Ancient Mayan culture, including this temple to explore, is just one of Mexico's engaging options for family vacations.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Overview

Taking your family on an international vacation may sound like a daunting task, but when you visit Mexico, our neighbor to the south, you'll find the flight relatively short and easy, minimal time change to manage (or maybe none at all), and a country rich in history and ancient culture spread out before you.

And even if history doesn't usually spark your children's interest, when presented as a theme park, they'll find the ancient Mayans or Aztecs hard to resist. Plus there are jungles to explore, oceans to enjoy, and Mexican traditions to experience. Your biggest challenge may be choosing what part of the country to visit. Your options include the following:

Chichén Itza

Located on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, this ancient Mayan city's stone pyramids, courts and temples offer plenty of family-friendly opportunities for climbing and exploration.

Xcaret and Xel-Ha

These cities in Cancun's Riviera Maya region make history an interactive experience via theme parks, complete with an authentic lazy river.

Oaxaca's Day of the Dead and Night of the Radishes Festivals

Learn along with your children about the Mexican version of Halloween, as well as a Christmastime celebration that involves elaborately carved produce.

Whale Watching in the Sea of Cortez

Gray whales travel even farther to winter in Mexico than you and your family will. Visit Mexico's Baja Peninsula to see the whales, including newly born babies, up close.

Cozumel and Isla Mujeres

If relaxing is at the top of your family's agenda, these Mexican islands offer a slower pace and authentic character. Spend your days snorkeling or snoozing in the soft sand.

Los Cabos

The striking scenery and miles of beautiful beaches make Los Cabos a hot spot not only for the rich and famous but for families, too. Enjoy the environment while snorkeling, swimming, fishing, or any other number of outdoor activities.

Guadalajara

This historic city features monuments, parks, and a magnificent cathedral. Although it's not a tourist town, there's plenty to do, including visit the zoo or watch the bullfights.

Start your family vacation adventures on the next page with a visit to the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itza.

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country

El Castillo, a huge stone pyramid in the ancient Mexican city of Chichén Itza, is a family vacation favorite, as children may climb to the top.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Chichen Itza

Engaging the whole family with Mexican history is easy to do when the past can be actively explored. When you come upon the ancient city of Chichén Itza, located on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, its role as the seat of power in the Mayan world is vividly clear. Massive pyramids, huge stone courts, dozens of temples, and wide plazas are spread out across a vast grassy plain. Bas-relief carvings on the walls of many of the structures include scenes of daily life and depictions of fierce warriors, serpents, jaguars, eagles, and various other animals.

As you tour the area, it's quite easy to imagine life in the city during the Mayan Classic Period of A.D. 300 to 900. It is the most completely restored archaeological site in the Yucatan, and its scale is tremendous.

There are many engrossing sites to visit, but three in particular will prove fascinating to older children. At 75 feet tall, the great stone pyramid known as El Castillo is the tallest structure on the site. Climbing it is a highlight for most children, and from its peak they can survey the great city of Chichén Itza and the jungles beyond.

Northwest of El Castillo is Chichén Itza's ancient stone court, where Mayan men played a game called pok ta pok. Balls made of rubber harvested from native trees have been discovered in ancient tombs and are believed to have been used in the game, which involved hurling a ball through one of two stone rings located on either wall of the court. The captain of the losing team was decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods. Carved scenes on the court walls show Mayan ballplayers dressed in heavy protective padding. The carving further details a headless player kneeling while another player holding the head looks on. Be sure to test the acoustics of the court -- a whisper at one end can be heard at the opposite side, and if you clap or whistle, the echo reverberates throughout the court.

A short distance from the main section of Chichén Itza is The Sacred Cenote, a deep, steep-sided pool used for ceremonial purposes, where sacrificial victims were drowned. Archaelologists explored the cenote in the 20th century, and divers retrieved human remains and a fortune in gold and jade.

Exploring the many other fascinating archaeological treasures from this ancient civilization can take at least a full day. Plan your visit so you can see the evening sound-and-light show, a delightful spectacle of pomp and artistry.

For still more fun with Mexican heritage, continue to the next page to learn about Xcaret and Xel-Ha, where ancient culture combines with the attractions of a theme park.

Mexican Vacation Information

Mexico Tourism Board - Los Angeles

Address: 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511

Los Angeles, CA 90067

Phone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

Come face to face with ancient Mexican culture when you experience the theme parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha in Cancun's Rivera Maya region.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Xcaret and Xel-Ha

Theme parks offer vacation attractions for the whole family, and you've probably never experienced entertainment like this. Xcaret and Xel-Ha in Cancun's Riviera Maya region represent the latest innovation in theme parks: They incorporate the assets of their tropical surroundings into exciting activities that introduce the heritage and history of Mexico to park visitors -- especially children.

Xcaret is noted for its unusual underground river passages. These passages were originally used by the Mayans for stealth warfare. The coral-and-limestone ceilings of the passageways have been chiseled a bit higher and wider to allow for the easy passage of visitors bobbing through with life jackets. You can also snorkel in a lagoon, swim with the dolphins, see animal exhibits, and visit Mayan ruins and a re-created Mayan village. Xcaret presents an extravagant evening show that begins with an exhibition of traditional Mayan games. The show also features a cast of 200, who perform folk dances and folk songs.

Although smaller in acreage, Xel-Ha offers a full day's activities. It features a large lagoon for snorkeling, ruins to explore, hidden beaches with hammocks for relaxing, and a Mayan cave. If you're looking for an authentic lazy river ride, you'll find it here in a spring-fed river that has just enough current to take you on an easy trip downstream. You can also investigate Xel-Ha's deep limestone cenotes.

Xel-Ha is home to more than 100 species of birds and 350 species of plants, and its surrounding jungle offers a variety of hiking trails.

Continue to the next page to learn about Mexican traditions that continue today: the Day of the Dead and Night of the Radishes festivals.

Mexican Vacation Information

Mexico Tourism Board - Los Angeles

Address: 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511

Los Angeles, CA 90067

Phone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

An elaborate carving for Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Day of the Dead and Night of the Radishes Festivals

If your family vacation in Mexico takes you to the Pacific coast, be sure to visit Oaxaca. Located in the Mexican state of Oaxaca on the Pacific coast, the city of Oaxaca is known for its artistically carved wood figurines, its coffee, and its enthusiastic celebration of two very unusual festivals: Day of the Dead and Night of the Radishes.

Day of the Dead may sound like a somber affair, but in Mexico it's a joyful and cherished celebration that honors the spirits of deceased family members and friends. This tradition is celebrated with great enthusiasm, artistry, and spirituality in Oaxaca. The town's marketplace comes alive on October 31 with handcrafted decorations and homemade treats that are used to decorate the graves of loved ones. On that night, families head to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves; they then stay up all night to welcome the souls. Elaborate, multicolor sand paintings are fashioned on top of, or next to, the graves, and the cemetery glows with candlelight throughout the night.

The festival known as Night of the Radishes began about 100 years ago during the Christmas season. Vegetable growers attempting to attract customers seized the idea of carving designs into their produce. The large variety of radishes grown in Mexico proved to be easy to carve. The practice became an annual tradition, and with it grew a friendly competition that has evolved into the annual Night of the Radishes Festival.

Beginning at midday on December 23, Oaxaca's town square is turned into a fantasyland of intricately carved radishes. The creativity that goes into the displays is amazing. Depictions of the Nativity, elaborate market scenes, and lively mariachi bands are just a few of the finished products your family with find on display. Help for novice radish carvers is available in a designated beginner's area. And in case the kids haven't already had enough fun, the evening concludes with a fireworks celebration.

For even more amazing sights, check out the next page to learn where you can see whales during your family vacation in Mexico.

Mexican Vacation Information

Mexico Tourism Board - Los Angeles

Address: 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511

Los Angeles, CA 90067

Phone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

Gray whales wintering in Mexico's Sea of Cortez are easy to spot as they surface to breathe.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Whale Watching in the Sea of Cortez

If you think your family is traveling a great distance to go on vacation, consider that every year, thousands of gray whales migrate to the warm coastal waters of Mexico's Baja Peninsula to mate and give birth. They migrate from their summer homes in the Bering and Chukchi seas between Alaska and Siberia, a journey of more than 6,000 miles. While other types of whales also winter in the Sea of Cortez, the gray whales provide the most rewarding experience for whale watchers -- particularly those who may be young and impatient -- because they surface about every four or five minutes.

Three locations on Baja's Pacific coast offer particularly good vantage points for watching grays: Scammon's Lagoon, about 430 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border; San Ignacio Lagoon, about 525 miles south of the border; and Magdalena Bay, about 800 miles south of the border. These areas are government-protected marine parks, and whale watching is restricted to boats operated by trained guides.

A number of travel companies specialize in whale-watching trips to the lagoons and other areas of Baja's Pacific coast from mid-December to mid-March, when the numerous gray whales migrate to the area. During this peak season, it's not uncommon to actually pet a whale or see babies just a few days old swimming alongside their mothers. Now that's a family vacation to remember!

Continue to the next page to discover a family vacation destination in Mexico that takes you out of the hustle and bustle and into soothing relaxation -- what vacations are all about.

Mexican Vacation Information

Mexico Tourism Board - Los Angeles

Address: 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511

Los Angeles, CA 90067

Phone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

Cozumel and Isla Mujeres both offer excellent diving and snorkeling -- even for beginners.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Cozumel and Isla Mujeres

If you'd like your vacation to include some quality family time, the Mexican islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres offer a quiet departure from nearby Cancun's fast-paced activities and busy beaches. Both islands offer plenty of amenities and are worth a visit to combine a relaxing, warm-weather beach vacation with a destination that has true Mexican character.

Cozumel is Mexico's biggest island and can be reached by a 40-minute ferry ride from the mainland's Playa del Carmen, or via air, because the island has an international airport. It's famous for its idyllic soft, white sand beaches and calm turquoise waters on its western shore. The island is surrounded by three massive reef systems -- the Santa Rosa, Colombia, and Palancar -- making it a mecca for snorkelers and divers. The eastern, Caribbean side of the island has rockier beaches and rougher waters.

Two favorite stops are Chankanaab National Park and Chankanaab Lagoon, both located within Isla Cozumel's Reefs National Marine Park. The crystal clear waters of the sheltered lagoon are home to more than 60 species of fish, and its calm water makes it a perfect site for beginning snorkelers.

For a history lesson on the island's Mayan culture, visit the Museum of the Island of Cozumel, located in downtown San Miguel. Its exhibits include a scale model of the island and information about the reef and its inhabitants.

Isla Mujeres is just seven miles from Cancun, and despite the day-trippers who come to play on its beautiful beaches, it remains a serene and peaceful retreat. Most of its hotels are located at Playa del Norte, a large expanse of beach on the northern tip of the island. Isla Mujeres is also a popular spot for divers and snorkelers. It is bordered by two reef systems that create a natural aquarium. You cannot rent a car here, but mopeds, bicycles, and golf carts are available, as are taxis.

Continue your family vacation to Los Cabos, and drink in the spectacular views while enjoying the water sports.

Mexican Vacation Information

Mexico Tourism Board - Los Angeles

Address: 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511

Los Angeles, CA 90067

Phone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

Snorkeling offers opportunities for visitors to explore the millions of species of smaller fish and crustaceans that inhabit the Sea of Cortez.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Los Cabos

The southernmost tip of Mexico's 1,000-mile-long Baja Peninsula is called finisterra, which translates into "The End of the Earth." The striking finality of the rocky desert isthmus, set against a vast, open backdrop of saltwater and sun, is punctuated by El Arco, "The Arch." Towering 200 feet above the azure waters, the magnificent granite arch is the most spectacular rock formation on the west coast of Mexico. This picturesque landmark is commonly used on postcards to represent Los Cabos.

El Arco is an enduring image to those going out to sea, as well as those coming in. Visitors can boat past it, swim and snorkel under it, or even walk under it at low tide. Climbing the rock, however, is against the law. Surrounding the striking arch are the equally striking sands of La Playa del Amor, or "Lover's Beach," which is accessed primarily by water taxis. (Some tour boats even sail right through El Arco.)

The Sea of Cortez lies along the east side of the beach, which features an idyllic cove that is popular for snorkeling and swimming. The sea is also home to a diverse ecosystem of aquatic plants, birds, and even sea lions. The Pacific side of the peninsula beach, nicknamed "Divorce Beach" by locals, is considerably rougher, pummeled by the perpetual surf of the ocean. The nearby resort town of Los Cabos has become a tourist hotspot and is now the seventh most popular tourist destination in Mexico.

In the 1940s, entrepreneurs built upscale hotels for the rich and famous. Because there was no highway at that time, celebrities and wealthy tourists came by yacht or private plane, making for one of the most exclusive resort towns in the world. Its sport fishing--and tales of enormous tuna, marlin, and dorado--became legendary, as did the tequila-fueled nightlife.

In 1973, the Transpeninsula Highway linking Tijuana and Los Cabos was completed, paving the way for further development along the Baja Peninsula, especially at its tropical tip. Luxurious hotels and condos, retirement homes, and golf courses are now common just outside the city limits. November through February is prime tourist season in Los Cabos, so plan accordingly.

On the next page, visit Guadalajara. Gaze at the architecture, designed during the Spanish colonial period, and take in the sites of this authentic Mexican city.

Los Cabos Information

Address: Mexico Tourism Board, 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511, Los Angeles, CA

Telephone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.

Buildings, plazas, gardens, and streets speak of the 450-year old history of Guadalajara.

Family Vacations in Mexico: Guadalajara

At an altitude of almost a mile high, Guadalajara is a city of monuments, parks, and historic tree-lined streets. The city has been dubbed the "City of Roses," Mexico's Pearl of the West. The height of Spanish colonial art and architecture is evident throughout the city. Sterling examples include the University of Guadalajara, founded in 1792, and the historic district.

At the city's heart is its Centro Historico, where visitors can get acquainted with local history and colonial architecture. There's also the Cathedral Metropolitana de Guadalajara, the city's Metropolitan Cathedral. Begun in 1561 and completed more than a century later, the cathedral is capped by distinctive twin yellow-tiled steeples. Nearby is Plaza Tapatia, Guadalajara's largest plaza, which covers seven square blocks. It's best traveled by foot or calandria, traditional horse-drawn touring carriages.

While Guadalajara is not a resort town, there is plenty of golf, tennis, shopping, and restaurants for tourists to enjoy. There's also a zoo, a children's amusement park (Selva Magica), bullfights at Plaza de Toros Nuevo Progresso, and rodeos at Lienzo Charro de Jalisco. The city is blessed with a mild mountain climate, and its culture and history draw people from all over the world. Guadalajara is also known by some as the birthplace of mariachi music and the Mexican hat dance.

Guadalajara Information

Address: Mexico Tourism Board, 1880 Century Park East, Suite 511, Los Angeles, CA

Telephone: 310/282-9112

To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Scenic Drives: For those who think that getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.