A few things have changed since the last time I visited Mexico. When I went to Cancun with a few gal pals in the early 1990s, our trip revolved around tequila shots, string bikinis and American college students.
This time, I've come with my eight-year-old daughter to the Riviera Maya - a 150-kilometre stretch of Mexican coastline between Cancun and Tulum, with water parks, cenotes, ancient ruins and warm seawater - looking for some family fun and adventure. Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect; this stretch of coast was almost untouched by tourism 15 years ago.
In those days, Playa del Carmen was just a fishing village on the coast nearby. Now, it's a bustling town, and as I go out with my daughter on the first evening, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is packed with families in search of souvenirs and a good place to eat.
Luckily, we've made reservations at Ajua Maya restaurant, where manager Vaughan Long greets us at the door like old friends. A band is playing salsa music and a few kids are on the dance floor. Before I can utter the words "Frozen margarita, please," my daughter, Sophia, joins the kids and starts moving like Madonna in a video.
Looking at the menu, I can't decide between the lobster with tequila and a traditional Mayan dish called tikin xic - a fish fillet steamed in banana leaves and served on a bed of plantain and chaya. I go for the local dish. My daughter has bounced back to the table and is demanding to know if we saw the waiters balancing trays full of tall, fruity drinks on their heads. She scrutinizes the menu and turns up her nose at the kids' choices - pizza, chicken fingers, spaghetti - opting instead for "an authentic Mexican dish - fajitas." She's back on the dance floor before we can ask, "Chicken or beef?"
The vibrant scene here in Playa del Carmen has grown up almost as quickly as Sophia. The first high-end resort opened on the Riviera Maya in 1995, paving the way for development along the coast. Luckily, politicians, tourism officials and developers were eager to avoid the environmental devastation caused by the explosion of tourism in Cancun and agreed to protect the environment and limit the size and density of hotels.
Our hotel, just a 30-minute taxi ride from Cancun International Airport, is the newly opened Blue Bay Grand Esmeralda, a 986-room resort near the town of Playa del Carmen. It's popular with families because of its 7,200-square-foot spa, which features a circuit of therapy pools, and its well-run kids club. Some buildings have moat-like pools, so guests on the ground floor can dangle their feet from their patio.
On our first full day, we hit the beach but find it mucky and rocky, so we grab a poolside lounger; there are three pools covering 30,000 square feet, with a special area reserved for children.
In the afternoon, Sophia heads to the kids club, where she spends a couple of hours making paper and taking a nature walk with the resort's biologist to learn about mangroves and the essential role they play in the coastal ecosystem.
By the second day, we're ready for adventure, so we visit Xcaret, the closest thing in this region to a North American theme park. We head straight for the underground river, stopping to take pictures and admire groups of scarlet macaws and flamingos.
Life jackets and snorkelling gear on, we slip into the chilly water. The river is about 700 metres long, but we can't see any fish, especially in the jet-black water of the caves. After a while, we just float downstream.
Having had a bite at one of the park's restaurants, we spend the afternoon exploring the coral reef aquarium, falling in love with baby sea turtles (and learning about the park's marine preservation program, which releases thousands of baby turtles each year), trying to spot alligators in their natural habitat, laughing at the monkeys in the trees, climbing ancient ruins and traipsing along the Tropical Jungle Trail, with its signs about native plants and their many uses.
By suppertime, we're exhausted and we still haven't seen the butterfly pavilion, the manatees, the jaguars or the bat cave. Nor have we snorkelled in the turquoise lagoon, explored a cave or relaxed on the private beach. As we trudge out of the park, we hear the music start for the Mexican cultural extravaganza show, which features more than 300 performers. I make a note to come for two days if we ever return.
It's our final day on the Riviera Maya, and for a totally different experience we find ourselves rumbling through the jungle in an all-terrain Mercedes-Benz Unimog.
There are about 20 of us in two of these military-style trucks, and Sophia and the other children are laughing and screaming in delight (or terror?) as we scramble over rocks and up steep embankments.
We stop at Rancho San Felipe, a small Mayan community of about 30 people and home to the Nohock Nah Chich Cenote, one of the longest explored underground river systems in the world. After a lunch of chicken stew, rice, empanadas and tortillas made fresh by members of the Rodriguez family, we hike a few hundred metres to the cenote, don life jackets and jump into the water.
Careful not to touch anything, we leave behind daylight and swim deep into the narrow underground river, which is cold, dark and magical, with its fabulous stalactites and stalagmites. Our guide's headlamp is the only light, and some of the younger children are afraid and turn back with their parents. In the darkness, Sophia looks for my hand and quietly tells me not to leave her side, but she bravely continues. The whole swim lasts no more than 20 minutes, but in the darkness it feels longer.
That evening, as I watch Sophia dance with the other kids at the Ajua Maya, I relax with a margarita and think about our adventures over the past few days. I mentally check off items on my list of what a family vacation must include: a pool or nice beach; entertainment and outdoor activities that are fun and educational for the entire family; manageable crowds and lineups; good food; and downtime. I'm satisfied. Cancun can keep its college students and tequila shots - this is the place for us.
Air Canada flies non-stop daily from Toronto to Cancun.
Where to Stay
BlueBay Grand Esmeralda, Playa del Carmen; +52 984 877 4500; www.bluebayresorts.com. This hotel has 986 rooms. All-inclusive rates for a family of four about $185 in the off-season; $360 in the winter high season.
Where to Eat
Ajua Maya, Playa del Carmen; +52 984 873 2523; www.ajuamaya.com
What to Do
Xcaret, +52 998 883 0470; www.xcaret.com. Adults $69; children $34.50
Alltournative Off Track Adventures, Playa del Carmen; 1-800-507-1092; www.alltournative.com.
Sandy Farran was a guest of the Riviera Maya Tourism Board.