Visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico had been on my bucket list ever since I watched a TV special as a teenager about this fascinating culture and their monuments to Mayan gods. (Yes, I was obsessed with travel even back then.) This desire increased when, during the eighth month of my first pregnancy, my husband was sent on a sales reward trip to Cancun. Not wanting to travel to a foreign country so far into my pregnancy, I gave him a hug and a huge guilt trip before he departed for this Mexican paradise with his coworkers and their spouses. Now that I've been, here's why Cancun should be on your bucket list, too!
Earlier this year, when I was invited on a press trip by Diamond PR to another lovely (but not bucket listed) location, I noticed this PR firm represents two sweet-looking properties in Cancun. So, I asked if I could attend a Cancun press trip instead. They said, “Si!” and within a couple of weeks I was the one bearing the guilt trip as I boarded a plane to Mexico.
As I stood swaying in the unfathomably turquoise-colored ocean waves, staring up at the Tulum ruins perched on seaside cliffs, I thought, “I have the best job ever.”
Mayan ruins near Cancun
Built in the 13th Century AD, Tulum is the site of Mexico’s only oceanfront ruins. Here you can wander past ancient stone temples and once-residences and peer at iguanas sunning themselves amongst the ruins. Then march down a set of wooden stairs to take a dip in the enticing waves to cool off.
Although my group didn't, I highly recommend paying the extra fee for a guided tour of the ruins. Learning specific details about the structures and culture from an expert while wandering through the ruins of Pompeii in Italy made that experience much more meaningful for me.
Chichen Itza is a larger archealogical site but further away from Cancun (126 miles versus 81). It is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and was once the ceremonial center of the Yucatan. These Mayan ruins may have been built as early as 600 AD. The most famous and impressive pyramid, Kukulkan Pyramid, is over 75-feet-tall.
Family-friendly dining in Cancun
After our visit to Tulum, our little pack of travel writers was driven to the nearby cafe, Oscar & Lalo's for fresh seafood served in a garden setting. If visiting with children, after your meal let the kiddos romp around on the on-site playground while you relax in a tableside hammock. This is something I adore about the family-friendly atmosphere of Mexico; playground areas at restaurants are not reserved just for fast-food joints as in America. In Mexico, you can often find kid-friendly climbing structures and diversions at many casual and fancier restaurants, making dinner for the whole family fun and stress-free.
Next, we headed to Xcaret, an ecopark located on over 200 acres, with way more activities than could be completed in a half-day or even full-day visit. Instead of trying to squeeze it all in, pick a few must-dos and concentrate on those or plan to spend two days here. If traveling with young children, I suggest breaking up your visit to Chichen Itza and Xcaret into two days, even though it will mean more driving. This was an interesting, but very long and tiring day, even for adults.
Meander through the park’s impressive animal exhibits featuring jaguars, lions, takins (goofy looking animals related to sheep), monkeys, and more. There’s also a Butterfly Pavilion, Bat Cave, and Coral Reef Aquarium. You can book a stingray encounter, dolphin swim, or underground river snorkeling adventure at the Water Activities Center. Xcaret is also home to actual Mayan ruins, which may not rival Tulum or Chichen Itza, but while most Mexican ruins are now inaccessible due to erosion, you can actually climb on these (for now, at least).
The Xcaret Night Show gives insight to the history, culture, and proud people of Mexico. A three-course meal is available during the show. While the food is not spectacular, it adds to the fun of the evening.
The show begins with the scent of candles and burning sage. Then, a lively reenactment of the ancient ball game of Pok ta’pok commences, a mythical sport that dates back to 1000 BC. Later, a war scene depicts the battles between Spanish settlers and Mexico’s native people.
Xcaret Night Show
I was seated with Sergio Esquinca, an executive at Xcaret, who leaned over during the conversion of the Aztecs and Mayans to Catholicism. He said, “This is my favorite part because it means peace.” Sergio pointed out how audience members from various areas of Mexico cheered when their regions' traditions were acted out using dance, music, and costumes.
I was struck by depth of connection Mexico's citizens have to their heritage, with obvious ties to Spanish culture blended with traditions of the country's native peoples. Although I love my country, watching this show made me long for a deeper sense of American culture beyond red stripes and blue stars, baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.
Cancun's famous beaches
Cancun is home to some of the world's most gorgeous beaches, with powdery shores the color of vanilla cake batter and warm water in that impossible hue of turquoise. For an adventure, book a snorkeling excursion, deep sea fishing trip, or Sub-See Explorers Yellow Submarine cruise with Aquaworld. Waterpark lovers should check out Wet n' Wild for waterslides, a lazy river, bumper boats and more.
I stayed at the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort with its traditional Spanish design and a grandiose view of the ocean. Its sister property next door, JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa has a more sleek, upscale vibe (and pricing). I highly recommend either for their oceanfront locations, fabulous pools, and delicious restaurants.
Between the two resorts, you’ll find several international restaurants representing the cuisine of Thailand, Argentina, Japan, Italy, America’s Southwest, and, of course, Mexico. I was especially impressed with their tantalizing breakfast buffets of fresh fruits and colorful juices, egg dishes, pastries, fried plantains and more.
Both CasaMagna and JW Marriott Cancun offer a year-round Marriott Kids club for children ages 4-12 with a club room and playground. Daily activities might include pinata making, water balloon contests, Spanish lessons, and a sea turtle conservation program. Hours are 10 am – 4 pm daily. In-room babysitting is also available 24 hours per day at an additional charge.
While the kids are busy having their own fun, book a spa appointment at either resort or whoop it up at CasaMagna’s Champions Sports Bar, which offers a dance floor, sports of all sorts on huge flat screen TVs, and even Karaoke. Surely a margarita (or two) will get you in the mood for belting out your favorite songs! Read more about CasaMagna and JW Marriott Cancun on TripAdvisor.
I am tickled to scratch an item off my bucket list. However, I may have to add another wish now: visit Cancun WITH my family. While this long weekend in Cancun was a wonderful retreat, I would love to return with my husband and children for a longer stay. If you haven't visited Cancun yet…add it to your bucket list! You'll be glad you did.
Do you think Cancun is bucket-list-worthy? Share your thoughts in the comments!
A Note from The Travel Mama: Thank you Diamond PR and Marriott Cancun for fulfilling one of my bucket list dreams!