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Taking the Kids

Ruins, Fish and Eco Advantages in the Yucatan

August 28, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ | Taking the Kids appears weekly

AKUMAL, Mexico — 'Are you sure this is the right place?" my son Matt asked dubiously, snorkel in hand.

There wasn't anyone around. There weren't any signs. We were standing at the edge of a crystal-clear cove up a hill at the end of a road on the outskirts of this tiny town south of Cancun. We couldn't possibly have such a well-known snorkeling spot as Yalku lagoon all to ourselves, we thought. Maybe we were at the wrong place. Maybe we were trespassing.

We jumped in the water. No one came to chase us away. Snorkel gear firmly in place, Matt, his sister Reggie and I were instantly mesmerized by the fish all around us. There were so many of them, big and little, striped and solid, brilliant hues of red and yellow and purple swimming alone and in schools. I'd never seen anything like it, not even in an aquarium. We had the place completely to ourselves.

"Stick a piece of bread in your hand and the fish will come up and take it," Laura Bush Wolfe told me later. Wolfe runs the small Club Akumal Caribe resort owned by her family here along the Yucatan Peninsula. We had indeed stumbled on Yalku, she said. "There are all kinds of small little coves like that where you won't run into any crowds."

The less-touristed 100-mile stretch between mobbed Cancun and the 15th-Century ruins of Tulum, the only Mayan city built on the coast, offers a treasure trove of possibilities for families willing to trek a bit off the major tourist track. We enjoyed it as an eco-adventure, with a Mayan history lesson or two thrown in. For information about Mexico, call Mexico Tourism for free brochures on tourist sites and activities, 800-44-MEXICO (446-3942), or the Mexican Government Tourism Office, (310) 203-8191.

Visit the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, about 100 miles from Cancun, where the Gama Reef is part of the second-longest such reef in the world.

At Xel-Ha National Park, just outside Tulum, there are 10 acres of lagoons, coves and inlets that are teeming with fish. The snorkeling is great, although the waters are often crowded.

We explored Xcacel, a small out-of-the way sanctuary for turtles a short drive from Akumal, and Punta Lagunas, a preserve for monkeys that was about an hour's drive away and so deep in a jungle it made me nervous. A small Mayan boy who spoke no English led us to the monkeys in a cave. "Spooky," Matt and Reggie agreed. We beat a hasty retreat.

For a less nerve-racking adventure, we headed 35 miles south of Cancun to Xcaret, which means "little inlet" and is Mexico's idea of a water park. But there weren't any giant water slides here. The Mayans took sacred baths here before heading to the island of Cozumel to worship Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. For more than 10 centuries, Xcaret was one of the most important Mayan ceremonial centers and seaports. Today it's possible to see the excavated ruins. There's also an aviary of exotic birds, an aquarium, a botanical garden and even a museum with ancient as well as modern art.

Matt and Reggie, of course, were far more interested in swimming the length of an underwater river through huge limestone formations and snorkeling through an inlet. And the children had a chance to play with the dolphins. Along with a group of other children, they stood in the water and petted the dolphins. "They felt soft and squishy," Reggie reported.

Others lined up for a real swim with a dozen of the "soft, squishy" creatures.

Another afternoon, we tried our hand at bargaining at the outdoor markets lined up in front of the ruins of Tulum. The kids enjoyed the back-and-forth banter for everything from silver earrings to baby clothes, though we all knew the young merchants had a price in mind from the first.

Along with the other crowds at this, one of Mexico's most popular tourist attractions, we inspected the ruins of Tulum, where there are remains of about 60 Mayan buildings. But as soon as the kids discovered a beach, our exploration was over for that day, at least.

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