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Mexico Backpacking with Kids - When, Where, How?

As part of our Central American adventure in 2022 with our three young children (Max, 7, Quinn 3 and Willow, 10 months) we spent 7/8 days in the Yucatan peninsular. Here we have put together a summary of all the background information and research you will need to plan a memorable adventure to the Mayan Riviera with kids.

When to Go to the Mayan Riviera?


Spring is considered the best time to visit Riviera Maya because it’s warm and sunny with just a few showers. The monthly average rainfall is around 30mm over two or three days per month. Temperatures have increased since winter, rising to 25°C in March and 26°C in April.


However, as with anywhere, good weather brings more people and around Easter you’ll have USA Spring-breakers arriving and see higher prices.


Hurricane season begins on the 1st June and ends on the 30th November. The rainfall in June is slightly higher than July, but picks up again in August and continues until November. September and October have the highest amount of rain, ranging in an average of 9 to 10 inches. This could limit the number of activities you’ll enjoy, however during the wet season you’ll find the best time for swimming. The sea has warmed up to 29°C, which is ideal for swimming and water sports. Rainfall is common throughout the summer months, so make sure to pack an umbrella to deal with the rain. Winter is one of the driest seasons with not much rainfall and very warm temperatures ranging from 21°C to 29°C. There’s never a wrong time for diving. Because of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, it’ll be an exhilarating experience regardless of when you visit. The only wrong time for snorkelling and diving in the Riviera Maya is probably when a tropical storm occurs. Otherwise, every season is perfect with crystal clear water of an average ocean visibility staying around 100 feet throughout the year.


Our trip was the first week of July and temperatures stayed around 35 degrees Centigrade the entire trip. It never fell below 27 overnight and didn’t rain once. Skies remained clear the majority of the time, sometimes clouding over in the afternoon for an hour or two.


Where to Stay in the Rivera Maya?


Of course whether you go for all-inclusive package deals, slumming it in hostels or cater to your own needs in an Air BnB, the real question is what area will you stay in? We spent a long time weighing up the pros and cons and plotted a map with all our destinations on to see where would be most economical and convenient in terms of travel.


The typical locations are Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. The weather and safety of all three of these options are comparable.


Cancun

The city was specifically founded as a tourism hotspot back in the ’70s in the northern coast of the peninsular. Over time, it has only become more and more luxurious and with a wider offer of hotels, bars and restaurants besides a huge array of incredible activities to keep all sorts of tourists well entertained. The colonial-era city of Valladolid and the Chichen Itza archaeological site are a few hours’ drive from Cancun. If you’re seeking easy, all-inclusive luxury resorts and/or night-life, and if you don’t think you’ll be exploring much beyond beaches, then Cancun is likely to be your jam.


Cancun is quite expensive, there are pretty much no boutique hotels or hostels. The downtown area is cheaper but 13 km from the hotel district which means you have to get there. Since the city was designed for international tourism, there isn’t much to be found here if you’re looking to experience authentic Mexican anything.


Distances:


30 minutes (13 km) from Isla Mujeres (ferry ride from Puerto Juarez).

45 minutes (55 km) from Playa del Carmen.

1 hour 33 minutes (104.9 km) from Akumal.

1 hour 40 minutes (131 km) from Tulum.

2 hours 8 minutes (156 km) from Valladolid.

2 hours 34 minutes (197.4 km) from Chichen Itza.


Playa del Carmen


Originally a fishing village, this coastal town, 45 mins south of Cancun has expanded to offer a variety of cuisine and nightlife and still retain a vibrant village vibe. There are plenty of cheaper hotels, Air Bnbs and hostels, and the main street (5th Avenue) has lots of shops, restaurants, cheap street food, bars and dance clubs while retaining some Mexican culture and feel. Everything is walking distance. In addition, the palm-lined shoreline and turquoise waters of the Caribbean form picture-perfect views, though they are not as large as in Cancun. Playa del Carmen is the more centrally located of the three main options. It is also a short ferry to Cozumel island if water sports and diving are your thing. Playa del Carmen is the cheapest of the three not just in terms of like-for-like accommodation but the food is much cheaper in general.

Distances:


45 minutes (55 km) from Cancun.

30 minutes ferry (33 km) from Cozumel.

50 minutes (64.4 km) from Tulum.

30 minutes (38.4 km) from Akumal.

1 hour 28 minutes (108.5 km) from Coba.

1 hour 49 minutes (141.1 km) from Valladolid.

2 hours 21 minutes (182.3 km) from Chichen Itza.


Tulum


Tulum is a tourist destination in its own right owning to the well-preserved Mayan ruins, cenotes, bohemian hotel road and town centre and Caribbean beaches. The atmosphere here is laid back and chilled out and the ambience of the accommodation is tasteful, ecocentric, vibrant (and expensive). The boutique hotels here compliment the natural surroundings, being that of a national park (the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve). There are soe fantastic beaches and funky beach clubs to go with them. Tulum probably has the widest range of food on offer encompassing vegan and vegetarian options, international and Mexican cuisine, you’re sure to find something here for the fussiest of children.

There are no all inclusive options and the food is expensive, so you will need to budget for this. Even if you stay in the cheaper downtown area, you will need to budget for the commute to the beach etc. It is extremely expensive, more so than Cancun and is not very walkable.


Distances:


24 minutes (27 km) from Akumal.

45 minutes (50 km) from Coba ruins.

50 minutes (64.4 km) from Playa del Carmen.

1 hour 18 minutes (63 km) from Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

1 hour 27 minutes (102.9 km) from Valladolid.

2 hours (149 km) from Chichen Itza.


In Summary


So which to choose? We went with Playa del Carmen. We calculated that Cancun was just too far away from all the destinations we wished to explore (see the map above) and Tulum was just too expensive. We were keen to spend time in Tulum though and managed to get down there twice to soak up some of the atmosphere and we really felt like we Playa del Carmen gave us the best of both worlds and felt like we made the right call. Whichever city you choose to stay in, do squeeze a drive to the other two into your itinerary, if you can.


We stayed at Ceci and John-Baptist’s beautiful Air Bnb. It was perfectly well equipped. We used their kitchen for lunch or dinner each day to keep our costs down as well as using their washing machine and drier. It had decent, powerful AC, two Oxxo convenience stores within walking distance and a fantastic swimming pool that was always empty! The kids really enjoyed staying here and having their own room to boot! It was easy to check in and the hosts were great communicators, accepting our last minute request to stay one more night! I couldn’t recommend any higher.


Getting Around the Yucatan Peninsula


We quickly realised that the number of taxis, private transfers and/or tours were going to add up to more than a rental car cost for our family of five. I am so glad we rented a car as it improved the quality of our trip immensely. It opened up the whole off the beaten track area to explore on our own timetable - as I’ve mentioned before, we prefer to be on the road between 12:30ish and 15:00ish give or take an early/late lunch so we are out of the hottest midday sun. This also facilitates a midday nap for any small kid/baby that needs it. Not needing to wait for a public or tour bus during day trips, getting to the major attractions in the region at opening time, thus avoiding the crowds and always having the boot stocked up with the “do we need this?” stuff like a spare change of clothes or a beach tent.


Renting a Car in Mexico


As we weren’t going a circular route and were moving on through the region we decided to get a taxi from the airport into Playa del Carmen and then pick up and drop off our car from there. I was a little intimated at first, but this quickly wore off and it became rather enjoyable to bomb about the Yucatan in our car at our own pace for the week. Still, there are a few things I wish I had known in advance:


1. Mexican drivers are not aggressive


At several intersections and cross roads we were never sure who had right of way – but everyone always seemed to slow down and take turns. It was so much more chilled than driving in Asia or even the UK!


2. Don't ignore hazard lights


Mexican drivers use their hazard lights as a signal that they are slowing down fast, like for a speed bump, a police checkpoint or turning off the highway – don’t ignore them!


3. Watch out for “Tope”


Locals call speedbumps “Policia Durmiendo” (sleeping policemen), sometimes they’re preceded by signs saying “Tope” (“stop”) – though sometimes these signs are AFTER the bumps and more often than not, there are no signs at all. These speedbumps are everywhere and they come in different forms. Sometimes they are a series of half-buried cannonballs and sometimes they are a large hump in the road, typically doubling as a crosswalk. Slow way down crossing these as they are always a bigger bump then they look. Be watchful at all times as they are sometimes not well painted or marked – some of them are HUGE and totally unmarked. Do not speed!

4. One way streets are everywhere


If you are not yet familiar with your area, plan your journey ahead of time as most side streets are one-way and it is very easy to get lost. Google Maps is an excellent resource here as they will denote the direction of traffic on each street with an arrow – download the map of your area for use as “offline maps” in advance.


5. Merge lanes are very short


The merge from a side street to the main highway is a white knuckle experience every time. The merge lanes are way too short and you’ll never get up to speed in time. Do what the locals do and use the shoulder lane until you have the ability to safely pull into traffic. Again, Mexican drivers are great anticipators and most will see you coming and pull into the far lane to make room for you.


6. Insurance


You DO need to get the additional insurance that will be presented to you when you get your car. You DO need to be sure that you’ve got REALISTIC coverage but you DON’T need to get the most expensive coverage offered to you unless you know that you’re going to be a disaster on the open road.


We rented from ADO car rental, at a cost of £182.87 for 4.5 days with the mid-level of insurance coverage.


Buses in Mexico


As we wanted to avoid unnecessary fees for dropping the car off at a different place to where we picked it up, we booked an ADO bus from Playa del Carmen to Bacalar (our next stop after exiting the Mayan Riveria in our Central American adventure). The ADO website doesn’t work well for booking tickets in the UK, but BusBud does. We booked our tickets online with no trouble at all and showed the pdf/QR code on arrival. The route had a change which suited us well as it meant we could get off, have lunch and stretch our legs in Tulum. We were not obligated to get tickets for under 5s, but because we wanted our 3 year old to be guaranteed a seat, we bought four tickets for the following total prices:



Ado bus from Playa del Carmen to Tulum - £15.34


Ado bus from Tulum to Bacalar -

£49.70


What a steal for a 4-hour journey!


Big shout out to ADO Bus for being the BEST foreign bus I’ve ever been on. Big cushiony soft seats, functioning AC, TV screens, on time - kids loved it, adults loved it, great stuff! To further boost my opinion of them, I changed our tickets by pushing them forward 24 hours to stay a little longer in Playa del Carmen. This was a simple process incurring no fee at all – just rock up at any ADO station more than 1 hour before your scheduled departure and change them. Great!


Mexican Food


Mexican food is one of our favourite ethnic foods in the world and we eat it at least 4 times a month back home in the UK thanks to Daddy Mudie’s cooking skills. It’s fair to say that it gets a bit of a bad rap for causing tummy troubles out here and the kids were a bit loose at times.

We knew we needed to keep the costs to under £50 a day for our 9 week trip. We did this in large part thanks to cutting down on our food spend. As soon as we picked up our rental car we popped to Walmart and picked up some cheap supplies; cereal, fruit, milk, pasta, pasta sauce, biscuits, bread, ham and cheese. This way, we ate breakfast at the apartment, and made a packed lunch every morning – this allowed us to live our Mexican feast dreams, but cut our spending by two thirds of what it might have been. I have read a good tip is to bring just a few pots of spices with you to make eggs and rice etc more exciting without outlaying too much or carrying too much but we haven't tried this yet.


What to do in the Mayan Riviera


We’ve put together a separate summary blog of the highlights of the Mayan Riviera, as well as some specific more detailed posts with all the info you might want to know to plan the ultimate Mexican adventure with kids.


I hope some of this is useful for your own adventures, let me know in the comments or contact pages!

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