Playa del Carmen: What to See and Do at This LGBT Family-Friendly Destination
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We’ve been traveling to Mexico since our oldest daughter was one-year-old and now, nearly 15 years later, we are still happy to visit this beautiful country again and again. Graced with gorgeous beaches, delicious cuisine and extremely friendly people, Mexico is one of our family’s favorite destinations. The Mexican Caribbean is one area we keep visiting, mainly because Playa del Carmen is a very friendly destination for LGBT families.
Years ago, the myth had been that Mexico was unfriendly to the LGBT community, perhaps because of its religious roots and long-held family traditions. But nothing could be farther from the truth in Playa del Carmen, where our family has been welcomed with open arms and warm hearts. Plus, there are so many cool things to do there.
The Mexican Caribbean
Playa del Carmen is a town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, positioned about halfway between the towns of Cancun and Tulum. The entire area is famous for its thick tropical jungles, warm ocean waters, excellent snorkeling and diving, and a host of culturally significant Mayan ruins. As Cancun grew in popularity and density of both hotels and tourists, development started to move south along the white sand beaches. An entire stretch spanning miles of pristine coastline, the Playa del Carmen area is home to a number of resorts, hotels, restaurants and developments.
Many don’t realize how far east Playa del Carmen stretches into the Caribbean waters, positioned on a map directly south of Alabama. The weather is always balmy, making it a great vacation spot pretty much all year. This area of Mexico is also referred to as the Riviera Maya, part of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo.
With this growth in the hospitality industry, hotels and resorts have attracted sophisticated and worldly employees from across Mexico and around the globe. Accustomed to all walks of life from places far and wide, these hotels have been extremely accommodating to families like ours. Not an eye has been batted.
Yes, Playa del Carmen Is Safe
Let’s get this out of the way. Never in our trips to Playa del Carmen have we ever felt slightly unsafe or ill at ease. Despite some dramatic news reports, the area is filled with wonderful people who are far removed from the potentially sketchier areas of Mexico. Most of the resorts are completely secure, with guarded gates, security personnel and guards stationed throughout the grounds.
On our excursions into various areas nearby we’ve explored at will, unbothered and completely at ease. In fact, the locals are most often authentically friendly and interested in ensuring our family has a great experience. Tourism is of vital importance to this region’s economy, and everyone there is focused on families having a visit full of great memories. Just like you would at home, be careful about not wandering into rougher parts of town. You’d practice this same common sense anywhere.
A Bevy of Family Activities
Because it’s a year-round vacation destination located in a place of such natural beauty, Playa del Carmen is full of interesting things to see and do.
Swimming, Snorkeling and Splashing
The ocean waters of the Riviera Maya are breathtakingly beautiful, which is why visitors were attracted to this part of Mexico in the first place. At most resorts, snorkel gear, kayaks, boogie boards and other fun beach toys are all readily available for your use. With water this warm and clear, we dare you to keep from going in and splashing around. The lack of waves makes the beaches super safe for the little ones, too.
Cenotes (Fresh-Water Swimming Holes)
Known for these naturally occurring pools of fresh water, the Playa del Carmen area is dotted with hundreds of these swimming holes. Many have been prepared for visitors with stairways and platforms, and several even have changing rooms and showers. There is nothing like descending into one of these fern-lined grottos and swimming in jungle solitude. We even swam with all sorts of colorful tropical fish we might see at home in our family room fish tank.
Sea turtles love Playa del Carmen, and visitors love the sea turtles. In some areas, visitors can swim with the turtles and see them in their natural ocean habitat. There are several sanctuaries, where sea turtles come to lay their eggs in the warm sand. At certain times of the year, the babies hatch and scurry down the beach toward the open sea. Our kids were so excited to swim with turtles and see them up close — but no touching! Keep a respectful distance from all wild animals wherever you travel.
Catamaran Trip Along the Coast
With so many beaches and snorkel spots available only by boat, a catamaran trip down the coast toward Tulum is a fun family day trip. Our family loaded on to the boat in the early morning and set sail for the captain’s favorite snorkel spot. Along the way, we spied dolphin, turtles and scores of colorful fish. Lunch was served don deck (along with cocktails for the adults, if desired), and we lounged in the sun or shade before motoring back to the dock.
Zip-lining Jungle Adventure
If your kids are older and up for a little adventure, try the Rumble in the Jungle tour. This outing is full of laughter, bumpy roads and amazing views as guests whip through the tree canopy. Overlooking the thick jungle from up high, it’s possible to see ruins of Mayan temples in the distance. Our tour included zip-lining, a little rock climbing, a delicious lunch and then a swim in the nearby cenote. We can’t wait to do this one again!
Playa del Carmen is home to an interesting resort compound built specifically to offer the wonders of the Riviera Maya all in one place. A bit like Disneyland, the Xcaret (pronounced “esh-ka-ret”) property includes hotels, water slides, underground rivers, boat rides, restaurants, archeological sites, shops, shows and much more. Although we have not yet stayed here, it’s on our list because of all the activities they offer for families. If staying elsewhere, guests can purchase day passes to Xcaret for the family to experience all the fun.
Play del Carmen’s Cultural Destinations
Home to literally thousands of significant sites from the ancient Mayan civilization, the area is filled with the vestiges of this culture. World-famous ruins can be reached in a day trip.
The grandest archaeological site of its kind, Chichen Itza is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and known as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Breathtaking in its size and significance, the Mayan pyramid temple and nearby archaeological ruins are a testament to the incredibly advanced civilization that once lived here 1,500 years ago. On our recent visit, we took a guided tour and were glad we did. The grounds are massive, and without guidance I think the kids would have gotten bored really quickly. Our guide kept us moving, entertaining the kids with stories of Mayan life long ago. If your kids are older, they may like hearing about some of the more unsavory things that took place on these grounds. (Yes, human sacrifice is on that list).
Chichen Itza is about a 2.5-hour drive from Playa del Carmen, so it is definitely a day trip. Our guide picked us up from our hotel in a plush SUV, and we were escorted like VIPs for the day.
Closer to the resorts and situated right on the beach, the ruins at Tulum are impressive in their own right. Although smaller and not as high as other Mayan sites, Tulum’s significance as an oceanfront civilization is still quite impressive. Our kids loved seeing the zillions of iguanas scurrying along the tumbled walls and sunning themselves on rocky outcroppings. If you are looking for a lighter taste of the area’s Mayan ruins, Tulum can be visited more quickly. Nearby restaurants and shops entertain those less interested in cultural history. And the beaches here? Some of the best in the area — white sand and turquoise ocean for days.
About an hour’s drive from the beach resorts, Coba is a smaller version of Chichen Itza but still very impressive. Although our family hasn’t yet visited Coba, it’s on our list because friends have raved about it. At Coba it’s still possible to climb the steep steps to the top of the Mayan pyramid. From the photos we’ve seen our friends post, the views from up there are spectacular! However, this adventure is not for the faint of heart. The steps are very steep, there is just a rope to hold you steady, and you climb backward on the way down. Definitely not for families with young kids.
Places to Stay on Points in Playa del Carmen
Of course, sometimes it’s nice to just to lounge on the beach at one of the area’s family-friendly hotels and resorts. If you are using points to travel, here are a few of the many options available in the Playa del Carmen area:
This grand resort is spread across 240 acres, interconnected by tropical waterways and easy walking paths. Casitas at the Fairmont Mayakoba are spacious and luxurious, restaurants delicious and the spa, golf and beach club are all great perks. Rooms from around $369 per night, or redeem Le Club AccorHotels points.
Instead of spending dollars at the Fairmont, can put your World of Hyatt points to use and stay at the nearby Andaz Mayakoba. This new, calm and upscale resort can be booked for 20,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
Complete with beach club and enormous pools with swim-up bars, the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort has something for everyone in the family. Gorgeous beaches, many restaurant choices and even a day club if you want to get your party on. Rooms are available from around $170 per night, or redeem World of Hyatt points. As always, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points from cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio.
Located up the coast in Cancun, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa is closer to the airport than the others. If your family is interested in exploring Cancun or Isla Mujeres, this might be the resort for you. With pristine beaches and that high level of service associated with the JW brand, this property has a sprawling pool with many options for the kids. Rooms from around $380 per night, or redeem 50,000 Marriott Rewards points. Alternatively, you could use an annual award night from the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card.
Flights into Cancun Airport
With direct flights offered from most major US cities, reaching Cancun International Airport can be quite easy. All the major airlines have scheduled flights to CUN, so it’s possible to redeem points or miles via a variety of credit card and airline rewards programs.
Once arrived, visitors go through a standard customs process before proceeding to the exit. On busy days, the wait can seem long when all you want to do is reach your hotel. Not to fret, the process moves quickly and you will be out before you know it. Outside the airport, you will be offered many options for reaching your hotel destination and it might be a little confusing. Our family likes to arrange for transport in advance. There is something reassuring about seeing our name on that little sign, being held by a smiling driver who is there to help us. The drive to Playa del Carmen from the airport usually takes about 30-40 minutes.
Playa del Carmen is an excellent destination for all families but it’s especially ideal for LGBT families that are looking for fabulous beaches and water sports along with authentically friendly locals that will do everything they can to make sure you enjoy your stay in Riviera Maya. Has your family been to Playa del Carmen? What were your “can’t miss” activities or favorite hotel?
Featured image courtesy of Fairmont Mayakoba, other images by author except where indicated.