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Forty miles south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula is Playa del Carmen, a former fishing village. Go South 90 miles through beach, jungle, and mangrove and you'll run into the laid-back town of Tulum. Along the way you'll see mostly family-friendly all-inclusive resorts.
With the help of a guide, learn about the fascinating Mayan architectural ruins of Tulum. Climb the former walled city's ceremonial buildings, including the Temple of the Descending Gods and El Castillo, perched on a cliff above the sea (mexicokantours.com/lang-en/tulum-tours.html). Take a dip in the water when the weather gets too warm; the beach is one of the prettiest in the Caribbean. Don't miss the valodores (flyers), men dressed in vibrant costumes and suspended from 150-foot poles by ropes tied to their ankles. Another highlight: the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO Heritage Site that's home to sea turtles and hundreds of bird species; families can kayak its wetlands (cesiak.org). For more fun with nature, snorkel at Xel-Ha, the largest natural aquarium in the world (xelha.com), or see stalactites and stalagmites up-close in the wondrous caves of Aktun Chen (aktunchen.com). Back in Playa del Carmen, head to Quinto Avenida to pick up a pareo sarong or a hanging lantern made from coconut.
Where to Stay
The 284-room Sandos Playacar Beach Resort has six restaurants, four pools, a video game room, tennis courts, and a teen club (sandoshotels.com). A seven-night, all-inclusive promotion starts at $1,617 for two adults and two kids under 12 years in same room. (Older kids pay adult rates.) With three properties—The Suites, 5th Avenue, and Beach Club—the Blue Parrot offers a mix of rooms and rates. For example, a spacious apartment suite at 5th Avenue starts at $166 a night. Teen-friendly fun includes include nightly fire shows and a dance floor on the beach (blueparrot.com).
Complimentary bicycles are often available at big resorts. Get your family's wheels spinning on a leisurely ride to Playa del Carmen.
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Situated on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Los Cabos is actually two unique towns: Cabo San Lucas, a lively hub for shopping and eating, and San José del Cabo, a mellow pueblo with the historical Misión of San José del Cabo Añuití at its center. Stretching over a 20-mile tourism corridor, the area offers families two distinct vacation vibes.
Los Cabos is known for water sports: kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing, and parasailing. But because there are no lifeguards—and many beaches have strong undertows and steep drop-offs—kids should swim only in designated safe spots. Playa El Médano, near downtown Cabo San Lucas, is popular with families; it has musicians, food stalls, and pick-up volleyball games for tourists and locals. The town is also a prime spot for sport fishing—particularly for mega marlin—but you can snorkel with hundreds of species of fish at the eco-reserve Cabo Pulmo Marine Park. For teens who surf or want to learn, the biggest waves hit during the summer, especially at Playa Acapulquito. Boating is also a must: Meet other mates aboard the pirate ship-inspired Buccaneer Queen, which anchors in Chileno Bay, or sail on La Princesa, a catamaran that glides past the Sea Lion Colony and the iconic arched rocks of El Arco (cabosanlucastours.net). The vendors in Los Cabos sell embroidered clothes, pewter earrings, and aromatic vanilla extract, among other local goodies.
Where to Stay
The 375-room Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort, with its open-air hacienda courtyard, has two free-form infinity pools, tennis courts, a spa, beach yoga, and a kids' club. Protected by a rocky point, the crescent-shape beach offers safe swimming. Regular rates from $249 a night (hiltonloscabos.com); see below for the FC deal. The family-run Siesta Suites Hotel near the marina in the heart of Cabo San Lucas is a low-cost option for travelers who don't care about frills. It has a restaurant, pool, and free Wi-Fi (cabosiestasuites.com, from $64).
Everyone raves about the sunsets. But be sure to get up early at least once during your vacation to catch a spectacular sunrise.
FC Deal at the Hilton Los Cabos
$179 per night (excludes tax and gratuities)
— Accommodation for 4 people (2 adults and 2 kids under 18 in the same room)
— Last night free with minimum stay of 4 nights
— Private Mexican cuisine cooking class
— Free kids' menu meals for children 12 and under when dining with paying adults
— 20% off kids' spa treatments
— Valid through October 15, 2010
Reserve at hiltonloscabos.com/familycircle or by calling (877) 354-1399 and requesting code FC. Subject to availability.
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Between the hike-friendly foothills of the Sierra Madres and 26 miles of supersoft sand, you'll find Puerto Vallarta, a charming town set along the horseshoe-shape Banderas Bay, with both ocean and mountain diversions.
Zigzag through the streets of Viejo Vallarta (Old Town), past the Baroque-style Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, topped with a golden crown. Listen to mariachi melodies in palm-shaded plazas or just people-watch while you stroll the seaside boardwalk, the Malecón. Find locally made leather huaraches (sandals) and bright sarapes (shawls) at the main flea market, Mercado Municipal, then catch a little culture at the Mexican Fiesta, with its folkloric dancing, clowns, piñatas, and fireworks (vallartadiscovery.com). Basilio Badillo (known as Restaurant Row) is where you'll find the bustling Café de Olla; stop in for authentic fare like enchiladas and quesadillas. Outside of town you can take a horseback ride (ranchoelcharro.com) or visit a turtle camp—in August visitors can release hatchlings into the sea (ecotoursvallarta.com). And to the south, in the town of Mismaloya, Zoologico de Vallarta has white Bengal tigers, and guests can hand-feed giraffes and other animals (zoologicodevallarta.com). Or take an hour-long boat ride to Las Caletas to relax in beach hammocks overlooking amazing vistas (vallarta-adventures.com).
Where to Stay
The centrally located 236-room Buenaventura Grand Hotel & Spa has three pools and a giant Jacuzzi. Rates start at $135 and kids under 12 stay free (hotelbuenaventura.com.mx). The small and simple Hotel Playa Conchas Chinas, also within walking distance of Puerto Vallarta's commercial zone, has kitchenettes and a pool—as well as a great view of the bay (conchaschinas.com, from $99).
Spend an afternoon on the city's south side at Playa de Los Muertos, a bustling beach where musicians and dancers perform and bodybuilders strut their stuff.
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Most major airports in the United States offer easy access to Cancún, making it a top choice for families in search of a no-fuss trip. It's tempting to spend your entire vacation at the pool, especially if you're staying at one of the hotels on Zona Hotelera, the barrier island where most resorts are located. But the coolest thing about this hot destination is the range of activities available on the mainland.
Get in touch with nature at nearby Xcaret, a verdant eco-park with a swimmable underground river, archeological digs, equestrian shows, Papantia Flying Men performances, and wildlife like manatees, monkeys, jaguars, and butterflies (xcaret.com). Or explore the jungle with adventure outfitter Selvática; you'll zipline through the trees, ride a Segway over the dirt, and cool off in a cenote swimming hole (selvatica.com.mx). Back in town check out open-air markets like Coral Negro and Ki-Huic for lace or woven blankets; conduct business Mexican-style and be prepared to haggle. (Don't accept the first price—or even the third!) Eat at Calypso's, a hard-to-spot restaurant in the Hotel Zone, featuring fresh seafood and outdoor seating (calypsoscancun.com). An absolute requirement: Time-travel back thousands of years by climbing the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza (chichenitza.com). Book a tour so you can kick back rather than stress during the five-hour round-trip from Cancún (mycancuntours.com). And definitely plan a day at Isla Mujeres, a 5-mile island reachable by ferry; rent a golf cart—each one seats four people—and cruise the peaceful landscape.
Where to Stay
At the 379-room Dreams Resorts & Spa, families can explore more than seven oceanfront acres. There's a Core Zone Club for kids 13 to 17, as well as five restaurants, a lagoon of dolphins, a trampoline, live shows, and Spanish classes (dreamsresorts.com, from $223 per person). The privately owned condos of Villas Marlin have two bedrooms and full kitchens, giving families plenty of room. The complex is right on the beach where sea turtles tread in summer; there are three pools, a grocery store, and tennis courts (rivieramayacondos.com, $999 for seven nights for a room that sleeps six).
For a brief peek at the Mayan past, stop by the small ruins of El Rey (the King), an archeological site across from Playa Delfines, near the southern end of the Hotel Zone. Be sure to check out the colorful peacocks and hundreds of iguanas lazing nearby. (Admission is just $2.)
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Graced by centuries-old Spanish architecture and green mountain vistas, this city in the center of the country is known as the Land of the Seven Moles (pronounced MO-lays) because of its variety of delicious sauces. Foodie families will feel right at home here.
In the postcard-pretty Zócalo (town square), spend an hour sipping sweet-spicy hot chocolate while observing the parade of la vida Mexicana: herb vendors, grasshopper merchants, artists, sanadores (healers), dancers, guitarists, and jugglers. Then take a stroll along cobblestone streets lined with colonial facades and indulge in cheese-stuffed rellenos (chilies) and ice cream with unique flavors such as aguacate (avocado) and pétalos de rosa (rose petal). Make memories—and food—at a Mexican cooking class at a culinary school like Seasons of My Heart (seasonsofmyheart.com). Restaurants also host special cooking events; the five-course instruction at La Casa de los Sabores is popular (laolla.com.mx). Hop a trolley in the historical district and see the famous 17th-century Santo Domingo church; attached is the Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia—housed in a former convent. Markets brim with embroidered skirts, huipiles (Mayan-style dresses), and alebrijes (painted wooden animals), but the yummiest souvenirs are jars of mole and barbecue sauce from the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Don't leave without visiting the majestic Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban, where warriors are carved from stones.
Where to Stay
The 91-room Camino Real Oaxaca was built as a convent in 1576; trickling fountains make for a calming courtyard. There's also a heated pool (camino-real-oaxaca.com, from $275). The 23-room Hotel Aitana is near the former convent of Santo Domingo and just a short walk up the hill from the Zócalo; its terrace overlooks Oaxaca (hotelaitanaoax.com, triples start at $85).
Meander through Paseo Juárez el Llano Park, which has impressive fountains, gardens, birds, and a variety of huge trees. Kids celebrate birthdays, gymnasts do flips, and merchants sell books and artwork.
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Many flights to beach destinations connect through Mexico City; consider exploring the metropolis if you have a few days. Festivities abound in the Zócalo, the third-largest plaza in the world. Be sure to visit the Palacio Nacional, the Baroque Metropolitan Cathedral, and Chapultepec Park, which houses the National Museum of Anthropology. Try a fried chapuline (grasshopper) from a street vendor on your way to Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, a Mayan-style building conceived by the famous muralist to hold collections of Mexican artifacts. You can also explore temple ruins, floating gardens, and canals in the borough of Xochimilco. As when in any big city, play it safe: Sightsee in well-policed areas and ride in regulated radio-dispatched sitio taxis (called by your hotel or restaurant)—never hail a passing cab.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings, and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.