Mamma Maya: Eco-Cancun for Kids
Cancun, Mexico.For most of my adult life, the name Cancun has been synonymous with wild fun, yard-tall margaritas and drunken college kids appearing in videos like “College Girls Gone Crazy-Psycho-Berserk” and “Uh-Oh, La Policia.” So when the wife suggested we take our very young children to Cancun for a “family beach trip,” I balked. Cancun? With little kids? Are you nuts?
Certainly, there’s no denying that kids like the beach, and Cancun has some of the world’s finest, with their pure white grains sparkling on the edge of the most iridescent turquoise-green sea in North America. I can think of few better places to bury Daddy up to his head and watch the tide roll in. But besides the beach, what else was there for an adventurous tot? Well, as it turns out, a lot.
Cancun was literally built from scratch in the 1970s, and its founders were probably thinking of adults when they devised their exceptionally complex margaritas and decorated the area’s plush hotel rooms. But over the past 15 years, clever Mexican and international investors have put a huge emphasis on family, and built a range of attractions that appeal to a wide swath of ages and interests. Specifically, though, Cancun has become the center of a sort of renaissance in kiddy-ecology tourism.There are numerous major “eco-parks” in and around Cancun – great, rambling properties set between the sea and the lush Yucatan forest that showcase not only the natural environment, but also the impacts that humans have on it. I recently placed the family in a small airline shipping container, and met them at the cargo dock for a look around.”Zoe, did you see those great beaches?”
“No, Dad. I was underneath, in the storage hold. Along with all the other screeching animals. And Mom.””Oh. Well, you will. It’s really pretty here.”Historically, Xcaret and Xel-Ha have been the best known of these parks. Located south of Cancun, both have aquatic themes: Xcaret is regarded for its floatable underground rivers and its swim-with-the-dolphins program. Likewise, Xel-Ha, billed as the world’s biggest aquarium, is a collection of geologic water-related features (cenotes, lagoons, caves, etc.) in which curious youngsters can swim, snorkel and generally get lost in the wet Yucatan wilds.
My wife Ann and I had been there in the mid-1990s and thought it a wonderful place, but this time – with grommets in tow – it was apparent how much emphasis had been placed on children. Lots of attractions had been added since our first trip. After the girls had un-kinked from the shipping container, the first thing we noticed was the educational aspect of the place. Busloads of Mexican kids ran about, laughing, talking (screaming!) and exploring the natural world the way kids are meant to explore. In other words, the emphasis was on active interaction.Yet it was obvious as we moved through the orientation program at Xcaret that these kids weren’t just having fun, they were being taught something. At every kiosk, boot, and entry point, they were given information about the sensitivity of the watercourses, the endangered status of some of the local wildlife and the destruction of the reefs beyond the shore. Coming from a culture that generally regards itself superior to its southern neighbor, we were refreshed to see the Mexican kids being steeped in environmental issues. I can recall only a few places this side of the border where so many people were immersed in eco-activities.
The next day, we visited Isla Mujeres and another eco-park: Garrafón (www.garrafon.com). Parc Garrafón is similar to Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and many of the other regional eco-parks, combining aquatic activities with serious learning.Parc Garrafón is more sea-based than land-based, however. In fact, the best activities here require getting all wet – which I’m good at (park officials will remind you to wear ecologically appropriate sunscreen). There is a fabulous snorkeling area, a zipline spanning portions of the coast, and a wonderful oceanside path – and always, the interpretive kiosks and instructional lessons about the environment and us humans.On our last day, we visited a couple of different water-related parks – Aqua World, part of Parc Nizuc (whose website ironically bills it as “the only water park in Cancun”), where again, lessons on the tenuous balance of the natural world were widely shared.
Still, Parc Nizuc was worthy. My 4-year-old, Zoe, had the opportunity to hang out with (and stroke the bellies of) some very friendly dolphins, the friendliest being a delightful lass named Athena, who, though very pregnant, wowed us with her aerial acrobatics.”Daddy, that’s pretty awesome,” she told me later.It was. And, to my delight, Cancun had proven itself a place where kids and parents could all regale the natural world, experience the best of Mexico, and the overworked parents could still enjoy that well-deserved yard-tall margarita at the end of the day, buried up to their heads as the tide rolled in – “Zoe, no, not the shovel!”
Cameron M. Burns is a Colorado-based writer. He supplied a pillow and a dog bowl full of water for his family’s flight south.
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