Great Family Trips: Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

The family vacation, like the concept of family itself, has evolved. Kids are traveling with grandma or a single parent or an indulgent uncle (or all three). However you define your kin, this Yucatán itinerary is all relative. 

> Why Go: 

Let the high schoolers channel Indiana Jones in Mexico’s Maya temple-strewn Yucatán Peninsula, where they can scale mysterious pyramids, bushwhack through jungles, and cool off in freshwater cenote pools the way the ancients did. A week-long road trip connects the Maya dots from the Caribbean to Gulf coasts.

> The Plan:

From the region’s main airport at Cancún, drive inland for two hours to the great ceremonial city of Chichén Itzá. Stay at the adjacent Lodge at Chichen Itza to stage an early morning visit, when the popular site is most mystically quiet.

Get a living lesson in sophisticated Maya astronomy by counting the 365 steps ascending the nearly ten-story-tall El Castillo. Imagine real-life Hunger Games at the elaborately carved ball court, where competitions ended in human sacrifice.

En route to Mérida, another 80 miles west, detour to Izamal, where the Spanish colonial buildings are painted egg-yolk yellow. Race to the top of the town’s Kinich Kakmo pyramid.

Comb the lost city of Dzibil­chaltún, about ten miles north of Mérida, an archaeological site dating to 300 B.C. that features a central plaza, amphitheater, temple, and—swimsuit alert—the freshwater Cenote Xlakah.

Safari-break some 60 miles west at coastal Celestún to spy rosy flocks of mating flamingos. Time your next Maya conquest, eighth-century Uxmal, 50 miles south of Mérida, to arrive after dark for the dramatic sound-and-light show. After a night at Hacienda Uxmal, return to the site to Instagram the elaborately carved gods, including mighty Chaac, god of rain, wearing a serpent’s mask, and a throne featuring a two-headed jaguar.

Swing back east to Cobá, sight of Yucatán’s tallest temple, 138-foot Nohoch Mul, providing a high-priest’s view over the jungle canopy.

> Don’t Miss:

Cool off with a dip at the Gran Cenote on the drive back to the Maya’s most beautifully sited ruins, seaside Tulum, just 80 miles but epochs apart from where you started in Cancún.

This piece, reported by Elaine Glusac, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

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