When it comes to finding a family-friendly vacation spot that offers perfect weather, vibrant colonial cities, calm crystal-water beaches, important and fun cultural sites, and delicious local cuisine, few places can beat the Yucatán state of Mexico.
Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán state, is a great base for exploring the region. The city itself is filled with great restaurants, museums, boutique hotels, and shops. The Paseo de Montejo, is the fashionable section of the city, lined with lovely sculptures and trees. There are also many horse-drawn carriages all along the way – a treat for weary children. Plaza Grande in the city center is surrounded by 18th century colonial mansions such as the pink Palacio Municipal (city hall) and the Cathedral de San Ildefonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, constructed with stones that came from one of the Mayan ruins. On Sundays, the Plaza Grande is the liveliest place in the city with live music and dancing and stalls selling food and souvenirs.
In addition to its own colonial charm, Mérida is close to a good number of top tourist attractions. The “big three” Mayan ruins – Chichén Itzá , Uxmal, and Mayapán – are all within a short drive from Mérida. A visit to any one of these is an authentic living history lesson. Chichén Itzá is the largest and best excavated and is a marvel to behold. However, over the years it has become too commercial for some, is usually very crowded with tourists and you can no longer climb El Castillo, the main pyramid.
Mayapán and Uxmal, though a bit smaller, are a better option for families with children who may not want to spend so much time under the blazing sun and may want to break up the touring with the opportunity to scramble to the top of some of the structures for a panoramic view of the site.
A trip to the Cuzamá cenotes will delight the whole family. The Mayans considered these underground sinkholes to be sacred. The cenotes are located on the grounds of an old henequen hacienda. Once on the property, getting to the cenotes is an adventure in itself. Hop aboard a horse-drawn railcart for a bumpy and intermittent high-speed ride to the first cenote and to the others after that. To enter the cenotes, you descend a vertical ladder down into a cave until you reach the underwater pool where swimming is permitted. Two of the three cenotes are open which means the caves have an opening at the top so sunlight streams in. Tree roots from the surface reach down to the water, giving it a bit of an eerie feeling.
Around a 30-minute drive from Mérida is the beach town of Progreso. The crystal emerald ocean is calm and safe for swimming, and the white sandy beach is lined with palapas. The malécon, a paved seaside boardwalk, runs from the four-mile long pier – the longest in the world – and passes by the downtown area where a variety of eateries and blocks of shops are located.
There are great options for affordable accommodations in and around Mérida. The Hotel Luz En Yucatán is a tropical urban retreat right in the city and walking distance to both the Paseo de Montejo and the Plaza Grande. Just outside Mérida, the Hacienda San Pedro Nophat is old hacienda which has been converted into a bed and breakfast, offering genuine local Mexican flavor.
Another factor that makes this region so attractive is the extremely safe reputation of the Yucatan. According to the U.S. Department of State’s July 2013 report, there is “No travel advisory in effect.” In fact, the safety of this area has been compared to the rural U.S. states of Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and North Dakota. You can’t get more secure than that.
Billy Villarreal, wife Julie, and children Carter and Lily from Los Angeles chose the Yucatán because they wanted a destination that would interest their children and be safe at the same time. They chose to stay at the Hacienda San Pedro Nophat, and experienced a bonus. Their son Carter became friendly with a group of local children who would seek him out and invite him to play soccer with them on a daily basis. “At first we were apprehensive and stood watch the whole time,” said Julie. “But day-after-day we felt increasingly more comfortable and left him to play unsupervised in the large field in front of the hacienda. It was the highlight of his vacation!”