Do you know what’s better than going to South of the Border, that popular sombrero-themed rest area right off interstate I-95? Actually going south of the border to Mexico, where families can indulge in a wide range of activities that will make their Instagram feed explode with awesomeness.
That is, if you’re the kind of family that likes living the high life at all-inclusive resorts, splashing around in translucent turquoise waters, or mixing adventure with history while hiking to Mayan pyramids. Well, are you? Of course you are, because those activities rocks, just like your trip to Mexico will.
Part of the beauty of Mexico—besides, well, the beauty of Mexico—is that each region has a decidedly diverse flavor. Go to the Riviera Maya to swim in the Caribbean and explore ancient ruins. Out west on the Pacific Ocean, you’ve got the Riviera Nayarita’s rugged coastlines and amazing surfing. Then there’s Baja California, a peninsula in the Northwest famous for its golf and party scenes.
But despite the differing landscapes and vibes, the entire country is rife with family-friendly fun. Here are a few starting off points to base your next adventure.
This tropical paradise is not just for spring breakers anymore, though who could blame those party animals for coming here? Nowadays, the 15-mile stretch of white sand is filled with family-friendly resorts, where you can lounge under thatch-roof palapas with a perfectly chilled margarita resting in your hand, watching the kids learn to snorkel.
No matter how old your crew is, they’ll love exploring the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, proudly named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A sprawling, ancient complex hidden in the jungle, Chichen Itza is a ghost town built of stone and earth. Eyes bulge out in disbelief as visitors soak it all in, imagining what life was like here 1,200 years ago. Arrive early to watch El Castillo, The Castle, emerge like a stone giant from the morning fog, before racing up its 91 steps for one of the best views in all of Mexico.
After exploring the ruins, take a refreshing dip in Ik Kil, one of the Yucatan’s most famous jungle sinkholes. A grand staircase takes you down 85 feet to the surface of this pristine pool, festooned with hanging vines and waterfalls.
Playa del Carmen
Locals like to think of their coastal city as the anti-Cancun thanks to its chic appeal and European vibe. Honestly, we don’t know why the two towns are fighting for your affection—they’re both memory-making destinations the whole family will dig.
Your time here may very well involve the vibrant reef system right off the shore, where swimmers of all abilities can float in the calm waters spotting sea turtles and manta rays. Or you may prefer renting a bike and pedaling deep into the city’s interior for authentic fish tacos. If walking is more your thing, the pedestrian only Quinta Avenida, called Fifth Avenue for those struggling with Spanish, gives you 20 blocks worth of shops, restaurants and people watching.
Any time spent here would not be complete without a visit Tulum, the Mayan walled city built atop a cliff facing the Caribbean. Most Mayan fortresses were built with defense in mind, using the jungle to hide their presence. The builders of Tulum just took one look at the OMG-amazing coast here and said, “This will do nicely.”
Cabo San Lucas
The beaches in Cabo have strong undertows and steep drop-offs, making them less than ideal for swimming. But then again, you may be too busy kayaking, water skiing, sport fishing, golfing, windsurfing, parasailing and celebrity-spotting to care.
You know about the arch, El Arco, the famous rock formation in the Sea of Cortez. Animals know about it too, which is why they hang out here year around, making it a sweet place to spot sea lions lounging on the rocks and wide-winged pelicans swooping overhead. If it’s larger animals you yearn for, head to the Pacific side of the arch and hunt for gray whales on their annual migration.
Further down Mexico’s western coast is the famous town of Puerto Vallarta, a haven for Hollywood-types in the 1950s and a destination for sun-worshippers today. Nestled between the hiker friendly, palm-covered foothills of the Sierra Madres and horseshoe-shaped Banderas Bay, PV is without a doubt 100% captivating.
Listen to street-side mariachi bands as you stroll the Malecón, a 12-mile seaside boardwalk filled with action, art and arresting views. Outside of town, you can take a horseback ride through the hills or, in August, watch turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea.