Mexico Beyond the Beaches

The next time the kids don't want to do their homework, remind them that knowledge is power.

That's what the ancient Maya believed. Those with the most knowledge—astronomers, priests, and doctors—lived closest to the temples. We learned this, and more, when we visited the ancient city of Tulum, a spectacular oceanfront ruin located along the Mexican coast, 75 miles south of Cancun. Tulum is one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Maya.

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I'd be remiss if I didn't mention we're less than a year away from December 21, 2012, the date many believe the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar forecasts will signal the end of all humanity. But experts aren't convinced, and neither am I.

Though safety is a major concern for tourists traveling to Mexico, no one I met was worried. They were too busy enjoying that perfect combination of sun, beach, and water. The Yucatan Peninsula is a glorious stretch of the Caribbean that runs more than 80 miles along the coast and includes the seaside village of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum, as well as the amazing Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. This area is more than 1,000 miles away from the region specified in the U.S. State Department's warning about travel to Mexico. With few  concerns, the whole family is free to snorkel in the largest natural aquarium in the world at Xel-Ha Park, learn a foreign language (Mexico is a great place for the kids to practice their Spanish), and, of course, travel back in time to experience an ancient culture.

Even better, you may get a bargain. You have your choice of more than 300 hotels, from tiny 15-room beachfront hotels, such as the Playa Azul in Tulum, to massive all-inclusives like those from Barcelo and Iberostar. The upscale accomodations in the Condo Hotels are right in the heart of Playa del Carmen, which features a pedestrian Fifth Avenue that teens especially will love. (Right now, you can book three nights or more and get 15 percent off, plus breakfast. Book seven nights and get an additional 10 percent off.) Let's not forget manicured resorts like the Fairmont Mayakoba, which has taken the lead in sustainable tourism and makes efforts to incorporate local culture in all of its programs. Even the spa features local herbs, oils, extracts, and treatments, including a Maya clay purification ritual. Resort shops also feature local Maya handicrafts. Check out Fairmont Savers rates that can save you 30 percent off the best available rates.

Many people think your only options in this area are big all-inclusive resorts. Actually, 75 percent of hotels here have fewer than 100 rooms. We loved the 88-room, all-inclusive Ceiba del Mar Beach and Spa Resort, which is just south of Cancun. Another small all-inclusive, the 148-room Azul Beach Hotel, is ideal for young families with its gourmet baby food, Fisher-Price toy loaner program, kids' club, and beachfront playground. Even better, book from May 1 to December 22 and kids 13 and under stay free, while adults are 20 percent off!

Wherever you stay, you should get out and explore. Tulum is one of the best preserved Maya sights, and the high cliffs surrounding this coastal town protected it from hurricanes even in ancient times. It's a great ruin to visit with the kids because it is relatively small. Plus, when you're finished, you can walk down to the beach and cool off in the water.

Our guide, Gabriel Morales, explains that perhaps only 800 people—those with the most knowledge—lived within the city, while thousands more lived outside. (Note: It's smart to get a guide at the entrance. It's less than $50 for four people.)

Time travel on a beach vacation? That's not all. Swim in an underground cenote (deep water-filled sinkholes). These underground river systems crisscross the region. You can even explore a cave. Yes, we did that at Rio Secreto, and it might be one of the most unique experiences I've ever had (though I wouldn't bring kids younger than six).

Our guide led us as we sloshed through water, squeezed through narrow openings, and floated along, taking care not to touch any of the amazing formations. The only light was from the light on our helmets. What made this cave so unique was that it's the only discovered cave that's not completely flooded. The formations—orange, sparkling crystal, calcium blue-gray—are fantastic. There are thousands of stalactites overhead, too, because the more porous petrified coral reef allows formations big and small to grow quickly.

Maya warriors had to find their way through the cave before going off to war. The theory was that if they confronted the nine gods of death and survived, maybe they could cheat death again in battle.

The Maya believed that when they died, their souls had to pass through the underworld to be reborn ... as we will be when we return to the surface, we're told.

I don't know if we've been reborn. But when we get back outside, everything seems much brighter—and different somehow.

For more Taking the Kids, visit Eileen Ogintz's Taking the Kids website. Also follow "Taking the Kids" on Twitter, where she welcomes your questions and comments.

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