Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Where Maya ruins meet mega resorts

Mexico's Cancun has ancient ruins, natural swimming holes and water parks that make for a holiday that is sure to please the whole family

By Mark Fuchs  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , THE MAYA RIVIERA, MEXICO

A roughly 100km strip of land below the commercialized spring-break cornerstone of Cancun used to consist of a string of untrammeled towns like Tulum and Akumal. The coastline generally offered travelers various options in beachside thatched-roof cabanas, or small huts. Although they appear idyllic, these cabanas can be a disaster in the making for parents of small children (including mine, three typically finicky and squeamish souls between one and seven).

Some lack floors, few lack lizards, hot water, electricity and workable plumbing are never a given and many have hammocks, with luck sheathed with minimally torn mosquito netting, instead of beds. Let's not even broach the subject of sensitive young stomachs and nonfiltered water. And though the price for these cabanas can range from a few dollars a night to more than US$1,000 a week they have always been better for the hippie-trail backpacker than for the Kate Spade diaper-bag set.

Now, however, families have some attractive options. Catering to the less hardy population in recent years is a selection of all-inclusive resorts, and the number is growing by the day.

Cancun is with its Maya ruins, dozens of cenotes (natural swimming holes) and water parks-cum-aquariums, a 1.3 million-acre preserve and the clear, calm warm waters of the Caribbean -- is almost made for a family interested in swimming as well as sightseeing.

If you can go on the edges of the peak season, good all-inclusive deals are plentiful. Off-peak -- from mid-May through June, and September through October -- can be much less expensive but also unrelentingly hot and humid. Hurricane season is also not the time to go, as tempting as the discounts may be.

But traveling with our three young children and friends who had two of their own, we thought of our resort, Bahia Principe Tulum -- which is part of a complex combining the Tulum and Akumal hotels -- as a grounded cruise ship. We used it as a base, taking advantage of its beachfront, pool facilities and filtered water system, while once a day venturing out to see the sights.

At the end of the day, we'd return to our Oz, where we were able to enjoy a parents-of-five travel essential: modern indoor plumbing. "Over the top," said my daughter, every bit the world-weary almost-eight-year-old, indicating the hulking faux Maya statues, illuminated for good measure, that tower several stories high in the hotel complex's two lobbies. The lobbies -- by theaters, gyms and dining room buffets piled with carved roasts and sliced papaya -- serve as the central point for two sprawling villages of hotel rooms, all linked by electric golf-cart trains. Pools meander around the property -- under bridges and, for the parents, straight to wet bars.

While you can make the case that increased development of the Maya Riviera has had a less-than-ideal impact environmentally and even culturally, the resort was custom built for two young families dipping their toes back into international travel.

The day trips, while not lacking for adventure, are not too taxing. The Tulum ruins make a good first day trip: They are close and well maintained. Part of a walled port city that was occupied until about 1500, the ruins are perched above the turquoise Caribbean, with a long staircase that makes its way down to the beach. Late afternoon is the best time to go because of the sun.

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