Cancun, Mexico: A pinata of treats

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CANCUN, Mexico -- A vacation takes on a whole new meaning here, where families can combine activities such as beach time, golf and shopping with visits to historical attractions and parks.

The following sites and activities are geared to visitors of all ages, but especially to families with young children who need to be entertained.

Xcaret

One of the region's premier ecological parks, Xcaret offers families a chance to interact with nature and experience Mayan culture.

For more than a millennium, it served as a ceremonial and port center for the Mayas. Today, families come here to swim with dolphins, visit the Coral Reef Aquarium, scuba dive with exotic fish and snorkel through underground rivers.

When night falls, Xcaret's El Gran Tlachco arena puts on a show featuring the ancient Mayan ball games of Ulama and Ball of Fire, a traditional Mayan festival and a folkloric ballet.

Admission is $49 for adults and $24.50 for children ages 5 to 12. The cost includes the entrance fee, access to all attractions and shows, the services of a tour guide and roundtrip transportation from Xcaret's bus center, located across from Plaza Caracol. The buses return to Cancun at 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

For more information, visit www.xcaretcancun.com.

Xel-Ha

Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-ha) means "where the water is born" in Mayan. Xel-Ha is on the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 75 miles south of Cancun.

Its 22 acres of lagoons, coves and inlets carved into the surrounding limestone make Xel-Ha a popular snorkeling destination, and trips here often are combined with a visit to the Mayan city of Tulum, about seven miles south. In ancient times, Xel-Ha was a sacred city in which rituals and dances to the different gods of Mayan mythology took place.

One of the favorite activities here is floating on inner tubes down a river that begins in a spring in the mangroves. You can stop along the way to hike or snorkel. Xel-Ha also features several freshwater cenotes and small beaches lined with hammocks. There also is an area where visitors can swim with dolphins. Admission is $25 weekdays and $19 on the weekend. Children ages 5 to 11 pay $13 and $10, respectively.

Visit www.xelha.com.mx for more information.

Coba and Pac-Chen

Alltournative, a local operator, takes visitors to two sites in the heart of the Yucatan jungle: the Coba archaeological site and Pac-Chen, a self-sufficient community of close to 100 indigenous people.

Nohoch Muul, the second-largest pyramid in the Mayan world, towers over the ruins at Coba. The first stop is the ancestral city of Coba, a recently opened archaeological site hidden deep inside the rain forest of the southeastern Yucatan. Visitors can climb the Nohoch Muul temple for a view of the surrounding rain forest.

The trip continues to the Mayan village of Pac-Chen, where visitors are invited into villagers' homes. The visit includes a 45-foot rappel into one of the area's famous cenotes (sinkholes) for swimming; canoeing on a lake; and eating a lunch prepared by local women.

The trip costs $84 for adults and $58 for children ages 10 to 12 (children under age 10 are not allowed). The cost includes transportation to and from the hotel zone; canoeing and rappelling equipment; entrance fees; lunch/drinks; and multilingual guides. Visit www.alltournative.com for more information.

Tulum

Families can expand their knowledge of Mayan culture with a trip to Tulum, an hour's ride from Cancun.

With the Caribbean Sea serving as a backdrop, visitors can explore this former Mayan trade center. Attractions include El Castillo, a pyramid experts believe once served as a lighthouse; Temple of the Frescos, where traces of colors still remain; and Temple of the Dios Decendente, believed to have served as a way station for the gods.

There's also a market for souvenirs and authentic Mexican fare. Admission is about $2.50 per person.

Visit www.cancun.info for more information.

The King's Ruins

Cancun has its own Mayan ruins, a small site in the heart of the Hotel Zone called Ruinas del Rey (the King's Ruins). Although it's less impressive than the ruins at Tulum or Coba, it's worth a visit, especially for clients who don't want to venture from the immediate area. The site is believed to have been built by Mayan fishermen as a ceremonial center and also as an astronomy lookout.

The platforms of several small temples are visible amid the banana plants, papayas and wildflowers. The Hilton Cancun hotel's golf course was built around the ruins, but there is a separate entrance for visitors. The site is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 weekdays and free on Sundays.

Visit www.cancun.info for more information.

Water world

AquaWorld, a local operator, offers a number of water-themed tours that include scuba diving, snorkeling and mangrove treks. As part of its tours, the company provides Aqua Ray personal watercraft that enable visitors to explore Cancun's dense mangrove system in the company of guides.

The firm offers commissionable scuba-diving packages that include accommodations at the Park Royal Hotel in Cancun. A five-night package costs from $787 for one person through Dec. 20. It includes daily dives in and around Cancun, including dives in cenotes and night dives.

AquaWorld's daily tours are priced separately. A mangrove tour, for example, costs $41 per person. Tour participants must be 16 years old to drive the Aqua Ray and at least 5 years old to ride as a passenger.

Visit www.aquaworld.com.mx for more information.

Shopping

For a shopping adventure in the heart of the Hotel Zone, clients can visit La Isla Shopping Village. La Isla is Cancun's newest shopping center and includes a number of family-friendly attractions.

Designed to resemble a Caribbean village, it features 120 shops, including internationally known boutiques and jewelers, plus a movie theater with several screens.

Families can choose from numerous restaurants, including American favorites such as Chili's, Johnny Rockets and McDonald's, in addition to local favorites such as La Casa de las Margaritas and El Arca.

For kids, La Isla features a number of attractions that promise "authentic" Mexican and Mayan culture.

Children can explore Maya Aventura, an interactive attraction that includes a labyrinth that re-creates stages of Mayan civilization. Other kid-friendly attractions include an aquarium, a climbing wall and a "haunted house."

Isla Mujeres

El Garrafon Park on nearby Isla Mujeres makes a nice day-trip destination. A 40-minute ferry ride from the pier at Puerto Juarez, El Garrafon is located on the southernmost tip of the island and is known for excellent snorkeling and diving.

At the park, visitors can follow the reef snorkeling trail, scuba dive, "fly" high above the water on a zip line, kayak the reef, take in the views from any vantage point along the numerous hiking paths or enjoy a meal at a seaside restaurant.

Speaking of dining, the kids can play pirate for a day aboard a dinner cruise offered by Pirate's Night Adventure.

Visit www.garrafon.com for more information.

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