A Multigenerational Trip to Mexico
One house. Ten travelers. Three generations. How this extended family (ages 2 to 82) spent a week together in a Mexican villa and lived to tell the tale.
When your car is suddenly airborne, like the General Lee in a Dukes of Hazzard rerun, and your mother-in-law and two daughters are screaming at the top of their lungs, your multigenerational family vacation in Mexico isn't exactly off to a great start.
We were on our way to a villa on the beach in Tankah Tres, a small bay on the Yucatán Peninsula near Tulum: me; my husband, Jonathan; our two kids, Josie and Maxine; and my in-laws, Betsy and Jordan. My brother, Andy; his daughter, Shirley; and my mom, Carol, would be meeting us there for a week of warm-weather family bonding. (Neal, my brother-in-law, couldn't get as much time off work and had to join us midway through the trip.) The plan was all mine. I'd picked the destination, planned the itinerary, and cajoled everyone into coming. I'd chosen Tankah Tres because it offered the various elements that members of our quirky group craved: easy access from New York and Chicago, a beach, vegetarian dining options, and some history. Alas, as the perpetually-under-construction highway south from the Cancún airport bounced us around in the night over unseen speed bumps, I was terrified I'd made a huge mistake. I felt silent accusation in the car. I hoped I was imagining it.
About an hour and a half later, we finally turned onto the dirt road that led to the villa, and the tension lifted instantly. The house, Casa Caribeña, was the color of a ripe mango and partitioned from the road by a small fence made of lacquered coconuts skewered on posts. I'd found the place online, and it wasn't a steal—we paid $5,950 for the week of Christmas, the only time we could all get away—but it was huge, with six bedrooms spread out over two floors, and a private beachfront patio. (I rationalized the price by telling myself it worked out to just $142 per room per night—not too bad for all we were getting.) As Josie and Maxine raced around, gaping at our small swimming pool, brightly colored hammocks, and (to my canine-less kids' endless delight) two sweet-tempered guard dogs, I claimed the keys from Lily, the caretaker and cook, whose own home was just down the driveway.
Although the kitchen was fully equipped and Lily's cooking services were included in the price of the rental, we had no groceries on hand, so we headed to a restaurant for our first dinner. Of the two options within walking distance of the house, reviewers on the local listings and message boards site locogringo.com had favored Blue Sky Restaurant, an open-air, thatched-roof Italian place run by expats. The wood-burning pizza oven, housed in its own palapa, was a hit; 4-year-old Maxine's homemade pasta, with sauce made from fresh local cherry tomatoes rather than the familiar red canned stuff, elicited confused sobs. ("It's owange!") Our waiter, Luca, dashed back into the kitchen, dropped a dollop of pizza sauce on the plate, and ran back to the table. "Now ees red!" he told her, and she dug in happily. When Blue Sky's credit card machine shut down, Luca waved us away, saying, "Come back and pay another time! I trust you!" So we returned to the villa, full and content, and went to sleep, lulled by the sound of the waves.
The next morning, we all got out of bed and gasped. In daylight, the full beauty of the setting hit us. It felt like being on an ocean liner. The bay was electric blue, and upstairs there were sweeping sea views all the way to the horizon. Not that everything was perfect. The beach in front of the villa wasn't ideal for us: The sand was so-so, and there was a serious current in the water, with live coral all the way up to the edge of the shore. (I'd looked at houses on the calmer waters of Soliman Bay, but they were much more expensive than the one I chose.) My mother-in-law was disappointed, but I promised her we'd drive to some spectacular beaches nearby. We also quickly realized that 2-year-old Shirley was a loose cannon: She was irresistibly drawn to the red-hot tap on the purified-water dispenser, and over the course of our stay, she managed to turn on the broiler, nearly fell down the stairs, and tried to drink a cup of detergent stored under the sink. Anyone who travels with a toddler needs a sense of humor, nerves of steel, and a (daily) stiff drink.
That afternoon, a few of us went out to pay the previous night's dinner bill and stock up on provisions at the Mega, a supermarket in Playa del Carmen, about 40 minutes away. Grocery stores are always a fun window into another culture—Packaging! Pricing! Snacks! Driving was far less intimidating during the day; the speed bumps still loomed, but we could at least see them and brace ourselves. We trained the girls to yell "TOPES!" (Spanish for "speed bumps") shortly before impact—a game they loved for the rest of the trip. But when we returned to the house, my mother was seething and Jordan was terrified that we had been killed. (We'd been gone for four hours and had left our only functioning cell phone back at the villa.) While we were discussing the communication problem, Mom took the opportunity to tell me she was worried that I'd overplanned; she wanted to be sure there was time simply to lounge on the beach and read. Still stinging from the response to our grocery outing, I bit my tongue and told her we could scale back.