South of the Border

Family & Kid Travel, Mexico, Shopping & Style, Sports & Games, Wildlife & Animals — By on July 10, 2008 at 12:11 am

Mayan RvieraI’m used to hauling backpacks and shacking in hostels with my fellow Lost Girls, but my latest getaway was done family style: I met my mother and sister Kate for a resort vacation in Playa Del Carmen. Just 45 minutes south of Cancun on the Mayan Riviera, the beach town is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants cooking up all types of cuisine.

Cancun Mayan Riviera You won’t find the rampant wet t-shirt contests that come with being labeled a spring break destination like it’s northern sister (yes, my college roomies and I made this spring-break pilgrimage and no, I didn’t enter a wet t-shirt contest). Even so, a few super-chains, such as Wal-Mart, have found their way to playa, as the locals refer to it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much of my five short days in town since my mother arranged for us to stay at my uncle’s timeshare. When I first arrived at the mega-resort that boasted seven pools, six restaurants, and a shuttle bus to transport guests around the enormous property, I felt completely removed from the Mexico I longed to explore. It seemed the closest I was going to get to “authentic” culture on my family vacation was sipping the $6.50 Coronas at the pool bar.

Playa del CarmenTraveling with other people calls for lots of compromise (not everyone has the same vacation priorities), but my main M.O. for the trip was to spend time with my family. Though our ideas of adventure are all very different, my mom, sister and I agreed upon excursions that we could all enjoy. Here’s a quick recap of some of the things we saw and did in this part of the Yucatan Peninsula:

Venta PachamamaShop on 5th Avenue: No, it’s not the glitzy, designer-filled commercial road that’s found in the Big Apple, but a traffic-free cobblestone street lined with tequila and cigar vendors, kitschy art shops, and “natural” massage parlors. My favorite was Venta Pachamama, where I bought a wooden cross that’s adorned with metallic saints and a Virgin of Guadalupe magnet etched with hot-pink paint.

Jet Setting: We took a water taxi from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel, Mexico’s biggest island and a popular cruise stop. Once we arrived, we signed up for a $30 snorkeling trip. The boat didn’t bring us far enough off shore to really see the Great Maya Reef, which was badly damaged by hurricanes a few years back. In fact, we could have taken a taxi to a beach further away from the ferry landing and rented snorkeling equipment for the same experience. Oh well-travel is all about living and learning.

Once we dried off, we wandered into the town square and sat at one of the outdoor restaurants, where we washed down grilled, garlic-topped grouper with margaritas. Eating fresh seafood and watching the sunset was the highlight of our day.

Playa del CarmenBack to Nature: Xel-Ha is an ecological theme park located about an hour and a half south of Playa del Carmen near Tulum. Touted as a “natural aquarium,” it’s a protected cove where guests can snorkel, swim with dolphins, and explore submerged caves. For $75, you get access to snorkeling gear, bikes, and all-you-can eat and drink buffets. I snorkeled in a protected cove for hours, mesmerized by rainbow-colored fish that swam right up to my mask. And, after a tough day of having fun in the intense Mexican sun, I opted for a cold-stone massage at the outdoor spa. My only wish was that I’d exerted more self-control at the buffet and not eaten those three ice-cream cones right before-Mayan massage involves lots of stomach rubbing.

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