center of galleries, shops and restaurants surrounded by shady plazas. By day and well into the night, the charming malecón (waterfront promenade) bustles with locals enjoying the balmy night air.
With over 200 species of fish, including eels, sea horses and sharks, the Acuario Mazatlán (Mazatlán Aquarium) is a hit with young and old. One of the largest and finest in Mexico, it puts on daily shows filled with trained sea lions and exotic birds; a playground, an aviary, a botanical garden and a small crocodile exhibit round out the offering. With its affordable prices, fantastic kid’s programs at the hotels, safe swimming beaches, and nearly 17 miles of uninterrupted coastline (complete with some of the country’s best sport fishing), it’s a sure-fire choice for a summer vacation.
Showcasing 26 miles of golden beaches, its reputation as a favorite beach destination for visitors around the world is well deserved. Home to the largest natural bay in Mexico, Vallarta is also an ecological playground of the first order. Nature has been more than generous both above and below the water: sea turtle nesting season turns into the opportunity to participate in an unforgettable midnight “release” experience, dolphins nestle up to swimmers at Vallarta Adventure’s Dolphin Center, and botanical horseback safaris all help create great vacation memories.
Sometimes referred to as the “San Francisco of Mexico,” the city itself is a treat for all. The requisite seaside promenade has been transformed into a dynamic outdoor gallery, lined with charming shops and restaurants that offer great dining and even better music. Outside of the city, a short flight into the Sierra Madre takes travelers to the small village of San Sebastian, where time seems to have stopped at the turn of the century. From the tiny airstrip (where cows sometimes have to be scared off in order to make a safe landing) it’s minutes to the 150-year-old Hacienda Jalisco and the lovely old bandstand in the center of town. Once a thriving mining center rich in gold and silver, now it is a sleepy village nearly forgotten in time. Its residents keep cattle and cultivate corn, as well some of the finest coffee in the country available by the kilo at the local coffee grower’s house.
This dual destination on the Mexican Riviera is only a couple of hours north of Acapulco, but a million miles away in scope and attitude. Each town—separated by a mere 4.3 miles—is a world unto itself. Representing Old Mexico, Zihuatanejo is a sleepy fishing village that has taken advantage of its beautiful beach to welcome tourism. Precious boutique hotels are the norm here, with an excellent gourmet cuisine that takes full advantage of local ingredients. Its rustic charm is a welcome respite from other more “worldly” destinations.
Ixtapa, on the other hand, is a modern development set into motion in the 70’s. The idea was to create a thriving hotel zone with all the amenities to complement its humble neighbor while striving to maintain the natural beauty of the area—and it was well worth the effort. Growth has been limited (as evidenced by the short length of the hotel strip) and the boulevard area was designed for walking. Ixtapa offers golfers a choice of two championship courses. It’s also home to Delfiniti, where swimmers can belly up to friendly, intelligent dolphins for an experience of a lifetime. Both destinations offer a variety of watersports such as scuba diving, deep-sea fishing and cruises to hidden beaches. Nightlife tends to be pretty relaxed, though you’ll find a couple of lively clubs in Ixtapa.
Geographically separated and isolated from the mainland of Mexico, the Baja Peninsula is home to the area collectively known as Los Cabos. Spas, gourmet restaurants, eco-pursuits on land and sea and championship golf courses await visitors—along with excellent service and luxurious surroundings. The stark landscape of “desert meets sea” is a study in contrasts, but it’s by no means barren. The Sea of Cortez is rife with underwater adventure and offers endless possibilities for water sports both above and below the waves.
Not looking to get wet? Glass bottom boats depart daily from the Cabo San Lucas marina (home to Baja’s largest sport fishing fleet), hugging the famous arches at Land’s End, which mark where the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean meet. They’re also the roost for thousands of magnificent frigate birds and hundreds of pelicans that endlessly skim the deep blue water for tasty morsels. At the foot of the largest arch is a rock that seemingly barks out at passersby—actually, it’s a favored hangout for a big family of boisterous sea lions. On land, exploration by ATV, dune buggy or horseback will be a sure hit with the entire family.
The Mexican Caribbean
Famous for its turquoise waters and snow-white sand, Cancún has long been the destination of choice among travelers for some serious R&R. Families flock to its many excellent all-inclusive hotels, many of which boast amazing kid’s clubs—think onsite water parks. But it’s more than just a “fun under the sun” spot: Cancún is also the gateway to the Mundo Maya, or Mayan World. Ancient ruins allow a hands-on peek into the past in a lush jungle setting that’s home to ecosystems brimming with wildlife and exotic flora. The ruins of El Rey can be seen right within the city limits, but Cancún is within easy access of the sea-side ruins of the city of Tulúm, the archaeological wonders of Cobá and two of the biggest Mayan cities, Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
There’s no doubt, though, that the azure Caribbean is one of its biggest draws. Water sports are it in Cancún—scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating, even fabulous ecoparks that combine modern facilities with natural wonders (check out Xcaret, Xpu-Há or the newly re-opened Tres Ríos). On land, golf and tennis are favorites—as is the “sport” of shopping. “Green” tourists will revel in the magnificent biosphere of Sian Ka’an, the bird refuge of Isla Contoy and the Reserva de la Biósfera Río Lagartos. All are within driving distance of the Hotel Zone and a must for an unforgettable photographic safari.
Offshore, the island of Cozumel embodies the charm of a Mexican beach town. Cozy and quaint, Cozumel is the perfect family retreat. Spend the day at the Reserva Ecológica Parque Punta Sur learning about sea turtles, then make plans to visit Parque Chankanaab to see a typical Mayan village, experience the sea lion program, witness a lagoon filled by the sea via underground tunnels and more. Diving is exceptional on the island’s world-renowned reefs; certifications are available through local dive centers.
Tips for Keeping (Almost) Everyone Happy
There’s plenty to say for taking a vacation with the entire family—three generation’s worth of memories created in one trip is something that doesn’t happen every day. With a little planning, everybody will come out smiling in the pictures.
The right accommodations. Vacation rentals are a great option, but so are large all-inclusive properties (ask for adjoining rooms). Some are broken out into smaller “villages” where each party (except for the kids, of course) can have their own casita.
Get everyone’s input on activities. When you start planning your trip, consider everyone’s opinion—including the kids’. It will help you plan your time while you’re there to make the most of every day.
Be flexible. After all, you’re on vacation, but you might want to stay close to your normal rhythm so no one gets too out of whack. For example, the grandparents and grandkids might be more active in the mornings, while teenagers shudder at the mere thought of moving before 9 AM. Plan activities accordingly.
Come unglued. A family vacation doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute of it together. Zip line adventures in the jungle might not be everybody’s cup of tea, so think about scheduling the older kids on that (supervised) adventure while you and the littler ones check out the glass bottom boat.
Don’t sweat the menu. Hot chile is a food group in Mexico, but menus are extremely varied and you can always ask for it on the side. Most if not all hotels and many restaurants have kids’ menus—and any hotel worth its salt will offer different versions of local dishes for more tender palates.
Travel documents: Passports are required for ALL travelers—including children—entering the U.S. through airports and seaports from the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico, rather than just a birth certificate and driver’s license. Notarized consent from parent(s) required for children under age 18 traveling alone, with one parent, or in someone else’s custody. For more information, visit http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/mexico.html.
Bring Sunscreen: Plan on packing more than bathing suits: sunscreen is a mist for both children and adults, even if it’s overcast. Waterproof gels, zinc oxide creams and continuous spray sport sunscreens are great for active children. Protective clothing and hats are also highly recommended.
Packing: Think about taking more than one swimsuit for each person. Things take a lot longer to dry in humid weather and no one likes to pull on a damp swimsuit. No towels or beach toys are necessary, as hotels provide plenty of both.
Learning Experience. A goodie bag of Mexico-related items might help the little ones get a head start in enjoying their vacation. Depending on their age, include a short list of key words and simple phrases, a stylized map of the destination, a bilingual coloring book and other such items in their carry-on.
Just in Case: Most large resorts have one an English-speaking doctor on call 24 hours a day. Walk-in clinics can be expensive; check with the concierge first. For reliable information on American trained doctors and hospitals in different resort areas, you might want to get a copy of MedToGo’s Mexico Health and Safety Travel Guide, an up-to-date bible compiled by an Arizona doctor. You’ll also want to take your SkyMedTAKESYOUHOMEmembership: in case of a critical injury or illness, they will be there for you and your family.