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The Mayan Riviera for Families

Ancient temples, underground wonders and emerging Playa del Carmen

Tourists view a Mayan temple at Tulum while others stroll below on the Caribbean Sea.

Tourists view a Mayan temple at Tulum while others stroll below on the Caribbean Sea.

The Yucatan lures visitors from both the U.S. and Mexico to its unique features surrounded by beaches, drenched in sun and aspiring to be what it calls itself — the Mexican Riviera. With US Air and USA 3000 both serving Cancun from Philadelphia with four-hour nonstop flights, the area is particularly accessible.

It has a unique geological formation, created by a meteor that struck and created the Gulf of Mexico. The Yucatan was land brought up from submerged sea bottom, which gives it extensive underground but no aboveground rivers, a gorgeous wild coastline and lush vegetation.

Most residents are transplants from more crowded and troubled areas to the north. The natives are descendants of the highly evolved, mathematically sophisticated and peaceful Mayans, who have always lived clustered near their still-visited ruins.

Mayan Sites

Known for their steep stone steps and astronomical orientation, Mayan sites like Tulum celebrate the symbolism of upside-down deities and a society that valued cross-eyed virgins and athletic prowess. Tulum, which is about an hour from Cancun and 30 minutes from Playa del Carmen, is unique among Mayan temples for overlooking the Caribbean from a high bluff. Mayan guides explain the symbols and the tragedy of ancient Mayans, who tried to live at peace with their neighbors, but made the fatal mistake of taking the bearded Spanish explorers as gods.

The Mayans built their temples to feature the sun at the equinox. Their elaborate 5,125-year calendar with interlocking lunar and solar aspects climaxes on December 21, 2012. They knew the calendar cycles would just start over, but traditionally they abandon existing cities and start a new cycle and a new pyramid at the changeover.

In inlets such as Akumal along the Mayan Riviera coast, snorkelers can see giant tortoises and colorful fish.A Unique Adventure Park

Environmentally sensitive development along the coast includes inlets like Akumal, where visitors can rent snorkeling equipment on the beach to explore the shallow coral reefs to see colorful fish, giant tortoises and eel-sized barracudas. Nearby, the day-long adventure park Xplor offers under- and above-ground sport and natural wonders.

Built around, or rather above, an extensive 54-acre underground river, Xplor’s underground caves and river create a beautiful, eerie, meandering presence surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites, while swimming and rafting along the river expose cavernous vistas in the rocky underground vault.

The recently opened park offers jungle driving in an ATV with lots of hairpin turns and a river crossing on a swaying, rickety wood-slatted bridge. The park has an hours-long network of zip-lines. Open daily from 9am to 5pm, Xplore offers an extensive tasty buffet and various refreshment stops, all included in the $100 per person entrance fee.

Luxurious condo units for rent  compete with resort hotels along the  coastline from Cancun to Tulum.  Playa del Carmen

Besides the now well-established Cancun, a half-hour down the coast is Playa del Carmen, which has been built up in the last 20 years from a shoreline fishing village.

Playa del Carmen resembles the shambling informality of Key West in the 1950s. Oceanfront properties have given way to condo resorts like the El Taj Condo Hotel (pictured, right), where you can rent a multi-room unit with a kitchen. The beach still sports fishing boats, and bathers mix informally with locals offering refreshments at the beach edge, massages and boats to Cozumel island.

The main drag, Fifth Avenue, is a pedestrian street with local shops and restaurants. While Cancun draws more college-age frolickers, Playa del Carmen has a diverse crowd with many families and varied sites, though the telltale college drinking hangouts Señor Frogs and Carlos ‘n Charlie’s have outposts by the beach.

Six blocks from the beach is a large Walmart with a full array of products from both sides of the border. Along the half-hour rides from Cancun to Playa del Carmen and again to Tulum are all-inclusive resort hotels with exclusive access to their own private coastline.

But Playa del Carmen has its own attractions, which can be enjoyed by staying in town or ordering tours through concierges. And for some, it is enough to have the calm clear blue ocean and fine white sand that make a totally relaxing seaside vacation.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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