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.
Andy noticed the tension and suggested he and I go for a walk to Casa cenote, a freshwater-filled sinkhole about five minutes away. I've always been the easily rattled sibling; he's Mr. Chill. Just being around him made me feel better about Mom and Jordan's being upset. It didn't hurt that, at the cenote, the water was crystal clear and we spotted dozens of birds in the dense trees: yellow-breasted great kiskadees, ospreys, and graceful great white egrets.
That night, Mom and I sat down to rework the itinerary. We axed Coba, a Mayan ruin about 30 miles northwest of Tulum; it would have been tough for Jordan, who uses a cane, and for the two youngest kids. We also agreed to skip Xcaret and Xel-Ha, two popular eco-parks—too expensive and touristy—and replaced them with low-key half-day trips that Mom (and anyone else) was free to opt out of. We also resolved that, because driving at night was no fun, we'd eat big lunches out and smaller dinners at home, the way Mexicans do. And then we hugged.
Per the revised plan, we spent the next day at Akumal, a nearby town with sarong shops, cute cafés, and a waveless beach where the kids dug an enormous water-filled hole in the sand and called it "Cenote Josie y Max." While snorkeling, Jonathan and I caught sight of a giant green sea turtle, and I felt that shiver of romance you get when you're wearing flippers, holding hands with your beloved, and seeing something completely thrilling. When it was time for lunch, we set out for town in shifts so we could keep our prime position on the Akumal beach, under a tree.
Our one huge jaunt was the following day: an excursion with a Mayan ecotourism co-op, Community Tours Sian Ka'an, to the nearby 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka'an biosphere, the second-largest UNESCO protected marine area in Mexico. The guides, Antonio and Ladualina, took us to Muyil, a cluster of Mayan ruins in the jungle. Muyil was a major stop on the ancient Maya's maritime trade route, dating from 300 B.C., which makes it older than more famous sites such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum. And unlike those other sites, Muyil provides the opportunity to get right up next to the biggest structures. (Although a small sign warns against climbing the ruins, it's common for guides to look the other way.) Josie needed little prompting and scampered to the top of the roughly 50-foot El Castillo pyramid like a tree monkey. Maxine, always the more cautious sister, stayed earthbound, holding Grandma's hand.
As the tour continued, Antonio told us some of his grandfather's stories about the Maya and taught the girls how to bellow "Ko'one'ex!" (Pronounced coh-nesh, it's Mayan for "Let's go!") An hour's hike through the jungle brought us to a pale-blue lagoon, where we boarded a motorboat and headed for a narrow canal, a 1,000-year-old passage hacked out of the saw grass and mangroves. There, we strapped on life jackets upside down (with our legs through the armholes), a trick Antonio showed us for adding buoyancy, and bobbed down the stream. We looked silly but had a great time—even wary Maxine.
It was a very long day—eight hours—but the kids were enraptured. Not everyone fared so well: After negotiating the uneven, root-strewn jungle ground, Jordan's feet were bleeding. In the end, we were relieved we'd left Shirley at home with Neal and Andy, despite assurances from Community Tours that she would have enjoyed the trek. The three of them spent the day playing on the beach instead.
We splintered further the next morning. Jordan relaxed with crossword puzzles by the pool, while Shirley and Carol made sand castles on the beach, Andy and Neal napped, and Betsy, Jonathan, Josie, Maxine, and I went to explore the ruins at Tulum. All of us but Jordan, who was still recuperating, met up later at Tulum's El Paraíso beach, a masterpiece of sugar-soft sand and postcard views. That evening, we gathered outside our villa under a pitch-black sky sparkling with stars. While the rest of us searched overhead for familiar reference points, Jonathan fired up his iPhone's Starmap application and began pointing out constellations.
In spite of all our successful outings, by the end of the trip I was having trouble sleeping, worrying about my failings as the sole vacation planner. I knew Mom was annoyed at Jonathan for his inability to relinquish control in the kitchen, and Betsy was frustrated that I hadn't built enough shopping time into the schedule. I kicked myself for not encouraging her to hit the boutiques when we were in Akumal. In the morning, exhausted, I confided in Mom, who told me to chill out. "You're not responsible for everyone's feelings," she said simply. "And you can't fulfill everyone's needs all the time." I wished she'd reminded me of that earlier.
Our final outing was to Aktun Chen, a limestone cave studded with stalactites, about 15 miles away. (When I paid with a 15-percent-off coupon I'd downloaded from the Internet, my family roundly mocked me.) The guide, Memo, led us to a 25-foot-deep underground cenote and then switched on a series of lights, illuminating different parts of the cave walls. One guest whispered, "It's like a cathedral!" Jonathan loved it; Maxine was bored out of her mind. Moments later, Jordan cut his hand on a bolt sticking out of a cave wall. I borrowed a first-aid kit from the tour operators, and as we sat on a battered picnic bench near the snack bar, taping up the wound, he began telling me about his World War II experiences. They were stories I'd never heard before—stories that gave me new insight into his life before I knew him.
Times like those were what really made the trip worth it. I loved seeing Betsy cuddling with Maxine, reading stories to her. I loved watching my mom and Josie sprawled on lounge chairs, having a philosophical talk about friendship. Most of all, I loved going on adventures with my brother, just the two of us—just like when we were kids.
Tankah Tres, Riviera Maya, 541/603-1484, homeaway.com, from $4,300 per week
Plaza Ukana I, Akumal, lucyskitchen.net, ice cream from $2.75
Blue Sky Restaurant
Lot 34, Tankah Bay, blueskymexico.com, pasta from $11.50
Community Tours Sian Ka'an
Tulum Ave., Region 4, Manzana 8, Tulum, 011-52/984-871-2202, siankaantours.org, Muyil Forest and Float Tour $99 for adults, $70 for kids
Km 107, Hwy. Cancún-Tulum, Akumal, 011-52/984-109-2061, aktunchen.com, cave tour $25 for adults, $13 for kids